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The Time For Nonviolence Has Come

Anyone who has seen Bowling for Columbine will recall the scene when Michael Moore is interviewing James Nichols, whose younger brother is in prison as an accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. As Nichols raves on about the need to overthrow the government with force, Moore suddenly interjects, “What about Gandhi?” Stunned to silence, Nichols hears Moore say, “He threw out the British without firing a shot.” After a long pause, Nichols quietly answers, “I'm not familiar with that.” When I saw Bowling for Columbine in Berkeley, the whole audience gasped.

When I am asked, as I often am, “Can non-violence possibly work in times like these?” my answer is, “Can anything else?”

It is not that I am unaware of the problem. I know what right-wing radio talk-show hosts are doing to the minds of millions of people, how corporate forces are dehumanizing an entire civilization—and how this dehumanization is making itself felt in the streets of Baghdad and Gaza. Nor am I making a prediction; I have no idea how things will turn out. But I am optimistic about what could be, because I am aware of the yet-to-be-unleashed power in the human individual—the power of nonviolence—and because I am aware of how that power has been growing.

Jonathan Schell recently wrote that, despite a lot of noise to the contrary, the latter half of the 20th century saw brute force become increasingly futile and the power of the human will correspondingly more significant. This seems to me entirely correct. Despite, or in part because of, the appalling rise of violence, we are now experiencing the third wave of global nonviolence to uplift the modern world.

The first wave consisted of the struggles of Mahatma Gandhi, whose movement brought down a corrupt and outmoded imperial system, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose struggle uprooted an equally outmoded ideology of racialism.

The second wave was a rash of insurrectionary movements around the world, among them the defeat of dictator Pinochet in Chile, the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines, and the first Palestinian ‘intifada' (shaking-off), which, while the follow-up has been thwarted, did lead to the Oslo peace accords. Various other ‘intifadas' shrugged the Soviet mantle off Eastern Europe. While not all of these uprisings were nonviolent, many were, including in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, whose 1968 “Prague Spring” uprising thwarted a Warsaw Pact repression for eight glorious months; the country later freed itself in a “Velvet Revolution.”

There were similarly popular and nonviolent uprisings elsewhere, along with less ambitious movements: The peasant-led struggle around Larzac, France, in the 1970s, thwarted government plans to enlarge an army base at the expense of grazing and farmland; European anti-nuclearism made the Green Party a force to reckon with, at least in Germany; and the Landless Rural Worker's Movement has provided over a million Brazilians with land and new forms of self-sustaining community.

In all these varied movements, oppressed people discovered they could organize resistance against a seemingly invincible regime, delegitimate it in the eyes of the public, and precipitate its downfall. While some of these movements were violent—sometimes brutally so—as Schell said, the key to their victories against overwhelming military force was the commitment of a community's will. A discovery had been made: physical force could be overpowered by will.

At the same time, will needs intelligence and strategy. Some of these movements began developing an art whose importance cannot be overstated: nonviolence training. As Gandhi said, the training for a satyagrahi, or nonviolent activist, has to be more rigorous than the training for a conventional soldier. Civil Rights activists in the 1960s used “hassle lines” and role playing to evoke and then control the anger and fear they would face on the marches, picket lines and sit-ins. Like soldiers learning to stay cool in combat by having guns trained on them, nonviolence trainees learn to stay cool while emotions are trained on them, and how to avoid triggering one's opponents' rage. Groups like Global Exchange and the Ruckus Society began to use this training in preparation for the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999, and harnessed the loose-knit, democratic “affinity group” structure, which first arose, appropriately, in the early struggles against fascism in Spain and was developed further in U.S. anti-nuclear campaigns.

We are now in the third wave of nonviolence, consisting of the world-wide movement against corporate globalization and, of course, the global anti-war movement that has sprung up with astonishing speed and effectiveness to meet the equally astonishing new arrogance of the U.S. government.

What marks this third wave is that it is self-consciously global and, while the movement may not yet have fully articulated a positive vision, the millions who turned out to oppose war were aware that they possessed a different kind of force from that of the world's military powers. This dawning awareness that there is another kind of force strengthens the tendency to nonviolence. That will become clearer, I think, as both the militarism and the resistance wear on, confronting the world with a stark choice.

Violence undermines itself
When necessary, this is just what nonviolence does: It forces violence into the open, causing violent regimes to undergo the “paradox of repression,” increasing the naked force they must exert to maintain control until it is unacceptable—to the oppressed, to the community that must maintain the force, and to the watching world. The crushing to death of Rachel Corrie by an American-made bulldozer in Gaza last March might be forgotten in the focus on Iraq, but now two others from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Brian Avery and Tom Hurndall, have been shot. The very violence of the militarism that caused these crimes, especially in a time of global communications, will prove its undoing.

The power of nonviolence is insistently surfacing now, even where resistance movements seem to have lost sight of it. An image comes to mind from recent protests in San Francisco: tension was building along a street where a sprinkling of “black bloc” demonstrators were taunting the police, much to the dismay of the majority of protesters. At first no one noticed a Buddhist monk standing at the back of the crowd, but he slowly made his way forward (despite his own considerable fear, I learned later) and stood, a dramatic figure in yellow robes and shaved head, before each policeman in turn, smiling at him or her and bowing with folded hands. Even before he reached the Asian officer who involuntarily greeted him in turn, the tension had melted.

At the heart of nonviolent action is the power of the individual, a model for revolution expressed in Mother Teresa's Bengali formula, ek ek ek (‘one by one by one'). Yet I have just been describing the growth of institutions of nonviolence. What has been discovered is that organizations can be designed to draw forth the energy and creativity of the individual, rather than suppress them as cogs in the corporate machine. This is democracy in the deepest sense.

Among the structures that are building on the power of each individual is the Nonviolent Peaceforce (which I reported on in YES! Fall 2002), which plans an international army of nonviolence.

The ISM, too, even as some of its members have died, has been demonstrating the power of moral courage and clear vision. Jennifer Kuiper, who was in Palestine with the ISM when the recent killings of internationals occurred, said, “We aren't simply fighting against violence but for an alternative vision of the world. A world that rejects weapons in favor of intellect and heart. If we can't imagine it, how can we create it? If we don't create it, how will we transform our dreams into substance? If not us, then whom?”

In a Native American story that has become current of late, a grandfather tells his grandson that two wolves are battling inside him; one ferocious and destructive, the other gentle and powerful. When the child anxiously asks, “Grandfather, which of them will win?” he replies, “Whichever one I feed.”

Gandhi and King's movements roused the hidden power of the downtrodden, leading to a wave of insurrections against specific regimes. Over time, awareness of this power has percolated through the globe, spreading exponentially faster as communications grew, until now we have reached a global awareness of nonviolence and of the interconnectedness of global problems that I'm calling the third wave. It presents us with a hope and a challenge. If the first two waves showed that communities united in will could overcome brute force, the third wave shows a tantalizing vision of what the whole world community, united in will, could achieve.

As Robert Muller has said, there is not one superpower in the world today, but two: the militarized United States on the one hand, and the millions of ordinary people, including many Americans, who yearn to devote their energies to a humane future. Which will win? Militarism, with its thinly disguised imperial agenda, or the awakening power of human will and consciousness? Fear or love? If we feed the new awareness of nonviolent action, with its spiritual dimension, its focus on empowering individuals, its grassroots forms of organizing, and the knowledge that each of us possesses what Gandhi called “the greatest force humankind has been endowed with,” there is no question that it will be love.


Michael Nagler is professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of its Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the author of Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which won a 2002 American Book Award.

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