Violence has always been a useful term for governments and their allied establishment figures in media and punditry. Key to that utility is a very specialized use of the term as a descriptor for actions that don’t originate with the establishment or authorities. Police, armies, presidents and city administrators do not engage in violence. They use strategies, protocols, plans of action, deployments, operations and strikes. The people that are injured and die in those acts are not actively killed by violence. Rather, they suffer only in the passive voice. Those swept up and encaged like animals along the way, without evidence, charge or sentencing in varying degrees, are not violently deprived of their liberty by the use of threat and force; they are administratively detained, imprisoned and held.
The language imbalance is a product of who controls the discourse of dissent. For governments, and their allied propaganda aides, violence is a fluid word used only to describe the actions of those who destabilize the status quo. This has been readily evident in my experience with Occupy Oakland, wherein all that is needed to focus a discussion about violence solely on the unarmed, is a bit of smashed glass, graffiti and/or the presence of flames. While that focus remains almost exclusively on the actions of the disempowered, authorities meanwhile use a wide-range of violent tactics to get their way. In the every day policing of the population they’re meant to protect, this varies from shootings, physical blows, the use of tazers in place of de-escalation, and incarceration. In the political realm, this includes the unsanctioned use of less-than-lethal measures in lethal ways; to the illegal and unjust kidnapping of protesters asserting their rights to assembly. Authorities rarely call any of these actions violence, nor do the liberals, conservatives and compliant media that support them.
What Non-Violence Is
All of this needs to be discussed before we can ever get to the issue of what “non-violence” actually is. The term has been neatly drained of meaning in the context of Occupy Oakland, serving as little more than a handy tool for undermining whatever activities are occurring at any given time. Thousands of self-proclaimed adherents to the philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, for example, urge Occupy to turn away from its “violent” tactics like ministers preaching to sinners. The most well-known of these has been Chris Hedges, whose piece “The Cancer in Occupy” encapsulates much of the assumption and misinformation that self-described “non-violence” advocates make about Occupy Oakland, and the Occupy movement in general.
When it comes to planning events and actions, or deploying autonomously, however, such adherents are mysteriously absent and silent. Non-violence is a concept with a million adherents, and almost no practitioners in the current context. That’s because for many of these proponents, non-violence is not an actual philosophy or tactic at all, but a convenient and reasonable-sounding way of making substantively non-violent protests that are threatening to the authoritarian powers seem instead threatening to the public. The “non-violence” argument has the added virtue for establishment enablers of being wielded as a never-achievable mythical standard by which all real world action will pale in comparison.
In fact, real “non-violence” has always been seen as dangerous and provocative by governments. Long ago, when Gandhi was an alive and kicking real-life example of “non-violent” civil disobedience, he was roundly reviled by establishment voices and his tactics portrayed as dangerous and destabilizing. Winston Churchil, for example, famously commented that Gandhi-ism “and everything it stands for” had to be crushed for the safety of modern civilization. He hoped that Gandhi would die on his famed hunger strike and save him the trouble of the crushing. Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of non-violent civil disobedience, was dogged relentlessly by the FBI, which pursued the goal of destroying King’s career and/or driving him to suicide via a campaign of eavesdropping and outing of his private life. The US fears a movement using non-violent tactics as much as it fears one using violent tactics—because any large scale movement using tactics of any kind is a threat to governments that rely on the apathy of the somnambulant public.
Liberal Pundits and the Non-Violence Hammer
But the strategy of dangling non-violence as the better brother in the family of resistance has never ceased to be effective for paternalistic pundit enablers. It has applications in the macro and micro—in mini-wars against injustice at home, and large-scale US funded atrocities abroad. As Peter Hart noted in the Huffington Post yesterday, mainstream critics of the Palestinian anti-apartheid struggle who pretend sympathy for aspects of the cause, nevertheless chide Palestinians for relying on forms of disorganized, non-state violence to counter the overwhelming onslaught of violence from Israeli authorities. A Ghandian kind of non-violence, they argue, is the better tack and invite Palestinians to get back to them when they figure out what that might be. No one expects any better from harrumphing bullshit artists like Thomas Friedman, of course; but more respected liberal beacons like Nicholas Kristof have been banging this drum for awhile now.
This concern with the putative benefits of non-violence is so overwhelming that it seems to blind such figures to real and daily non-violent movements that fit their bill. The small town of Bi’lin, for example, which, like others, has been struggling against the presence of Israel’s apartheid wall for years through various methods of non-violent civil disobedience directly modeled on the legacies of King and Gandhi, has been largely ignored in the US media narrative of Palestine. This, despite the fact that there have been at least two deaths and numerous administrative detentions involved with the actions—which is just the effect advocates of the tactic claim to rely on when they propose it.
Kristof’s Perfect Gandhi
When Kristof first proposed the idea that Palestinians need a Gandhi in May of last year, he ignored two well-known non-violence advocates that had already languished in Israeli administrative detention, without charge or term—Bi’lin activists and organizers Adeeb and Abdullah Abu Rahma. Despite the fact that such figures, who organized openly, after previous detentions, obviously fit the bill for those that buy the narrative, Bi’lin doesn’t contain the good ‘non-violence” Kristof is after. He recommends that Palestinians, unlike other groups that have practiced such strategies, deploy only women for NV actions—the men apparently being too savage to contemplate the tactic. This was not just a flight of fancy for Kristof that he would eventually reject as simplistic, racist and sexist. He repeated it again in October, as I noted in my Electronic Intifada blog at the time. Risking years of administrative detention for simple political demonstrations is not “true non-violence” to Kristof. That only involves laying oneself bare to severe physical injury without any attempt to protect one’s self.
Whether or not those such as Kristof should actually be taken seriously when they demand Gandhis for enemies—considering their high and amorphous standards—it is nevertheless instructive then to see how they behave when they are stared in the face by the perfect modern likeness they claim to be seeking. After eight previous administrative detentions, totaling six years, Palestinian political prisoner Khader Adnan was again recently detained without cause or charge. To protest this disgusting system of control—which affects thousands of Palestinians every year, but which is largely ignored by the country that helps equip the systems jailers and jails—Adnan embarked on a hunger-strike, which now enters its 64thd day. Though doctors say he is close to death—after seventy days of starvation, death is likely—Adnan still refuses food. Adnan’s act has so far been largely ignored by US mainstream media and there’s been nothing from Kristof, who seemed so eager to find Gandhi in the West Bank last year. What Adnan is doing wrong—as he replicates almost exactly the treatment, experience and actions of Gandhi’s most well known tactic of non-violent civil disobedience—is anyone’s guess.
Two Kinds of Non-Violence
The conclusions should be clear. There are two kinds of non-violence. One is an ever-changing and ethereal rhetorical construct used largely to deligitimate popular struggles. The other is a practice that involves the risk of injury, death or imprisonment. In short, almost any simple political protest of the kind that are undertaken in the West without much forethought, is a non-violent act of civil disobedience when undertaken by people under despotic military rule like the West Bank. Real—not rhetorical—non-violence, is truly threatening to the established order of things. Incredibly self-less acts like those of Adnan are its ultimate, most devastating expression. And exactly why they can never be defined as such by the world’s governments or liberal non-violence proponents.