Illustration of self-defense, from James E. Homans’ 1908 New American Encyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information.
We have a moral right to defend ourselves against violation; there’s no doubt in my mind about that. Persons and groups have boundaries for a reason, and integrity generally requires that we defend them. Gandhi said that this is an obligation that trumped his call to experiment with nonviolent action; if you can’t think of a way to defend yourself nonviolently, he said, use violence. I believe Gandhi would have sympathized with the Deacons for Defense, for instance, an armed civil rights group in Southern U.S.
Of course Gandhi also believed that, with sufficient creativity, there is always a way to devise a nonviolent defense. He also recognized that either violent or nonviolent defense might fail in an immediate sense; there is such a thing as overwhelming force.
I think it’s no accident that the question of self-defense has been coming up in some circles in the Occupy movement at this time. Having the discussion reflects how many people are realizing that moving the 1 percent out of the driver’s seat is a revolutionary mission. The person who doesn’t feel fear at the prospect of revolution is out of touch with their feelings. It’s only natural at such a moment to wonder if there is some way to act boldly — and at the same time stay safe.
The reality is that there is no way to guarantee safety. What we can do is to increase the chances of survival for our comrades and ourselves while building a movement that can win. Activists have for at least a century been creating methods for consciously increasing the chances for survival. Some of these methods are similar in both violent and nonviolent strategic struggle. Everyone can learn from them.
It helps first of all to accept our primal human programming: When deeply threatened, we’re driven to fight or flight. There are pacifists who want to avoid this choice, and they with others have invented the field of conflict resolution; many useful things have come out of that world. Nevertheless, when the troops or thugs are sent to kick your butt, the choices are fight or flight.
While both military commanders and nonviolent organizers believe there is such a thing as strategic retreat, participants in both kinds of struggle are trained to fight, not run away. Running away usually means the loss of the battle and a weakening of one’s forces, whether violent or nonviolent. Even though the point of running is to try to be safe, flight often increases the number of casualties for our side.
I remember Andrew Young, a key organizer working with Martin Luther King Jr. telling a group of us in the North that we were probably misreading the frequent tactic in the Southern civil rights movement of bringing a group of people to the point of violent confrontation and then having them get on their knees and pray. “You probably thought we were praying for divine intervention,” Andy smiled, “and we were, but we also knew that if those people facing the guns and dogs broke and run, more of them would get hurt! And we’d lose that battle.”
“The thing about praying is,” he said as his smile broadened, “you can’t run on your knees!”
Fight or flight. How many soldiers in combat have heard a loud voice inside them urging them to run away from a situation where they are likely to get hurt or killed? The same is true at hard moments in nonviolent movements, probably in an equal percentage of heads. Unless a strategic retreat is sensible, which means of course an organized retreat, the smart choice is to stay and fight.
I saw how unsafe the flight response can be during the first campaign in which I was arrested, a civil rights struggle in which the state police were called in to back up the local police. As the Chester, Pa., freedom struggle of 1963 escalated, more people joined who had no idea what their black sisters and brothers had learned in the South. Sometimes the Chester people met ugly police charges with courage and stood their ground, out of sheer grit. But sometimes they broke and ran, and the police went crazy, sometimes chasing them upstairs and into their apartments to beat them mercilessly with their nightsticks and guns.
A few years later I saw the largely white demonstrators in the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party convention make the same mistake. In my experience white activists are even less likely to learn from the actual experience of the civil rights movement than black activists, so I wasn’t at all surprised when the demonstrators broke and ran from scary police charges. As in Chester, but on national television, the police chased the demonstrators, even to the point of soaking carpets with blood in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. The convention demonstrations were largely a strategic loss for the movement, as almost all convention mass confrontations have been, but at least thanks to television coverage the police behavior was roundly criticized as well.
The history of flight is not a pretty one, so let’s go on to the “fight” option. We can choose one of the most dangerous nonviolent campaigns in U.S. history, the 1961 entry of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee into Mississippi, the hardest of the hardcore segregationist states of the South. Mississippi was ruled by the White Citizens Councils and, more brutally, that long-lived American terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
For readers who take seriously the question of self defense, I recommend the Danny Glover film Freedom Song, which pulls no punches as it shows what young people experienced in those early days. The staff members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) knew they would get no protection from local law enforcement; men who were police in the day could at night be wearing the white sheets of the KKK. State police were hostile. The FBI was hostile, and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department was mostly trying to look the other way. SNCC was on its own.
The film shows SNCC workers leading training workshops for young students. At one point the trainers harassed a young man in a role-play to toughen him up. When the student lost control and attacked the harasser, the trainers held him and tried to reassure him. The young man said something like, “I can’t do this. I gotta fight back.”
The reply came quickly: “By joining us, you are fighting back.”
SNCC’s lesson in 1961 was that safety and effectiveness came from fighting back with nonviolent methods. A second big lesson for the young man came a couple of weeks later. He asks the biggest and most muscled SNCC organizer whether he has adopted nonviolence as a way of life. The organizer explains that if someone threatened him at another time he’d beat up the assailant, but he’s adopted nonviolent action as a strategy, in order to win the struggle.
This stance was typical of people I met throughout the civil rights movement; most weren’t pacifists but learned that in highly dangerous situations, nonviolent discipline gave them the best chance to stay safe — and to win.
SNCC workers said that nonviolence didn’t remove the danger – protesters would still get hurt, and some might be killed. SNCC’s first chairman, and now a member of Congress, John Lewis, was beaten dozens of times, and very narrowly escaped death. He and others in SNCC said the stakes were too high to expect racist privilege to give up easily. But the nonviolent discipline removed the pretext justifying long-term and widespread repression. In fact, the repression most often worked against the perpetrators, just as in jiu-jitsu the savvy warrior uses the violence of the opponent against him. Typically, when white racists used violence against the movement, it grew, and allies appeared, and the racists started dividing among themselves, and the campaign won in one more town.
The best-known leader of the armed Deacons for Defense, Charles Sims, was quoted in The New York Times as favoring nonviolent direct action as the best way to gain civil rights. The Deacons could be found without their guns inside demonstrations. At the same time, Sims believed that nonviolent demonstrators should be protected by guardians carrying guns, accompanying protests to deter the KKK and others, and the Deacons did exactly that.
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