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Making Nonviolence Work

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by Starhawk

An ecological understanding of violence sees it as a pattern of relationships that underlies all systems of domination and control. Such systems are characterized by:
–the concentration of resources and the fruits of labor to benefit the few.
–top-down decision making. Bosses who give orders and issue directives that others must obey.

Violence underlies these systems. Violence is :
–the capacity to inflict physical pain, harm or death.
–the capacity to punish by restricting freedom and limiting choices.
–the capacity to withhold vital resources or rewards.
–the capacity to inflict emotional and psychological damage and to shame and humiliate.

Systems of domination, no matter how powerful they seem, are unstable. They are inherently unsustainable, because to be sustainable any system or organism must be based on balanced, cycling flows of energy and resources.

The system maintains itself by:
The actual use of force and violence. The use of force, however, is costly. No system of domination can afford to use force to control every aspect of its functioning.
The willingness of enforcers to inflict violence. No gun shoots itself: a human hand pulls the trigger, a human mind makes the choice to do so.
Fear: the system is maintained not because it actually uses force, but because we fear its capacity to do so.
Hope: we accept the system and comply with its demands not because we necessarily benefit from it, but because we hope to do so. We might win the lottery, or become the CEO of a dotcom, or the star of a sitcom. Such hopes keep us embedded in the system.
Limiting imagination: making us believe we have no choice but to comply. Restricting our thinking to their categories.

A strategy of nonviolent direct action seeks to destabilize the systems of control by undermining the mechanisms that maintain it:

Radical imagination: refusing to accept the dominators’ picture of the world. Thinking outside the lines. Daring to dream what has never been before, to think the unthinkable, and then to create it.
Hope: replacing the false hope the system offers with a vision of a free, just and abundant world. Embodying that vision in how we organize, how we treat each other, in the symbols we choose and the actions we take. Marshalling the skills, tools and resources to make that vision real, and making it so desirable, so inspiring, so sexy, that the pale hopes the system offers cannot compare.
When people become hopeless about improving their condition, they are no longer invested in the status quo and can be moved to take action against it. When the system goes too far, it sows the seeds of its own collapse.
Courage: The more we can move beyond fear, the less control the system has over us. Courage can be found through individual faith: not necessarily in a God or religious tradition, but faith in human capacities for change or in nature’s infinite creativity. As well, there are many psychological techniques and personal disciplines that can help us learn to manage fear.
Conscious choice and responsibility: Knowing that we do have choices in any situation. Being willing to accept the consequences of those choices.
Solidarity: When we support each other in actions and tense situations, when we act together to protect the most vulnerable among us, when we can face the potential violence of the system in community instead of alone, we undermine fear.
Raising the costs: When we cease complying out of fear, we force the system to actually enforce its decrees. This is costly in terms of money, materials, and the undermining of public support. We force the system to reveal the underlying violence that supports it.
Undermining compliance: the police, the army, the prison guards are not generally of the class that actually benefits from the current economic and political system. When their willingness to serve as enforcers is undermined, the system falls.

To do this, and survive, we need to restrain the potential violence of the system, which has the potential to simply eliminate anyone who opposes it. The absolute violence of the system is restrained by a subtle web of forces both individual and social. The more we understand how those forces function to tighten or loosen that web, the more room to maneuver we can secure for our actions. Nonviolence as a tactic is sometimes criticized for being self-sacrificial, for relinquishing the right to self defense against the state. But all forms of political struggle require some sacrifice. Strategic nonviolence, correctly understood, can be our most powerful form of self defense..

Violence is unleashed by:
Dehumanization: seeing the opponent as a category rather than a full human being. This is how racism, sexism, homophobia, classism etc. maintain systems of domination. People of color, punks, anarchists in dreadlocks, visibly poor people, all who fit a stereotype of prejudice are at greater physical and legal risk in an action.
Perception of threat: When we feel we are being attacked, we are more likely to strike first. A global strategy to counter our movement has been to portray us as threatening terrorists, and the police as ‘saviors’ of the people.
Drugs or alcohol that loosen inhibitions.
Lack of witnesses.
Lack of potential repercussions.
Approval by the authorities.
Approval of figures of respect: teachers, church leaders, etc.
Group pressure: Men who alone would never molest a woman can be pressured into joining a gang rape. Once a group consciousness sees brutality or atrocity as acceptable, it becomes easier for individuals to participate and harder to resist.
Perception of legitimacy by the public.

Violence is restrained by:
Human empathy and reluctance to kill or harm. (And yes, this applies even to the police, although obviously not universally. But many studies have shown that even in wartime, the average soldier must be specifically trained to overcome inhibitions against killing.)
Fear of repercussions, personal, political and legal.
Visibility and the presence of witnesses and/or media. We often see the police using restraint on the street during the action, and then brutalizing and intimidating prisoners in jail.
Public opinion and fear of censure.
Law, and the structures of accountability that are built into the system.

A campaign of nonviolent direct action begins its self defense long before hitting the streets, by seeking to tighten that web of restraint, through any or all of the following:
Outreach and education so that the public understands the goals and tactics of our action, and to counter dehumanization.
Making alliances and building coalitions with groups that can increase public pressure and potential political repercussions for the authorities.
Holding public officials accountable for past acts of violence.
Planning for group solidarity and strategizing how to protect those at greatest risk.
Passing laws that restrain the violence of the authorities; opposing laws that unleash it.

In the moment of confrontation, nonviolent self defense means we:
Know what our intention is for the action: literally stopping a meeting? Building alliances? Drawing attention to an issue? The specific choices we make will depend on our intention.
Convey that intention clearly to the group as best we can, so that everyone understands the reasons behind the choices we may make.
Oppose the power of violence with the power of our radical imagination.
Remember that every act we take is a choice, and that we have choices in any situation.
Seek to undermine dehumanization, by not ourselves dehumanizing our opponents, for when we do we simply reinforce the mindset and energetic patterns that encourage violence.
Remain human ourselves, staying calm, centered, and not giving way to fear.
Act in unexpected ways, not doing the dance of violence and intimidation, but writing our own steps and music.
Bring art, music, drums, seeds, masks, puppets and magic into confrontation to embody our vision and hope.
Seek to broaden the awareness of our opponents that they are also making choices, that their behavior is not predetermined.
Use humor and surprise.
Know what may escalate the tension in a situation, and what may de-escalate it, and make a conscious choice about which to do.
Act to strengthen our group solidarity and support.
Ask these questions before we take any extreme act:
Does this further our intention?
What base of support do we have for taking this action? What support do we risk losing? Why is this act worth risking that support?
Did we agree to this act? If not, what will it do to our community solidarity?
Will this act loosen the web of restraint? Can we afford to do so at this moment? Who is most at risk, if we do, and have they agreed to accept that risk?
Does this act embody our hope and vision?
Do I know and trust the person urging me to take this action?
Does this action embody the world we’re fighting for?