The violence of non-violence


The  50th anniversary of the March on Washington has passed last year — incidentally I am writing  a paper on Dr. Martin Luther King as icon of the West for a conference. Reading through all that has been published on ‘the speech‘ I was baffled again about the great discrepancy that exists in the pompous celebrations of Dr. King and his ‘I have a dream’ speech and the realities of black lifes and movements in the US (and around the world for that matter). Birkbeck College had Angela Davis as guest in October and in her public lecture she lays out precisely which parts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is remembered and which has been cast away, forgotten and denied (the podcast of the lecture can be found here).

A common answer to the question why Martin Luther King has become so famous and not the Black Panthers or Malcolm X is that Dr. King used non-violent strategies. And non-violence is, of course, better than violence. I especially often heard that elogy of non-violence during my interviews with UN staff. None of those who said that were black. The two blacks I interviewed (from Haiti and Kenya) did not mention Martin Luther King nor non-violence.

The idea that Martin Luther King is “shining forth in the darkness of an age of nuclear weapons and genocide” as Chakrabarty and Carson write on their book cover superficially seems plausible to me as white, European, well-fed, well-educated and utterly middle-class woman. Yet, it is once again the common sense part of this answer that bothers me. Isn’t there a question that we social scientists have to ask about the relationship between revolutions, social change and violence? Where would be today if there hadn’t been violence in 1776 or 1789?

But this is a long question to answer and this blog is not quite the right place. But there is another tweek of the non-violence-is-good equation that bothers me and that is the simple fact that any non-violence strategy  needs brutal violence to be effective as social movement strategy. And it needs that violence to be known and seen everywhere. Sit-ins that are not washed away by water hoses and tear gas, demonstrations that are not battled down or leaders who are not martyrs are simply far less effective than if they had been met with equally peaceful ignorance.

Let’s take the March on Washington. Would it have attracted so many people and would it have been such huge event if there had not been for the hundreds and thousands of children and teenagers blasted off the street by high-pressure water hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, just a couple of weeks before? Wasn’t it a general principle of the civil rights movement that the non-violent protests had to be contrasted with the extreme violence of the state, the police, the army and more generally the white population and its KKK? The violence with which these protests were met was an absolutely essential part of the success of the movement!

Hence, the civil rights movement was not non-violent! This is not to say that the civil rights movement provoked purposefully violent responses, it rather aimed at exposing the brutality and violence that was already there. The site provides a list with short biographies of people who were killed in the 14 years from 1954 to 1968 when King was murdered. This is a list of the people who were murdered as direct result of the civil rights movement. How many more have died from the consequences of ill treatment and torture, arbitrary imprisonment and inhumane working conditions? Impossible to know.

Yet, pointing to the violence that is necessary to make non-violence an effective social movement strategy reminds of the original antagonism that lay at the heart of the civil rights movement. The argument that non-violence is something inherently good, something laudable per se, becomes rather shale and meak when one starts to look at who is saying that about whom. A close look at the list on the website above speaks a clear language: the civil rights movement was non-violent for whites only. Well, not exactly, it was non-violent for those against whom the protests were directed and it was very violent for those who sought freedom, justice and equality – which they eventually achieved legally and constitutionally but which is still a far cry for large parts of the US. It is, maybe, the most remarkable aspect of the movement that the violence that was commonly and usually directed against blacks only now also killed whites like James Reeb or Viola Gregg Luzio.

Might it be that Dr. King’s non-violence was good because it spared me, the white, middle class woman? Wouldn’t I have good reasons to think differently about how the justice achieved (or not achieved) through non-violence if I had been subject to the violence that was necessary and corrolary to Dr. King’s strategy? The non-violence of the civil rights movement is a negative vision of peace and justice as it asks only for unjustice to stop but not for justice to be construed actively. Elizabeth Wood emphasizes how the guerilla struggle in El Salvador had created a pleasure of agency for the campensinos as it allowed them not only the dignity of ‘standing up against’ (which the civil rights movements certainly did, too) but also effectively, actively and vigorously fight for ‘their’ land and life.

Did non-violence give the same pleasure of agency? It certainly claimed to do so but did it? And if so, was that pleasure of agency enough to actively construct a more just world for blacks (or any ethnic minority in the US for that matter)? This is an important question to answer because if the answer is negative, then the only reason to believe in the moral superiority of non-violence is that it spared one part of the population of being killed — and not incidentally the one that was not non-violent. So, the questions is not only whether taking up violence might be a more ‘rational’ (in sense of efficient) and empowering option for those who are protesting and resisting but also if the morality of non-violence is not a rather hypocritical and, basically, extremely conservative morality.