Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Nonviolence for Positive Change

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"What does nonviolence mean to you at a time like this?”

In a word: everything.

Nonviolence is the practical representation of my love and respect for humanity given my deep concern with current conditions.

I write a lot, in my efforts to promote peace and justice I’ve written nearly 100 op-eds (syndicated by PeaceVoice here) since Donald Trump was elected. Thinking about peace, caring about peace, and declaring fidelity to causes of justice are good, but nonviolence is the strategic avenue for acting on these promises and upholding my values.

It is challenging and deeply personal.

On May 30th, 2020 I joined thousands of protesters at the “Free Stamp” (a sculpture, of a stamp, emblazoned with the word “Free”) in downtown Cleveland. We were assembled to express support for Black Lives and to join the chorus decrying the suffering we experienced in witnessing the murder of George Floyd. We marched and chanted.

On May 30th, I was also attacked—by my own government—with chemical weapons. Without warning, or an order to disperse, the Cleveland Police Department attacked civilians with chemical munitions (including teargas). [In recent weeks I have issued my complaint and provided evidence regarding this violation, I trust positive changes will be made.]

On the drive home I felt these tears inside me. I have taught nonviolence for over a decade; it was the late 90s when I last threw a punch. I’m committed to nonviolence for personal, practical, and spiritual reasons (as imperfect as I am) and I cannot recall a time I felt stronger retributive and vengeful desires. By the time I arrived home I had processed my feelings, the lingering chemical residue lingered in my nostrils for another couple days…

I do not mean to be gratuitous, but without training in nonviolence I know anger would get the best of me. I would have responded to the escalatory violence of the militarized police department in kind. I would degrade the messages for peace and justice by becoming an example used to twist reality and justify the violence to begin with. The psychological responses in fight, flight, and flee have required me to work. Whatever toxic masculinity I unintentionally absorbed no longer causes me to lash out, but it was dramatically present that day.

I have learned: whatever the problem, violence is never the solution.

I worry.

Scholarship on peace and conflict presents serious concerns for potential political violence with the upcoming election, regardless of who wins. This trend precedes, but has been exaggerated by, Trump’s presidency. The bipartisan Freedom House organization now ranks the US 52nd in the world in “Global Freedom.” Our democratic norms and practices have been eroded; contested results in our upcoming election, use of the military to suppress protests and public gatherings, executive orders and other abuses, and disrespect to the democratic transfer of power, could result in civil war (already threatened) or other mass violence.

History and expertise present great need for a force more powerful, like the nonviolence used to oust Slobodan Milosevic in his efforts to steal an election. Given the threats already present all Americans should be prepared to engage in mass nonviolent civil resistance, if necessary.

I absolutely hope that the threats do not manifest. I hope that cool heads prevail and that current indicators and threats are exaggerated representations of real, but inflated, political divides. But it is good practice for everyone to be prepared; nonviolence is the only tool that can defend the country and the vote should we experience attacks against our democratic institutions or political violence surface this fall.

Whether or not our country ends up in need of saving, it is already in clear need of healing. Nonviolence is the strategic mechanism for applying pressure to deliver positive change. The largest and most persistent movements opposing police brutality are happening, people are resisting oppression, and needed positive change is on the horizon. This can only be achieved with a continued commitment to nonviolence.

When I love my neighbors and take the time understand their concerns, I give us the chance to collaboratively problem solve and build community. I respect their humanity, sometimes we will disagree, but we all deserve our rights, safety, and security. Nonviolence is the only protection of personhood, any other coercive or destructive force is part of the problem, and currently it is all at stake.

Wim Laven, Ph.D, an instructor of peace studies, political science, and conflict resolution, does research on forgiveness and reconciliation. He serves on the executive boards of the International Peace Research Association and its North American affiliate the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He is also a member of the ACN Steering Committee. Wim is a writer with numerous pieces syndicated by Peace Voice and he also works on the editorial team for the Peace Chronicle magazine. His experiences in the field range from mediating disputes in small claims court to interventions during complex humanitarian disasters.

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