"Look, revolution takes many forms. For some it is done at the ballot box, for others it involves a gun."
"I really want to do something, but I'm not willing to yell at the city council, that's going too far."
"Everyone should just do whatever they are going to do and we'll all support it, but I'm sure we can all agree there should be no form of violence. Let's make a pact to only use non-violent tactics."
These are statements I heard recently at a meeting
about protesting fracking. The meeting took place only days after the city council had approved fracking within the city limits, despite the passionate opposition of many of the town's citizens. I was impressed by the fact that the hundreds of men and
women in attendance were so concerned about fracking, and so angry at their city government, that they were willing to show up for a three-hour-long meeting to discuss methods of resisting the mining with a bunch of strangers.
From the start of the meeting, everyone applauded the speeches given by others, and showed respect for the
diversity of views. They even took a
formal vow, with fists raised in the air, to dedicate themselves to stopping
fracking in their town.
But then, in a
breakout session on non-violent direct action, everything changed. There was no disagreement that fracking was problematic and needed to be stopped. But when
it came to what tactics should be used to bring that about, the solidarity broke down.
People simply couldn't agree on what forms of resistance should be allowed within the protest movement. There were interruptions, insults, and self-righteous speeches. For about an hour, all of the progress made earlier in the day appeared to be succumbing to an endless theoretical debate about tactics. As I sat there, I thought, "Haven't we done this before?" In my relatively short time as an activist, I've witnessed the derailing of countless productive meetings and open forums by abstract debate regarding tactics.
In the last few weeks, I've also seen a shift in attitude regarding protest tactics. Experienced activists are revisiting this topic and updating their stance. For example, the Sierra Club, a longstanding environmental group that has always shied away from the use of any tactics that might be seen as anti-establishment, recently released a press release declaring that they were switching gears and would now support more radical methods. Just a few weeks later, the group participated in an action that culminated in several dozen arrests.
With all this in mind, some important questions come up: What is violence? When and toward whom is violence justified? Is there such a thing as psychological violence? What about political or economic violence? When, if ever, is "snitching" justified?
How Far Are We Willing To Go?
In this first installment of a three-part series, we will look at the various shades and colors of violent tactics, and ask ourselves, How far are we willing to go?
First we need to understand what we mean by "violence." According to Wikipedia, "violence" is "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against a person, or against a group
or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in
injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation." For our purposes this definition will work,
but it covers very broad ground. "Violence" can
take many forms, and these differences will affect our attitudes toward its use as a tactic.
The most common form of violence in activism is emotional. Activism, by its very nature, has the potential to make people feel hated, insulted, sad, or otherwise uncomfortable. Even those who have promoted strict nonviolence have called out wrongdoers. In fact, the willingness to "call it as it is" or to "stand up to injustice" is generally considered to be at the very heart of activist protest. Nevertheless, on the ground, specific acts of emotional violence can be very controversial--for example, the treatment of police officers during protests, or politicians during rallies.
The second type of violence includes economic, political, and social violence. This type of violence causes not only emotional trauma, but damage that will hurt careers, pocket books, and social standing. Politicians demonstrate such violence when they attack the reputations of their rivals so aggressively that they cause lasting damage to their social and professional lives. Similarly, businesses demonstrate it when they sometimes brutally attack rival organizations in an attempt to totally bankrupt them. This is also the level of violence at which whistleblowers typically do their damage.
The next type of violence can be characterized as low-level physical violence. Actions taken at this level are aggressive and potentially harmful, but are not life-threatening. An example of such violence is to purposely cause or reveal criminal behavior by a person or group, with the intent of exposing the target to jail time. The targets of such violence are put in great danger of a permanent transformation of their lives. The criminal justice system obviously works at this level of violence, as do informants, street gangs, and a handful of the more radical activist groups.
The final type of violence is that which is potentially lethal. There is very little organized activism in the United States that utilizes tactics at this level, but other organizations certainly use them. Terrorism comes to mind, as does capital punishment. And, of course, the military specializes in tactics that include lethal force.
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