Protest Essays

1 January 2016

The political landscape needs ‘rewilding’ too, argues Mark Boyle in this essay opposing ‘mindless nonviolence’.

Nelson Mandela once said: 'There is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.' Ted Eytan under a Creative Commons Licence

It is a spectacle that is becoming all too familiar. Captured on the ubiquitous smartphone, intimidated protesters scurry away from a scene of unprovoked police violence. ‘This is a peaceful protest,’ they declare – words uttered as much in anxious defence as they are in defiance of the batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and teargas that come their way.1

Admirable as the words seem, the protesters are mistaken: by way of its fundamentalist approach to nonviolence, protest today is anything but peaceful.

When activists remind police of their right to assemble without being assaulted with impunity, they are correct to ask: ‘If we’re not being violent, why are you?’

Correct, that is, up to a point. While I don’t doubt the integrity of people who fight for the betterment of others, few ponder an uncomfortable possibility: when nonviolent methods prove ineffectual, time and again, at preventing industrial-scale systemic violence, those who dogmatically persist with them may inadvertently be acting more violently than a balaclava-clad revolutionary.

Progress and normality

Let me explain. Violence and nonviolence are urbane concepts. If the abstract ethics of nonviolence were imposed on the natural world, ecological systems would collapse and we’d all be dead within weeks. Much of what passes as progress and normality is actually imbued with a hyper-violence that most of us remain blissfully unaware of. For the sake of cheap furniture, games consoles and fizzy drinks, we have reduced complex woodlands to lumber yards; people to cogs in the machine; animals to generic product; oceans to depleted fish farms; and paradise into parking lots.

The eradication of the political wolf has diminished our potential to combat merciless systemic violence

Which of us considers the act of buying factory-farmed meat – produced from animals reared in concentration camps – to be more violent than destroying the property of those who produce it? Who amongst us thinks that the industrial-scale processes causing the sixth mass extinction of species are as violent as forcefully attacking the headquarters of those most responsible for it? Few, if any. Yet the violence the corporate-state coalition – who control the narrative and own the monopoly on violence – inflicts upon the great web of life is astronomical in comparison to anything victims and activists could dream of doing in response.

The modern mind does not like such talk. Violence is bad – all violence – or so we have been led to believe. From most angles it appears a laudable belief. But there is one angle that we keep missing. And in our current climate, it is a crucial one.

This is not an argument for mindless violence. It is an argument against mindless nonviolence. It should be obvious that tackling the major social and ecological injustices of our age in ways that are legal and nonviolent is the first port of call. Which of us wants more violence in a world already riddled by it? What we must understand, however, is that in persisting with ineffectual tactics we are failing those we seek to help. Inasmuch as it is ineffective, nonviolent protest – in spite of its best intentions – cannot help but end up as yet more violence, albeit concealed, removed and sanitized. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela (who led a militant sabotage campaign against the apartheid government) once said: ‘For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.’

Diversity in action

Instead of acrimony and division over tactical issues, what activists and protest movements need more than anything right now is unity – and importantly, a unity that is founded upon an acceptance of diversity. While big business is admirably single-minded in converting the splendour and majesty of the world into cash, those who want a fairer, more ecologically harmonious world often find themselves split over how best to achieve it.

We need only look to the natural world for evidence of the importance of diversity in contemporary activism. George Monbiot has done more than anyone to highlight how crucial wolves are to the health of our ecological landscapes. For, as conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold once said, just as ‘a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer’.2 He recognized, sooner than most, that the fierceness of the wolf has its own unique place amongst the diverse cast of creatures that share its environment: the gentleness of the doe; the beaver’s enterprise; the salmon’s indomitable will; the heron’s grace; and the fox’s cunning. These animals – opposed in nature as they may be – strike a balance with one another, but only if they are allowed to express their nature, and to give what it is they are here to give.

Movements for ecological and social justice would do well to observe nature’s example. The political landscape needs rewilding just as much as our ecological landscapes. The eradication of the political wolf has diminished our potential to combat merciless systemic violence. Our ecological crisis became critical a long time ago, and is only getting worse. Around 21,000 people a day are dying for the want of food that changes in political policies could provide, given the will.3 Billions of animals are sentenced to cruel existences in prisons, for a crime no worse than being born into a world of human supremacy. Our efforts of the past 20 years – well intentioned, creative and determined as they are – have simply not succeeded. We have a responsibility to be honest with ourselves about this.

Emma Goldman once said that ‘if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal’. The same could be said of nonviolence

Activism – that phenomenon whose role is to hold power to account when democratic processes clearly fail – is becoming so ineffectual it is now almost irrelevant. Look at the largest protests of the last decade. Despite millions peacefully protesting, we went and created havoc in Iraq. Look at Occupy. The largest mobilization and politicization of people since the 1980s, yet what did it achieve? It may have raised awareness of the huge disparity in wealth that is inevitable with capitalism, but what use is awareness-raising if it does not lead to meaningful change?

The ‘colour revolutions’ in central and eastern Europe worked to some extent, but only within their own very narrow terms. Nonviolent campaigns to stop factory farming or ecocide have gone on for as long as these injustices have existed – yet still they exist. While many good people are doing everything they feel they can, most are straitjacketed by cultural narratives around violence and nonviolence that are so simplistic it beggars belief. Emma Goldman once said that ‘if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal’. The same could be said of nonviolence. The fact that it is the Establishment’s preferred form of protest speaks volumes.

Upgrading the 3 ‘r’s

Unless we address the major ecological and social challenges of our age with an honest approach – no matter how unpalatable the truth may be – our best efforts will be in vain. The Machine, owned and run by the Establishment for its own ends, must be resisted and revolted against, before it kills us all. The three ‘r’s of the climate-change generation need a serious upgrade. Instead of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, I suggest we keep the following in mind: ‘resist, revolt, rewild.’

This isn’t to say that violence is always a safe bet for success or that there aren’t times when it has been used just as atrociously as the Establishment wields it. Yet, just as there are times when nonviolent means are appropriate, there will also be times when it is not. It is in these moments when we must decide how far we are willing to go in order to protect what needs protecting. And if we are not willing to go that far – perhaps it simply is not in our nature to do so – then how will we judge those who are willing? Do we condemn, or do we support? We live in a time of tough choices, when there is often no prescriptively right or wrong solution. Wise discernment is as important as it always has been.

If much of the beauty of the world is to be not only preserved but enhanced, we might do well to concern ourselves a little less about our protests being peaceful, and a little more about our actions being effective.

Mark Boyle’s latest book, Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi (New Society Publishers) is out now.

This article is from the January/February 2016 issue of New Internationalist.
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Peaceful Means of Protest
During the tension-filled times of the 1950's and 1960's, the civil rights movement, one name stands out as a leader for peace.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lead many of the peaceful demonstrations protesting the segregation between blacks and whites.  His peaceful approach to many of the obstacles in the way of integration was the most successful during that time period.  Other more violent means of protest such as the efforts of Malcolm X and whites protesting integration were considered less seriously and seen as a greater threat to society.

Examples of King's peaceful protesting against segregation were apparent during the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott.  It began when a 43 year old black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white man.  Dr. King was appalled when she was arrested and urged the black population of Montgomery to join together and stand up to the dehumanization of segregation.  Together with local community leaders, King produced and distributed nearly 7,000 leaflets persuading blacks to completely avoid riding to buses work, town, school, or elsewhere.  Instead, people should take cabs, carpool, or walk.  King was worried that the boycott was unethical, would turn violent, or would intimidate blacks ( Patterson, 1989, p. 5). However the boycott was successful with nearly 100% participation level. In 1956 the Supreme court affirmed a decision
declaring that state and local laws supporting segregation on buses were unethical.  On December 1, city busses were integrated showing that the boycott had been successful.

The civil rights movement took a big step forward during the Greensboro sit-ins.  The spontaneity for the first sit-in almost certainly caused the initial euphoria.  Each day of the sit-ins the number of participants increased.  The pressure they put on Woolworth's, their original target, caused profits to be decreased by 50% in 1950.  Eventually on July 25, the first black person was allowed to eat at the lunch counter.  These sit-ins also caused the formation of crucial organizations. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded by the students involved in the sit-ins.  SNCC drafted a code to be used by the entire non-violent movement. Some of the points in the code included don't strike back, don't laugh out, don't hold conversations with floor walkers, and remember love and non-violence (Blumberg 1991 p75).  Though King was not directly involved in the sit-ins, he was the moral leader and inspiration for the whole movement.

Knowing King's strong belief in equality and integration, when Philip Randolph planned The March on Washington he asked King to organize and speak at the event.  The purpose of the demonstration was to demand strong federal protection of black rights and to inspire the people.  Other unsuccessful demonstrations had been planned in the past but failed due to the use of militant, more violent means of protest.  Many government officials were strongly against The March on Washington, fearing it would become a sit-in. King convinced them it would be only a "Peace Pilgrimage." The idea was encouraged by the black and white anti-segregation population and on August 28,1963 over 200,000 supporters surrounded the reflecting pool to hear King, among others, speak.  People of all different ethnic and religious groups were greatly inspired by his speech.  As quoted in Blumberg p123, "never before had leading representatives, of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths identified so closely and visibly with black demands." 

Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to protesting against segregation was effective because of his use of passive resistance.  His demonstrations appeared to be serene, but underneath they were strong enough to stand up to bitter opponents such as the Ku Klux Klan and the local police.  Violence and hate were constantly expressed towards King and his followers, but they rose above
the madness in an effort to work for equality and unity - peacefully.

Freedom Bound: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement
Robert Weisbrot; Civil Rights Freedom Struggle Rhoda Lois Blumberg;
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement Lillie Patterson;
Parting the Waters, America in the King Years Taylor Branch.)

Kristen S.
Elizabeth F.
Megan C.

To The Civil Rights Essay Index
To The Civil Rights Project Page
To US Government Lessons Plans

George Cassutto's
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