This evening while I was cooking dinner I listened to Amy Goodman tell me the day's news. After the headlines and the day's first story, Danny Glover came on to talk about a new film being shown at Sundance. The actor is not the star this time, and instead is the co-producer of "The Black Power Mix-Tape," which features incredibly rare footage of people like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis. Discovered in the basement of a Swedish public television station, this 35-40 year old footage captured these and other giants of the black power movement as they first began to articulate their position.
Now I've always been a strong proponent of nonviolence. I've never called myself a pacifist, and instead preferred the pragmatism of nonviolent struggle as espoused by Gandhi, who was so willing to suffer publically, and so committed to the integrity of his cause as to virtually assure cannonization. There's a certain romanticism in that story that I've always held onto tightly, even despite pangs of uncertainty. But whether I've wanted to defend the theory and practice of Gandhi's ahimsa or satyagraha against someone who doubted its relevance, or dismissed peace movements that have employed tactics without conviction, those pangs have continued throughout my own years of study and activism.
So when I listened to Stokely Carmichael talk about the passivity of a boycott, and then listened to Angela Davis talk with incredulity about her position on violence after growing up scared every day of bullets and bombs, something changed just a little bit in my mind, like the fog defrosting away from a windshield. It's not so much the nonviolence that has grabbed my heart, but the struggle against injustice. It's the fact that people are willing to suffer more in hopes of ending their suffering that pulls me in. And while it's easy for me, sitting here safe and warm, to say that I'd prefer that the means and ends of creating peace and justice should match, there are moments now when I wonder if that really even matters.
In shifting my focus this year from human needs to human rights, and from personal or even community growth to advocacy and policy change, I've grappled with questions about means and ends in ways that I could not fathom before. Yes, I'm still convinced that violent revolution or armed struggle are doomed to recreate the same injustices they seek to replace. But I wonder now if violence might not have some constructive power, at least in the sense that it so often and so starkly lays bear the incredible imbalances and injustices of our world. At the very least, picking up a gun is a symbolic means of claiming power. So is stealing, so is ignoring a teacher in a crowded classroom, so is shooting chemicals into your own arm. My Palestinian friend in grad school said to me once, "Yes, you can have your nonviolence here, but where is it when a Blackhawk helicopter aims its guns to raze your village? Tell me about your nonviolence then." Right.
But when those who are being fired upon, or left out, or left behind, starved, under-educated, under-housed, under-cared for, and forgotten decide to pick up a weapon and fire back, or fire at all, that means something, right? It should tell the rest of us, who were surely ignorant before, that there is something wrong with this picture. It should enlighten us, should wake us up, should inspire us to look through new eyes at our own situation.
Of course, it doesn't. Instead we repress that violent injustice without critical eye to our own, and continue the ways of being that exclude, that ignore, that cast away. My words are not some new epiphany. Maybe, if I'm lucky, just a new set of sentences that explain a basic truth about the way we've constructed our world, that existence is suffering.
Don't take me now as hopeless. Sure, the struggle might be in vain, and those who fight against oppression (like terrorism, capitalism, or any other such idea) are doomed to fail. But I have to say, there's something of value in that failure. In education, in advocacy, in even thinking about social change, I don't worry that we'll always come up short. Instead, right now, I hope that we always do, that we always have an eye toward reducing suffering, toward making things better and better.