True Resistance/What Nonviolence Is

In her Jan. 22 ZNet commentary on nonviolent civil disobedience, "Arresting Disobedience," Jessica Azulay makes a thoughtful contribution to the discussion on resistance, a discussion happening at conceivably the most critical moment in our planet’s post World War II history.

I believe, however, that Ms. Azulay also makes some fundamental errors in her assessment of current and future nonviolent resistance. And these errors stem, it would seem, from a lack of understanding of the basic premise of nonviolence — which is to say nonviolence as taught by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, still the two definitive sources of instruction on this revolutionary subject.

The basic premise is as follows: nonviolence is a force and a method based on love and compassion – a love so great that it asks us to love even our enemies, and a compassion so deep that it compels us to accept personal risk, and to endure personal suffering before we would allow suffering to come to our fellow beings.

You might not know this, listening to some contemporary discussions of nonviolent resistance, but this is exactly what Gandhi and King said about nonviolence – over and over and over again. It is also at the heart of the nonviolence of the Berrigans, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Jesus, and most other well known practitioners of the art. Love, compassion, and a willingness to accept personal suffering to prevent the suffering of others.

Of course, such nonviolence is extremely difficult to practice, particularly in a society as violent as our own, one which also constantly urges us to focus on our own personal (material) satisfaction without regard to the welfare of others. But neither was it easy to practice in British-controlled India, nor in the pre-civil rights South, nor in the Roman Empire. And the basic premise remains the same, just as love and compassion are human constants, regardless of the vagaries of time and place. Understanding this basic premise of nonviolence is the key to practicing it.

Ms. Azulay does cover some important ground. She makes an excellent point, for instance, when she notes that getting arrested is not the point of civil disobedience. If simply getting arrested was the point, there are much easier ways to do it. We are taking these actions in order to raise our protest of the war to the highest possible level; to protest unjust laws; to throw a monkey wrench, even if only momentarily or symbolically, into the machinery of war. We are willing to risk arrest to do it, but we don’t do it in order to get arrested. Civil disobedience can be successful without any arrests at all, as when it garners significant media coverage, or (best of all) when a demand is met.

(A sit-in at the office of the mayor of Springfield, MA on December 10 produced zero arrests, because the mayor agreed to meet with them – which was their demand. And he has since gone on to become a leader in that area’s anti-war movement.)

At the same time, Ms. Azulay is correct to note that we do need to be putting up actual resistance with our actions, and blockades that don’t actually block anything clearly need some work. A golden Gandhi maxim is that "the job of a civil resister is to provoke a response," so we need to create actions that will produce some response. As a participant in three generally powerful events over the MLK week in three different cities, I think we must also recognize that nonviolent CD is difficult stuff, and that many of the folks organizing the actions are doing it for the first time. Even Gandhi had to call off his first nonviolence campaign in India, criticizing himself for "Himalayan miscalculation," and if Gandhi can screw up the first time so can we.

Lastly, Ms. Azulay brings appropriate attention to the greater risk borne by racial and ethnic minorities (and other oppressed communities) when facing arrest and incarceration. Careful planning and support work should be done around this issue, and race and class privileges recognized. But just as we should not romanticize the process of arrest and confinement during civil disobedience, neither should we gentrify it. Lest we forget our basic history, it was precisely the poor and oppressed who marched nonviolently behind Gandhi and King, and who won such startling victories.

The argument starts to get confused when Ms. Azulay brings up the Iraq Pledge of Resistance, and takes umbrage at one of our nonviolence guidelines: "We will not run or resist arrest; we will remain accountable for our actions as a means of furthering our witness to the injustice of war."

While this might sound "righteous" to some, to intentionally put someone into an arrestable situation – which is what civil disobedience is, after all – and then encourage them to run away or to resist arrest is to significantly increase their physical risk, and the potential for violence. We can debate the finer points of going limp vs. walking with the police, but basic nonviolence tells us that we do not fight the police when they arrest us.

But this seems like too much cooperation with the state for some, including Ms. Azulay who crystallizes her argument by asking "Is it true resistance to break the law and then freely accept whatever consequences the state deems appropriate?"

In a word, yes. Unless you are going to argue that what Gandhi and King did was not "true resistance." And this is where an understanding of the fundamental premise of nonviolent resistance is critical.

First, as people acting from the basis of love and compassion, we are compelled to take responsibility. We take responsibility for the actions of our government, and so try to stop it when necessary. And we take responsibility for our personal actions as we attempt to stop it.

The point is not that we are submitting to their idea of law. The point is that we are standing up for a higher law, whether you call it international law or moral law or spiritual law. (Some describe it as "restoring the law.")

Whatever you call that law, you do not demonstrate respect for it by trying to evade the consequences of your actions, whether those consequences are just or not. Ironically, we are ready to do civil disobedience precisely because we believe that our actions are, and should be, legal, and we should always be ready to accept the consequences for doing what is right. As Henry David Thoreau said in his landmark essay Civil Disobedience, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison."

Second, true nonviolent resistance involves accepting personal suffering. You cannot escape it, nor should you try, because it is at the center of what makes nonviolent resistance work.

Not arbitrary suffering, mind you, but suffering which comes in the attempt to prevent the suffering of others. And if the state chooses to impose that suffering on us for our acts of civil disobedience, so be it. In the words of longtime Plowshares activist Liz McAlister, the suffering is what "brings it all home, what makes it real." It is precisely that suffering which allows us to stand in the shoes of the oppressed and the people our government calls "enemy," those on whose behalf we claim to be acting.

In fact, one of the geniuses of nonviolent civil disobedience is that it is among the greatest levelers of persons – it allows each one of us, no matter how privileged, to experience the police and "justice" system which are central to state oppression of the poor, minorities and others. (And which also enforces compliance with the national security state.) And if that sounds too Catholic-lefty for you, consider then the words of someone with real militant cache, Ernesto "Che" Guevara: "Solidarity with the oppressed means sharing their burdens."

This is once again a difficult concept for Americans, because we are taught at all costs to avoid suffering, not to embrace it. But if this society is to truly change, it will require tremendous personal sacrifice from a lot of people. And the acceptance of the suffering that comes with risk and sacrifice – as always, in nonviolence – is the magic that makes personal and social transformation possible. To put it in the eloquent words of Dr. King, "the jail cell is the doorway to freedom."

He wasn’t just talking about freedom for African-Americans from segregation. He was talking about freedom for all people, the freedom that comes to those individuals willing to follow a higher law no matter the consequence, and the freedom of a just society that such actions help create.

Ultimately, resistance is not the same thing as defiance, and the two terms should not be used interchangeably. Defiance is based on anger, while resistance is based on love. Defiance tries to evade the consequences of its actions, while resistance accepts those consequences. Defiance tries to increase social costs, (which, by the way, often serves to increase the suffering of the already oppressed), while resistance works instead to transform the society. Big differences.

One final point is in order. George W. Bush and the cabal of ruthless imperialists surrounding him are not worried about their ability to launch this horrific war before we can engineer a social revolution. We do not yet have tens of thousands of people willing to stop them by throwing their bodies in the way. What they are betting on, though, is that once this war starts (and stops), that we will go away; that people will lose interest, become frustrated or disheartened, and worst of all, lose hope.

Anger is not a sustainable emotion, and it does not deliver hope. Defiance based on anger is not a sustainable movement. Resistance based on love and compassion, however, is. What’s most important is not simply what we do next week, but what we are prepared to do for the rest of our lives.

So as we do everything in our power to stop this war, we must always keep the bigger picture in mind – and that is to end the institution of war, once and for all. If we can accept and try to emulate the basic premise of nonviolence – love, compassion and the acceptance of personal suffering to prevent the suffering of others – we just might have a chance of accomplishing that.

At least that’s what Gandhi and King thought, and right now, my money’s on them.

(Gordon Clark was the Executive Director of Peace Action from 1996-2001. The Iraq Pledge of Resistance is a campaign of nationally coordinated nonviolent civil disobedience to oppose war in Iraq. Check it out at





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