Nonviolent Activism Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Michael Nagler tells this story:

“One of my close friends, David Hartsough, who is white, was sitting in with a small group of civil rights activists at a segregated lunch counter in Virginia in the early sixties. They had been sitting there without getting service for close to two days, harassed almost without letup by an increasingly angry crowd. As neither the sitters nor the proprietors backed down, tension increased. Suddenly David was jerked back off his stool and spun around by a man who hissed at him, ‘You got one minute to get out of here, n——- lover, or I’m running this through your heart.’ David, a birthright Quaker, stopped staring at the huge Bowie knife held at his chest and slowly looked up into the man’s face, to meet ‘the worst look of hate I have ever seen in my life.’ The thought that came to him was, ‘Well, at least I’ve got a minute,’ and he heard himself saying to the man, ‘Well, brother, you do what you feel you have to, and I’m going to try to love you all the same.’ For a few frozen seconds there seemed to be no reaction; then the hand on the knife started shaking. After a few more long seconds it dropped. The man turned and walked out of the lunchroom, surreptitiously wiping a tear from his cheek.”

Whatever Hartsough did in the days and weeks and years following this incident, it was not to bemoan life’s supposed lack of meaning. Nor did he do that in the months leading up to the incident, during which he clearly prepared himself to respond to the “wind of hate” (as soldiers describe it in war) in his chosen way without having to stop and think about it. He heard himself saying the words that saved his life and improved the lives around him, just as a properly conditioned soldier watches himself fire a weapon in the heat of battle. But there is a drastic difference: the soldier who fires the weapon is usually himself traumatized by having done so. He has to recover afterwards. Veterans’ suicide rates suggest that many never do. The “meaning” violent actors have found in war is fleeting. A nonviolent activist is empowered by his or her action, and need not recover from it. In fact, those confronted by nonviolent activism can be empowered by it as well. Many more Egyptian young people and Egyptian soldiers will tell you life has meaning right now than would have said so last year, and that meaning will leave no hangover. Instead it will fade slowly or last as long as the nonviolent activism continues. When young Palestinians took up nonviolent resistance, their usage of drugs and alcohol plummeted. Does anyone doubt that same effect could be found right now in Madison, Wisconsin?

When I speak about peace and justice, people always ask what they can do and often ask for an easy solution. When I tell them that our entire system is deeply corrupt, that we need a cultural revolution and a massive movement for change, that until Freedom Plaza in DC looks like Tahrir Square in Cairo all changes are going to be cosmetic or for the worse, people often look disappointed or discouraged. They don’t understand (and I have failed to communicate) that I am offering them what people have longed for since the beginning of time and desperately craved and lacked since the beginning of television: I’m offering a life with meaning. Why do people pick up harmful addictions, risk life and limb for no purpose but the risk, try their hardest to believe in theology and astrology and all variety of nonsense? Why all the quiet — and sometimes not so quiet — desperation? It is because people do not believe their lives can have a larger purpose, do not believe they can struggle and sacrifice in solidarity with friends and strangers to improve everything for everyone for centuries to come. And yet, of course, they can and must or all will be lost.

Nagler’s book “The Search for a Nonviolent Future” makes the case that nonviolence and only nonviolence can work, not only work as a fulfilling career for those who practice it, but work in halting wars and injustices. When violence seems to accomplish such ends, the blowback can be swift or slow but is always lingering. When nonviolence seems to fail, it always makes progress, and most failures of nonviolent activism are failures of actions taken with no training whatsoever or of sheer inaction (which our worse-than-useless educational system leaves people confusing with nonviolent action). Yet, the victories won through spontaneous actions by untrained and undisciplined nonviolent actors suggest the incredible potential still largely untapped. The Kapp Putch was stopped in Germany. The Soviet occupation in the Prague Spring was frustrated for months and the groundwork laid for its overthrow. The Rosenstrasse Prison Demonstration overpowered the Nazis, won its participants’ demands, and then disbanded. What if these movements that won victories through nonviolent action had continued and broadened and advanced strategically toward larger goals, as we are all now hoping the people’s movements in Egypt and around the Middle East, Puerto Rico, and the United States are able to do? What if Wall Street had spent the thirties and forties investing in nonviolence training in Germany rather than in weapons and eugenics?

What if people were trained to travel as rapid response teams to use nonviolence in areas of crisis around the globe? They have been for decades now, with stunning success. They have put their lives on the line without weapons or the threat of weapons, accomplished more, and yet been killed and injured far, far less than soldiers who shoot to kill or U.N. peace keepers who threaten to shoot to kill if “needed.” In the early eighties, the minister of war (“defense”) of Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal, learned that peace activists protecting villages by their nonviolent presence provided far greater protection than he could. He told Nagler and a group of people, speaking through a translator that wherever these small groups of international activists were, there was no violence. His translator “corrected” his comment and said “nearly no violence.” Cardenal “caught that at once and slammed his fist on the table: ‘I said, absolutely no violence!'”

Peace studies should be required in every college and every high school and every elementary and pre-school. All those years and decades of blankness in between the wars should be filled in in our history books, and we should invest in nonviolence training instead of war. I like to fantasize about bills that could be introduced in Congress. I’d like to see a bill forbidding the United States to spend more on its military than three times the nearest nation behind it. This would require massive cuts to the Pentagon immediately. But what about a bill requiring that the military receive no more than 1,000 times the funding appropriated for nonviolence training and peace? Of course, the trend is in the other direction. The military gets more money and a larger share of the money every year, and Congress is working to defund the US Institute of Peace, Americorps, and the United Nations. But those were not what we really needed. And we don’t really need the government to do what is needed. We need to do it ourselves.

We need to build peace teams for domestic and international work, teams that include independent journalism as part of their activities. We need to invest everything we can in such work. Here’s one example of a place to get started. Here’s something happening all over the United States next week. Here’s that chance to bring Cairo and peace to DC. Here are more activities planned in the near future that you can get involved in.

David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie”