Toward Nonviolence (1)
Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist in Algeria during its liberation from French colonial rule, made a strong case for the use of violence as a necessary mechanism of Independence. He considered nonviolence a ploy of the middle and upper classes to ease the conscience of the uncommitted: when ruthlessly oppressed, a people fights violence with violence until the oppressors leave, cede power or die. Algeria lost thousands of her own in that bloody and partially successful struggle to free her people from an oppression that is always both physical and psychological. Fanon also realized that in the African Independences from colonial rule, there were often no fundamental changes for the people. The revolutions occurred within elite circles of urban populations, simply replacing the elite of one colour or religion or political persuasion, with the elite of another.
Both Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr., provided alternatives based on Christian faith, at a time when western civilization had no proper answer to its colonial greed except increasing its repressive violence. Both Schweitzer and King served humanity beyond their own people. Both were used as models for holding actions when holding actions were needed to affirm political structures which continued to serve the elite. But neither preferred a political system to people. Schweitzer was incarcerated by the French during World War I and doctored in a prison camp. King, arrested some thirty times for his essential innocence, used the system against itself. Amid political struggles which both men were immersed in, and by simply not playing the terrible games of violence and death both found ways to win out over those who oppress everyone. Both lived within an ethic that leads to a nonviolent society by serving its people, by serving the poor, by practising nonviolence both physically and psychologically, by separating oneself as much as each of us can from violent institutions, by understanding the structures of violence we live within, by economic equalization, by refusing arms, by refusing to compromise our humanity. Each of them refused to honour abstractions before the value of each person, which I think is the basis of respect for human life and nonviolence. As a young man I was drawn to work for, understand in some way, each of them, and without conclusion, I offer here short accounts of what I learned.
An African Lesson in Nonviolence
As a peaceable kingdom, the remote enclave of European doctors, nurses and staff, met Gabon's Independence from European oppression without any protection at all. At Schweitzer's Hospital in 1960, the code was, no armed force. No guns. One or two whites had handguns, but it was as if they didn't know any better, an embarrassment to the others. My own service both to Schweitzer and survival was within a context of absolute nonviolence where it counts, of being entirely vulnerable to human nature at a moment when there were historical debts to settle.
Nonviolence is usually the way of missionaries and missionary doctors whose protection becomes the people they serve. The Hospital was a traditional missionary's answer to human suffering, and with the French teaching missions which also educated the native peoples' ruling class, both were part of the French colonial package. But without missionaries and the sacrifice of their own lives to their work, many people would have died from disease or had no recourse to an education which eventually gave the people tools to counter their oppressors. The French, having done the worst they could in Algeria, were careful of Gabon's Independence and withdrew their military advantage. Pre-Independence, there was no law in the jungle or much need for it, though there was a scattered stumbling bureaucracy of departing administrators. Schweitzer's insistence on the sanctity of life and his service to the people, was partly responsible for the entire country's escaping the massacres in neighbouring countries during Gabon's transition to independence. But it was more than coincidence that his philosophy grew and became articulate among a native people who were its source as strongly as any evidence of European civilization. Gabon's peaceful transition saved the lives of so many of her people, while Algeria's lost so many Algerians and French. Politically, nonviolence despite the losses of its martyrs, is a way of saving lives and I've never considered it a tactic, but a natural extension of respect for human life.
On the other hand this is hindsight. Before Independence in Gabon, no one could be sure the transition would be peaceful, or if the kind of independence which the French offered, would be enough.
When I left college and went to work for Schweitzer at his hospital in 1960, it was my response to the Sharpesville massacre, to racial slaughter in South Africa of unarmed blacks by white police. As many African countries prepared for Independence I found work at Schweitzer's Hospital as a labourer and foreman amid a construction crew of lepers, but much like any white colonialist. So I asked the good Doctor if I might be more helpful in serving humanity by working for the French Protestant missions which he had served on arriving in Africa years before. He found me a place at a missions post in the far bush on a European made border where three countries came together: one engaged in a civil war and two about to be independent of French rule. I knew nothing of African independence. I knew nothing of politics or race relations.
I learned in the bush that the good Doctor and his staff were only some of those whose lives were given to caring for the sick and education of a native people. The Missions included native peoples as ministers, teachers, carpenters, while Schweitzer's Hospital was European-staffed. I met as well a French military doctor alone at his station as Independence approached, and also two European Mission nurses who worked at a leprosarium amid a thousand square miles on an endless two rut road through a stretch of jungle considered unsafe for Europeans, where I took them medical supplies. The Doctor paid my flight over the area to the mission post, and from there with missionary and jeep I reached their village of patients. The world at large knew nothing of them, yet in their way the nurses were also part of the Doctor's instruction in the meaning of service to humanity, caring for the lepers with their own chances for lives, but without recognition or the world's understanding. I met a white Catholic priest amid his flock. There were several European Protestant missionaries with their wives and children so light amid deep dark people at other isolated posts. The French merchants were leaving or gone. The white police were gone. There was no trace of the French Army except that lonely doctor who would not leave his post.
A country away, the former Belgian Congo which was becoming Zaire began to host the slaughter of missionaries, doctors, nurses, teachers, nuns, whites left in the field while upper level administrators were pulled back to Europe. Those who stayed through the popular election of Patrice Lumumba and were allowed to function under a people's government became scapegoats for the corporate inspired rebellions which plunged the former Belgian Congo into blood. My once classmate at Milton Academy, Mark Higgens, who had helped me find work at Schweitzer's and introduced me and made a space for me in his room with an extra cot, was among those killed on the Congo River by rebelling troops. And to the north of Gabon, a strolling distance from the mission where I taught geography and English, was Cameroon where the ninety isolated Europeans of the region with their families were slaughtered - according to the newspapers in Douala Cameroon at my landing in Africa on the way to Schweitzer's. I learned all this as a young traveller, working for no government or salary. My entry permit to Gabon was never stamped in the partial breakdown of bureaucracy preceding Independence. I carried only my passport and letters from the good Doctor and from his aide Mathilde in the event I was turned in to the authorities when European law left.
After several months I returned to Schweitzer's Hospital, a haven of familiar calmness it seemed to me after high fevers and turmoil of malaria with complications that left me helpless. Gabon was about to sign Independence from France, and everywhere the people were celebrating with regional elections. At the Mission a native friend gave me a knife to protect myself. I refused yet he left it. He explained he could not be there to look after me if there was trouble. I told him my protection was having no protection. In those days of recovering at hospital, I was drawn to the few amid the staff who seemed to have some inkling of what Independence meant. The good Doctor left for Europe on a speaking tour. Dr. Friedman, a staff doctor told me to recover with the Missions until I could return to Europe and regain my health. For what was considered an incurable amoebic dysentery he gave me a several month dosage of arsenic compound which eventually worked but made me weaker. After several days at the hospital I was pronounced fit by a visiting American doctor with a sense of humour, and sent back north with the missionaries. Driving alone in the jeep middle of the night, I misjudged a river crossing. The jeep wheels slipped off two felled trees which served as a bridge, and I sat there in the dark of the solid mat of great trees and little trees entwined with vines under the night sky, listening to the waters in the ravine, exhausted and left until finally I saw the lights of the missionaries in the landrover returning for me. I wasn't strong enough to drive the long roads, and I was told to appear at the gendarmerie to explain exactly what I was doing there.
What was I to tell the native people ? And what was the truth ? That with faith I wanted to help people? That I too wanted to be free ? That Doctor Schweitzer and the Missions had set me up there to teach school ? Without conscious intention I was sitting on a triple border crossing and if Gabon's Independence became violent and if the slaughters started there as well, if the airport at Lambar'n' were closed at Independence, I could probably take white staff from Schweitzer's overland out of the country ? The missionaries might have but each had a family and flock to care for. The native teachers couldn't drive. Was it coincidence I was befriended by the country's opposition leader exiled in the region until his freedom came with Independence ? Or that I was locked in a hut with the daughter of the most powerful family on all sides of those European made borders until we made a peace of lovers, and then both would return without the locks ? Or that I was to be a father ? I said nothing. The native police looked very hard at me and my papers and let me go.
Should I have insisted on my presence in a world where whiteness meant oppression from the past ? I trusted her. I knew she was a nurse. Her father was the first native medical doctor in that country, and I knew nothing else about her until much later, except that she was my age and cared about me not whom I could save or how I could help humanity. Yet when I was sick the missionary and his wife came to my hut to care for me until I was strong enough to travel to the Hospital, while nearby she cared for her own people in the native infirmary.
Some fifteen years later, I met my African daughter's older sister in New York, an international lawyer passing through, and learned her mother was married when we met and later divorced. Her mother's father was head of the tribe. My friend the opposition leader was not a subject to be talked about. Before I left Gabon he brought me as his guest and the people's since he was elected to represent his region, to the country's chamber of deputies to witness the signing of Gabonese Independence, which included his freedom from house arrest. Twenty-five years later when I learned he was in prison for politics against the new regime, I urged his freedom since the other grandfather of grandchildren was the country's President, and my friend was freed, too old to cause much trouble, imprisoned for armed rebellion.
To think about what all this means: it goes beyond race, hatreds, politics or scores to settle. Possibly I was tolerated because I served people, because I worked with lepers when in those days the doctors neither knew how the disease was transferred nor how to heal it. Medicines could only arrest it, and frequently by then the scars and deformities were as frightening as the threat of isolation from others. But when I left their country it was one of the heavy planes from the former Belgian Congo that flew me out of Africa, with one empty seat among the families of Belgians, one empty seat when of course there were no empty seats in plane load after plane load flying low overhead from the Belgian Congo, day after day jammed with fleeing survivors, and I thought why is there an empty seat for me when it was impossible to find passage out except I knew I was taking the place of someone else who was not going to get out of the former Congo Belge. I learned later my friend from school had died. How could one survive that mix of experience without seeing the craziness of a racism which inevitably harms the innocent to the profit of corporations ? People fight back with a capacity for love.
In Europe I found my way to Switzerland and to a house by the lake where a friend took me in until I was well enough to travel to the States. Then I went back to college. My daughter's mother and I stopped writing each other shortly after my return. Neither of us wanted entanglements with the law or agencies. If whites were unpopular there, the treatment of blacks in the States was not so different from the treatment of Africans under colonialism. Northern racial sensibilities were awful in the early Sixties. The commonplace prejudices were stunning and because of my child and her mother and the black people who had protected me, I was aware of prejudice as cruelty and it hurt me. My parents thought I had changed. My father's family was southern, starting before the States. My mother's family was northern so there were kin on both sides of the Civil War. But for a long time there seemed no room in their worlds for anything I had learned.
In the Seventies, married with two children, I would send a portion of my Harvard lecturer's salary for my Gabonese daughter's education. For twenty years our family income almost never reached the minimum of poverty level. They were mostly thankless years of being too poor, without rights which others took for granted, years oppressed by all who should have helped, simply for understanding too closely the racism within my own society and because I resisted injustice as I became aware of it.
My Gabonese daughter visited summers ago, she wondering at the strangeness of a father she knew as a child only in my rare letters to her mother, the bits of money to help with education, and I knowing that she paid as well within her own society for me, for her lightness, knowing her mother paid in the raising of a partly white child, as I paid by trying to be true to them as a human being since I could not be to her as a father.
I think there are two ethics among peoples. One gives over to hatred and violence, the other to love and commits oneself to helping life-with-meaning as one can. That was what I brought home from Gabon's Independence in the equatorial jungle, and I was never sure whether the lesson of "reverence for life" was part of Albert Schweitzer's or their own people's instruction in the service of humanity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. on the March to Montgomery
It may help to remember what we've learned since, that in the early Sixties in Vietnam, the CIA's Operation Phoenix took village leaders and shot them for suspected sympathy with the Viet-Cong. CIA supported and US trained forces in South and Central America would destroy segments of civilian populations to establish cooperative rule. In multiple assassinations of the Sixties, the people's leaders in the States were also shot, in supposedly random acts of violence. I looked to four leaders: two Kennedys, King, Malcolm X. I met both JFK and Reverend King. The death of each terrorized everyone. The psychological impact of the deaths did not end with the loss of each leader. Who killed Kennedy ? Who killed King ? Was the mystery intended to provide a control by fear ? On the Lower Eastside of New York people didn't accept the official version of events. True leaders were at risk. Much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s heroism took place under the warning shadow of JFK's assassination, and I doubt there was anyone that cared who wasn't afraid King would be shot.
I had no early connections to the Civil Rights Movement. And I was also a USAF reserve medic, enlisting in a medical unit to beat the draft. Living and working in New York I transferred from Boston to a Jersey unit and one weekend a month took the subway to Newark and its City Hospital Emergency room.
When I met Dr. King the Atlantic City broadwalk was almost bare, except for several of us without proper press credentials who thought we'd go to the Democratic National Convention. Shut out, we were mid empty space except for scattered people in the distance and a couple with wicker stroller wheeling down the broadwalk, he sitting, a plaid blanket over his legs, a powerful man with a short neck, pushed by a woman who seemed delicate in comparison. They stopped for us, and one of my friends introduced me to Reverend King and his wife. They were laughing as though we had surprised them in a joke. He surprised me because he didn't peg me by my colour, as though he understood my feelings. He wasn't looking at race. He was entirely there, very real, quick-thinking, deep, jovial and assessing. I was no one important. He made me feel of value.
In 1965 when he put out the call for people to join him on the march from Selma to Montgomery, I went. So did my neighbour from New York. We found ourselves walking that road while groups of whites jeered along the roadside and a National Guard helicopter flew low over the trees ahead checking for snipers.
I wanted to write an article about the march but as a freelancer was refused press credentials. I kept a journal of my thoughts with observations and people and some addresses, as I had when working for Schweitzer and the Missions. Several pages of the notebook had been used for native vocabulary, the drawing of a missionary, and of a portion of the ceiling of Christ's Cathedral in England. But in Alabama it was a mistake to keep a journal because after the march I was arrested by Alabama police and they took the journal and sent a copy to the FBI. After that I learned when not to write. I saved the returned journal for years until living as a builder in New England, I burned it. A stranger had chosen to beat me in front of a crowd treated to my unwilling demonstration of nonviolent defence tactics. Shortly after, another stranger walked up to me and said they 'didn't like blacks.' And how would some stranger in a small town in Maine know to say that to me ? I had mailed a Christmas present to Africa. Without any protection I burned addresses and journals that might be misused.
In Montgomery my neighbour from New York and I found our way to the congregating point in Montgomery for people who would march. A black high school kid made friends and helped us find our way around, found us a family to stay with that night. They fed us. They didn't have any money, with parents and two children all sleeping in one room and place made for several of us in the corner. When we went walking around with them after dinner a white man came out of his house with a baseball bat and chased us. During the day we were trained in nonviolent defence by some of the young men from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They were the backbone of the Movement and March. They knew how to handle the problems, how to find help, how to ease the marchers into lodgings, how to see where the trouble might come. There was some turnover of those going to jail in various nonviolent protest actions, and returning after release. Later we found a ride to Selma. I realized that a swamp road connected that highway to Gunter Air Force Base where I took my medical training.
There was a family in Selma of everyone who was there for the march. At the congregating point, the church, there was a volunteer list for march marshals, people who would help with organizing. I wrote in the space for my reason to volunteer that I had worked with Schweitzer and believed in peace. I was selected. Once the march started we were to take the risks if there was trouble, and so walked between the line of marchers and groups of angry whites, and tried to cool things down. I was good enough at that. With southern ancestry I didn't feel entirely like a stranger, but the local whites scared me because to them, at that time, I doubted they considered me in their human family. That confused me and scared me more than the risk of being physically hurt. In Africa my fear was of being hurt simply because I was white. In Alabama I, and I think all the marchers only felt safe among the blacks.
If racists decided to attack us there was not much we could do. SCLC people had taught us how to hunch down and protect our heads with our arms if beaten. March marshals were given armbands and iridescent orange jackets - the joke was that we'd be more visible targets out on the road. Alabama National Guard troops were called up; they stayed in groups back from the marchers. There were a very few Justice Department people who were certainly there at the campgrounds, and they were in touch with the National Guard. They knew who we were and we could call on them if we had to.
Out in the countryside whites would stand along the road taunting us. There were so many marchers and relatively small groups of rural whites, at least until we reached the outskirts of Montgomery some days later. There was plenty of time to talk with the other march people: the leadership had other commitments and couldn't always be found at lead position mile after mile. The press would whisk them off for interviews in Montgomery, or hold them aside for the cameras. Media people and reporters were dressed for the office. The marchers slept in their clothes. I remember being thirsty, being tired. It was a long walk. The nights were a damp cold. The people from Selma would drive out at night and take some of the marchers back home and then back to the march for breakfast in the morning. When I wasn't at the campground gate pulling security duty at night - we worked in shifts organized on the principle of well you guys for a few hours then us, my neighbour and I would ride into Selma for a bed but it was risky because cars driven by whites buzzed up and down the road shining lights into cars as they passed, with black people driving under the speed limit so you could tell whether friend or trouble was driving a car by how fast it was going. Any car that passed from behind was trouble. There were inevitably a couple of attempts to run us off the road and thrown beer cans and yells, so that blacks kept any whites in their car hunkered down in the back seat sometimes under a blanket so trouble would not know the car was carrying marchers. It was safer to stay at the campground where there was our own security, Justice Department, and the Guard, and after a few days of march we just slept on the ground in the tents.
I think all the marchers were afraid of being shot, particularly in the empty stretches of the countryside. No one talked about it. Nine months earlier three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi were murdered. Later we learned they were murdered by law enforcement in a textbook example of civilian population control by fear. Eventually a marcher was murdered, a mother of four named Viola Liuzzo, shot by local racists with an FBI operative among them, but in a car instead of walking down that road. When we came into Montgomery, at the foot of that avenue leading up to the State Capitol there was a throng of hostile white people, men. A few of us march marshals and marchers formed a tight ring around Reverend King, locking arms as body shields against the anger. The crowd's anger was frightening and real, and growing out of control. Their hatred seemed directed against all of us. A group of local police nearby did nothing. The crowd was pushing us and for an instant it was serious and because I was walking sideways through that group helpless with my arms locked I was looking into Dr. King's face. He was accustomed to their hatred, but his fear was no different from mine, his eyes quick over the crowd around us, his chin down and head back a little, seeing also that I was looking to him, until his eyes rested up ahead where we were going. If the angry people had wanted to kill any or all of us they could have easily. "Justice" as we called the Federal Marshals, if there at all couldn't help, and the National Guard wasn't there, only the local policemen who stayed apart - then we were through the roughness and everything was semi-normal again though I understood what I didn't want to understand, that he knew what that kind of hatred meant, knew what might happen but would not happen right then, was afraid like the rest of us but past a point it didn't help to fear.
My neighbour from New York found us a ride back north with three northern white students. After stopping for breakfast at a diner and buying a newspaper that headlined the slaying of Mrs. Liuzzo, all five of us were arrested in a car heading north, just outside Montgomery. We were all five accused of stealing one newspaper, taken down a back road handcuffed and confronted with a line of twelve to fifteen uniformed white police. A white man in a business suit walked up and down in front of them, pointed at us and told them to shoot to kill any of us they saw in his county again. Then police expressing the most twisted racist verbal abuse I've ever encountered, took us into Montgomery and put us in Montgomery jail. The next day we were taken to the countryside and the court was held in a post office. The judge said the charge was ridiculous and without proof so he'd have to let us go. I asked him if that meant we were found innocent ? He said oh you're innocent alright, and then we were re-arrested on more charges, this time attached to supposed contents of the car we were riding in. We stayed in jail for five days. Our first SCLC lawyer was stabbed on the street and the second Movement lawyer advised us not to post bail. When the prisoners beat us we remained nonviolent. Before going into court our new lawyer told me that because of my journal of the march there was a warrant drawn up against me for criminal anarchy against the State of Alabama, a charge carrying twenty years, but no one had signed it. Four of us were released and the Justice Department escorted us to the airport. The car's driver remained for another trial.
False charges are frightening because you don't know at what point the charges will stop. By them, law enforcement claims absolute power. As a tactic it was used against civil rights workers throughout the South. It happened to me in New York City again, an overtly false charge for obstructing traffic when I was covering a peace rally, and years later again after countering government policy at a writers committee meeting, a false arrest in the subways for supposedly not paying my fare (NYC turnstiles do not give receipts). It is also psychological warfare, and it happens by surprise no matter how carefully law-abiding you are, and if you are alone without a witness it can be impossible to prove your innocence. As a writer with an unconventional novel about Africa published by Viking in 1964, I was tagged fairly early as a target for distinctively un-literary racists within law enforcement and without. Thirty years later the FBI still keeps the Alabama petty larceny charge next to my name without its disposition noted on the record. I would never have learned of it despite multiple requests under the Freedom of Information Act, if I hadn't applied to move to Canada in 1994. The FBI kept me and my family sitting in Maine for six months, waiting for a confirmation of "no conviction" to clear through the Alabama police departments which never rescinded their death threats.
I've thought about that moment reaching Montgomery, as though there must have been some lesson there for me, before Dr. King continued his way into history. I've tried to rationalize the white crowd's behaviour, the epithets, the attempts to break through our locked arms, as their way to warn Dr. King that there wasn't any real protection except people. The unwritten history of the Civil Rights movement and Peace movement, is of all the ordinary people who cared deeply for racial harmony and peace, and so became targets, and no one learned what happened to them.
Nonviolent Resistance to the War in Vietnam
The lessons of Vietnam linger. My Air Force duffle bag, gift of the Reserves, embarrassed the darkest corner of several attics. My medical whites were returned, my fatigues used up in house building, my duffle coat salvation armied, and light blues simply burned after cutting off the buttons which I can find with my dog tags in a little basket just to the left of my socks: shiny little moments of pain, my first lesson in the limits of American freedom, where under the Sixties draft they could take my body and put it in a war zone or prison. Conscientious objector status required an expensive lawyer: no one wanted to be drafted. So I enlisted in an Air Force Hospital Reserve unit to be trained as a medical specialist. It was 1962. JFK was President. In Vietnam there were advisors. If there ever was a war I wouldn't have to kill.
When the war came I stayed out of prison as a reserve medic, but for six years of monthly meetings the moral tension was extreme. I thought the war was criminal. Neither combatant nor deserter, I became a witness to disaster: my heroes were jailed or deserted and my brothers by the thousand served and some passed through the wards on stretchers during summer training, or arrived in the V.A. hospitals.
The hardest challenge of the Sixties was how to resist major crimes by government. It was more important than job, future, family. Leaving the country saved oneself, and it was hard to do without economic backing or good friends elsewhere. The alternative for those who stayed was war resistance, ignorance, or playing ball. Knowing about war wounded turns people against war, and in the early Sixties there was almost no press coverage of the US wounded. The casualties were in their realness, also a metaphor for what was happening to all Americans. So I wrote stories about the wounded and what the war was doing to people's lives, and some stories were managed into print. My political views fed into my teaching. I demonstrated, rallied, marched. I wrote engaged journalism. My attempts to cover peace rallies freelance for The Village Voice were interrupted by giving first aid to protestors hurt by police. After an article about police brutality, I was arbitrarily arrested at the next demonstration, and effectively silenced for two years until I went into the V.A. hospitals for Harper's to write about severely wounded veterans. My outlets became fewer and fewer. Out of the service in 1968, continually hassled, I moved to the countryside. Some twenty years later the New York City Police Department secret anti-war files were released by court order. The file on me was twenty some pages to note my presence at one peace rally I covered. The peaceful hero Abbie Hoffman whom I had interviewed since he was vaguely in charge was not mentioned, nor was some of the ugliest undercover military or plainclothes police unit brutality of the war. I saw a young woman struck and her limp body dumped in a police van and driven away alone. I was afraid they killed her. Fifteen minutes later I was arrested for obstructing traffic and would have been found guilty if I were not with witness. The report simply placed me in a crowd of five hundred made up of a lot of anti-war groups supposedly bent on violence, as well as supposed Communist Party fronts, and Viet-Cong banners which I certainly don't remember. In fact the ralliers were nonviolent and peaceful, planning to march without a permit in an act of civil disobedience. Some were hurt badly. The file was "secret" because I knew too much, or because I could have proved myself innocent of its implications in court.
The irony of being a medic within a system designed to kill people lent some insight into the problem of all those committed to nonviolence. The system insists on teaching us that violence "works," as former President Bush tried to teach the world in Iraq. Violence is almost always the result of controls or pressure by an elite, manipulating the people. Anti-war resistance on the other hand was chaotic. The mild anarchy of uncoordinated resistance was very close to a free society, until it intersected the machinery of government in demonstrations, at rallies, with civil disobedience, draft card burnings, flag burnings, draft resistance, refusals to serve, long term AWOLs, tax resistance, and as a result the inevitable punishments which stopped nothing. Resistance was the message of alternative society, with collectives, communes, cooperatives, and anti-establishment lifestyles, making peace with the increasingly large numbers within the establishment who protested the war. There were days devoted to strikes, and there were teach-ins, building takeovers, sit-ins, picketing, petitioning, along with street theatre and art and poetry and satire and festivals, and a free press in the underground and people's news services. It was real and not very safe because non-elite anti-war resistance was increasingly hassled in the late Sixties, infiltrated, and broken up. Some were made too unbalanced for effective political action. Some were silenced. Others left. A very few were broken into violence. Ultimately the government could not stop the movement for peace. Nonviolence won out because resistance that wasn't nonviolent either cooled out or was lost, murdered, caught, imprisoned, or burned its ghettoes apart from the peace movement's purpose of ending the war.
For me, respect for life led naturally into nonviolence, which meant refusing to use or accept violence, initially physical violence but with time, psychological violence and oppression. Within a violent nation, nonviolence usually requires religious faith, a moral code, ethics, just to be able to survive. It requires at least a knowledge of history: in the past , despite the number of martyrs, the cost in human life of nonviolent change is much less.
Since nonviolent resistance includes civil disobedience and in some instances requires opposition to the law and authorities, it relies on higher principle. There are higher principles, codes, ethnic and religious laws, which do not agree with each other. Because effective nonviolent resistance requires large numbers of people, higher principle usually affirms those points of humanity which groups hold in common. Resistance rises from that point where each of us says no, I will not accept this, so massive resistance is a response to some injustice which would in the objective court of human experience be called a crime. The essential purpose of nonviolent resistance is the affirmation of a human code, better than what society offers through the use of force.
Nonviolent resistance is more supple and unpredictable, more like the human heart than machinery of war. And there are as many ways to resist as there are people. But of two ways to counter what is criminal in one's own political system, the most common is taken for granted. The democratic process is based on nonviolence, and a criminal policy can be changed by electing new policy makers. When national policies remain criminal the obvious recourse is to counter them with laws created to protect the people and the nation from serious wrongs. So when policies are intentionally criminal the laws are subverted, or those who administer them serve the interests of an elite rather than justice. Most resistance actions occur when a just legal recourse is not available.
Despite civil liberties organizations which offer some protection against excesses of government power, Americans have almost no recourse to International Law, to applying within the US standards of human rights which internationally the law affirms for all humanity. Direct action resistance groups in the Seventies and Eighties, attempting to challenge the first strike capabilities of US nuclear armaments, were (with a few exceptions) not allowed the Nuremberg defence in US courts. This means for example, that defences against the crime of genocide if committed by our own government, are made purposefully weak, hidden, unrecognized. Without legal recourse by the people, the power and opportunity for government to commit genocide increase.
Confronted with a choice between complicity in punishable genocide, and nonviolent resistance, what free person would choose complicity ? The choice becomes not to recognize the genocide as genocide, or to choose resistance. We know that nonviolent resistance works, and in anti-war resistance to Vietnam it achieved its immediate goal. It took ten years. And for many it took too long with too much lost. Within a democracy, pressure from the people as a whole can turn the government to the people's will, even in long stretches between elections.
The German Nazi government of the 1940's provides a comfortably distant example of intolerable government policies. A generation of Americans was asked, what would you do if ? Many Americans believe that Germans who did not resist Hitler's policies, were morally deficient. We expected them to do anything/everything they could to retain the human value of resisting the unacceptable. But within the context of our own laws many of the possible actions would have been criminal. Through the Vietnam war, amid assas-sinations of American leaders and with government and military policies at points unacceptable to humanity, most Americans avoided resistance which directly confronted the law.
Yet there was a point where the nonviolence of American society could not be broken, and it was touched in the Sixties and Seventies by anti-war sentiment and the near impeachment and forced resignation of President Nixon. In both instances government was made to respond to the people's will, and not by popular elections or popular referendum, but by the people's consensus which could not (and yes there were exceptions) find just representation. The war in Vietnam was finally stopped by pressure from the people. It suggests that the American people have the power to stop war machinery, economic machinery, social and political machinery, nonviolently. It relies on a possibility that ordinary people acting in concert within their professions can without violence make the system inoperable. A structurally violent system relies on each of its parts. In the event of genocide the people have the capacity to shut the system down and keep it shut down until the crime is stopped. This is and always was a power of the people in agreement. But the question is always with a free people: at what point does the crime of a society become so great that its people collectively draw the line. That point exists whether it is ever reached, or not. It remains an obvious alternative to crimes by government, and affirms the nonviolence of the democratic process.
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gerald and maas night's lantern
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copyright © 2002 john bart gerald
drawings copyright © 2002 julie maas