So yesterday I wrote about my first experience being tear-gassed as a protester. I was in my early twenties, I’d gone to the protests around the 2001 FTAA Summit in Quebec City, and I – along with about 16,000 other demonstrators, had been the victims of spectacularly brutal police repression. Everything I thought knew about the world, about my country, was a lie; If I had to describe state of mind in the summer of 2001, I’d have to say it was a strange combination of angry and exhilarated. I was, to put it bluntly, spoiling for a fight.
I suspect that people could tell, and fortunately a friend made the point of introducing to some of Starhawk’s political writing that summer. I’d already slogged through The Spiral Dance as part of my neo-Pagan initiation, but now I was specifically given her books Dreaming The Dark and Truth or Dare. Starhawk, for those who don’t know, is a neo-pagan author, philosopher and activist who advocates non-violent civil disobedience. Her writing would end up having an enormous influence on me, that summer one of her phrases dropped into my anger and trauma like a crystal being dropped into a supersaturated solution: “We must not cooperate with violence, either by using it or submitting to it.”
That was an incredibly cathartic moment for me. A decade and a half later, and I can still look back at that moment in August 2001 and realize that was when my life changed. Rather than transmuting my anger into violence, I became committed to defeating violence itself, and by extension changing the way the world works.
An excerpt from a Political Science essay I wrote around that time: “The simple fact of the matter is that the State has a monopoly on the use of violence, and no individual or small group is going to be able to muster enough violence to alter the course of the State. You’d need an army to oppose the State on those terms… and when that happens, what you get is called a war… and do I need to point out the absurdity of a militarized anti-war and social justice movement? As an movement, we can’t gather enough force to defeat the State by violence, and if we did we’d merely recreate that system of violence without ultimately changing anything for the better. If there’s anything the history of the 20th century proved it’s that, politically, the ends don’t justify the means, the means shape the ends… and once you realize that, you’ve freed yourself from an awful lot of bullshit. Instead of using violence, you’ve got to get creative.” (For the record, I got a C on that paper).
Starhawk wrote it better: “All war is first waged in the imagination, first conducted to limit our dreams and visions, to make us accept within ourselves its terms, to believe that our only choices are those that it lays before us. If we let the terms of force describe the terrain of our battle, we will lose. But if we hold to the power of our visions, our heartbeats, our imagination, we can fight on our own turf, which is the landscape of consciousness. There, the enemy cannot help but transform.”
I agree with that. Activism is – or should be – primarily an effort to change the landscape of consciousness. (As an example, the great success of the Occupy Movement, despite its flaws, was that it changed the social consciousness of the West: before Occupy, the dominant economic narrative was about austerity; after Occupy, it’s about economic inequality.) All acts of political protest, of resistance, must have an element of education, or you’re just making noise. Ideally, activism should also include acts of theatre to catch the attention of the so-called “great silent majority.” Activism is, primarily, a way of getting people’s attention so that they’ll listen to what you’re trying to say; if successful, it’s an extremely public force for change and transformation.
Of course, that’s not to say that being an activist doesn’t include personal change: I came to believe that, in order to transform the world I transform myself, and that’s where the moral courage entered the picture.
Nonviolent civil disobedience is not easy, and it’s not natural. When you’re in a big crowd, when you’re facing the kind of brutal repression that we saw at Quebec City in 2001, or more recently at Toronto you want to fight, to throw things, to strike back at the bastards who’re hurting you and your comrades. Everyone’s got a built-in fight/flight/freeze response… and in a protest the absolute worst thing you can do is give into that response: Nothing undermines the message of a demonstration faster than pictures on the news of protesters throwing things at police. Destruction of property and vandalism do have their place as tactics of political protest, but that place is not during a street march. Have you ever heard the expression “the medium is the message?” It’s a fancy way of saying how you present your message is going to be as important – or even more so – than than the message itself. Chucking rocks at cops pretty much overpowers any potential message you’re trying to present; the only message it sends is “We’re pissed off enough to chuck rocks at cops but not smart enough to think it through.”
In order to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, you have to learn the skills involved. And there is a skill-set that needs to be taught: I’ve attended (and sometimes taught) workshops on nonviolence for activists. Primarily it’s about teaching you a different set of reactions to violence: if somebody grabs you, for example, your immediate instinct is to try and break away or strike the person who’s grabbed you. That natural reaction is, in the context of a demonstration, very wrong. If a police officer tries to grab you and you take a swing — even instinctively — then you’ve committed at least one count of felony Resist Arrest, probably with Assault Police thrown in. Over and above the legal consequences of those charges (including jail time) the media is going to report “At least one officer was assaulted by a protester” and that’s all people watching the news channels are going to hear. Period. Everyone’s time and effort has gone to waste.
So you’re taught to go limp — it’s called passive resistance — and it’s better for everyone if you do that: fellow protesters, organizers, the legal team, and the media relations team… hell even the police. It keeps things on-message. Nonviolence training also includes calming techniques, both for yourself and others; conflict de-escalation techniques (if a protester freaks out, for example, you generally try and surround them until they calm down and can’t hurt anyone); basic safety and training on how to reduce the effect of police chemical weapons; training on how to conduct yourself in the event of arrest (i.e. never lie to the cops, polite-but-firm minimum cooperation, and immediately request legal representation.) Over and above the obvious, nuts-and-bolts tactics and techniques there’s a lot of other stuff that people really don’t think about, like anti-oppression training (which I strongly recommended all white cis-males, by the way, activist or not); education on your actual legal rights compared to “what everybody knows” based on TV and movies; we also learned (especially as the years wore on) to focus on burnout-prevention, aftercare; and so on and so forth.
I hate the term “Professional Activist” for two reasons: First, it’s a code-phrase used by the Right to denigrate the efforts of activists by implying that we’re some sort of mercenaries — it’s a rather nasty bit of propaganda, actually; Second, it implies that we’re paid for our efforts, and believe me, we aren’t. Occasionally an activist might get lucky and land a job in community organizing or social justice, but by and large we’re self-funded. I was never a professional activist in the sense that I received any sort of material compensation for my efforts, but one could argue that I was a trained, experienced, and above all full-time activist.
And it certainly effected my life; I would quite literally not be who I am today without those years as an activist. I suppose I could make a point about the moral courage required to embrace nonviolence — and I suppose it does take moral courage — but somehow I’ve never really thought about that as it applied to me. If I made the statement “I embraced non-violence and it was an act of moral courage” I’d start laughing before I got through the sentence; it’s so bloody pompous. The truth is that back at the beginning I was so keyed up about the whole experience that it was an easy, natural decision to make. Thinking back on it, though, I realize that my commitment to political nonviolence is primarily pragmatic. Clearly, I don’t have a philosophical objection to consensual fighting and/or full-contact sport (I’d hardly have a hobby recreating medieval combat if I did); rather my primary objection to the use of violence as a tool of protest is that it’s pointless; It accomplishes nothing… and in fact harms the perception of protesters far more than it helps.
I was (and in some ways, still am) a nonviolent activist. I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but in seven years of being a street medic, seven years of sweating-hard effort and struggle, of stress and trauma, seven years of facing down brutality and violence I never once raised my hand against another person in anger. I’m proud of that. I think I have the right to be proud of that.