A reason we need nonviolentists is because of the human proclivity to reach for violence, not only as a last resort, but as a normal and usual method of problem solving and control. Even "violence as a last resort" contains a hidden assumption that if all else fails, violence will succeed. It's an easy step to ask that because violence succeeds, why reach for anything else? Nonviolentists will remind us that even the "successes" of violence are short term and limited; that violence always has unintended consequences; that violence invariably involves the innocent; and that violence means have a tendency quickly to spin out of control and produce more violence.
In the USA, we face a domestic crisis at the interface of racism and violence. (For the moment I leave aside the crises of violence overseas.) In 2016, so far 793 people have been killed by law enforcement (Guardian "The Counted"). In high profile cases in 2015 and 2016, it is clear that systemic racism is contributory to many of these deaths. I was haunted this week by the pleas of Rakeyia Scott, caught on video, with police officers not to shoot her husband, 43 year-old Keith Lamont Scott. Apparently, plain clothed officers, preparing to issue a warrant on someone else, parked their truck next to Scott's vehicle. They noticed he was rolling a marijuana "blunt." They also saw a gun (disputed by Scott's family.) They left the scene, returned with armored vests and confronted Scott. Within moments Scott was killed, his widow left grieving in unbelief. Confidence in the partiality of law enforcement is at a low ebb. Seemingly, doing anything "while black" can result is an execution. While the NRA continues its demand for Second Amendment rights to bear arms, even "open carry," to do so if you are black amounts to a death sentence, carried out not by due process, but by the instant decision of a police officer. So black citizens protest. And law enforcement responds in military style riot gear. Violence erupts, and city centers resemble war zones. Trust is broken. Fear increases. Violence escalates. Racism, barely below the surface, emerges to reveal the fault lines of US society. We are in crisis.
In 1970, philosopher Hannah Arendt published her extended essay On Violence. In part, her essay was a response to student violent protests in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, and the seeming failure of nonviolent protest. Why did the students turn to violence? In her answer she make distinctions between power, strength, force, authority and violence; parses out meanings, and so helps in our understanding. A failure to understand the nature of violence and power takes us into a cul-de-sac, with no way out.
In brief, Arendt suggests:
If Arendt is correct, the implications for our current crisis are many. Here's a few. To equate violence with power is foolish. Increasing violence by law enforcement (even in the way police now dress for war) is a wrong strategy. Police violence demonstrates a crisis, a loss of power, and a reduction of its authority. Power belongs to the people in concert. Violence by protesters undermines the power they have in acting against injustice and systemic racism.
- Power is the human ability to act in concert
- Strength is the property inherent in an object or person in relation to other objects or people
- Force is the energy released by physical or social movement
- Authority is the recognition that obedience is called for without coercion or persuasion
- Violence and power are not the same
- Violence is instrumental in nature (no value in itself) and if used in support of power demonstrates the loss of power.
- Violence is a crisis for power
- Violence is a substitute for power
It's easy for me to say. I'm not in Charlotte. Members of my community have not been systematically profiled. I did not plea for my husband not be shot dead. I am not a police officer and do not face violence against me on a daily basis.
But I am a nonviolentist, and I can only think that for us to draw back from the brink will entail the difficult work of loving nonviolence to restore trust, to find justice, and to move incrementally closer to King's Beloved Community.