I’m reading Starhawk‘s new book, The Empowerment Manual, which deals with consensus decision making. That, and a recent post by T. Thorn Colye concerning Occupy, have had me musing about how often people united by the same objective can become divided over the best means for bringing about the change they seek.
And, today, when we celebrate the life and the amazing accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m reminded, again, of the need for those of us with common objectives to learn how to deal with a diversity of views concerning methods. Lost, sometimes, in our 20/20 hindsight at what Dr. King was able to achieve through the use of non-violence is the fact that, at the time, many civil rights leaders criticized his methods as too confrontational. They worried that strikes, marches, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience would alienate sympathetic white people and give ammunition to the movement’s critics. When white clergymen criticized Dr. King as an “outside agitator,” insisting that the battle for civil rights should be fought solely in the courts — and not in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama — Dr. King, in jail for his actions, wrote the famous and eloquent Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King said:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. . . . My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. . . . Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Similarly, many of us look back with admiration at the union movement, which achieved so much for so many people. Yet the union movement was marked by the use of violence, on both sides. Suffragettes, too, were urged not to demand too much, too soon, not to behave in an “unladylike” (i.e, demanding and confrontational) manner, so as not to alienate the very men whose support they needed in order to achieve votes for women. And yet, the oftentimes violent union movement created middle classes in America and Europe and the suffragettes won women the right to vote, own property, obtain custody of their children.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about activists throwing up a “Gandhi shield” when you talk about use of force and violence. What do you mean by that?
DERRICK JENSEN: Well, that’s pretty interesting, that a lot of times if I talk about fighting back, the response by the audience is oftentimes fairly predictable, which is a lot of sort of mainstream peace and social justice activists will put up what I’ve taken to calling a Gandhi shield. And what that means is they say the names Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King again and again real fast to keep all evil thoughts at bay. And when I would do the same talk for, like, grassroots environmental activists, a lot of times they would have the same response, but they’d come up to me afterwards and say, [whispering] “Thank you so much for bringing this up.” And then when there are other groups of people and I would talk to them, the response would be entirely different. And this would be prisoners.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve worked in prisons.
DERRICK JENSEN: Yeah, I worked at Pelican Bay State Prison. I taught creative writing there for four or five years. And with gang kids, with victims in domestic violence, family farmers, these other groups, a lot of times if you talk about the possibility of fighting back, a lot times they say, “Come on, tell us something we don’t know. Let’s go, bro.” And the difference, I realized—it took me a while to realize that the difference is that for those latter groups, for the most part—oh, American Indians are definitely in that category, too—violence is not some abstract or theoretical question to be puzzled through. It’s simply part of life. And that doesn’t mean you participate; doesn’t mean you don’t participate. It just means that you deal with it. And that’s a lot different than setting up, you know, some sort of preset rules.
AMY GOODMAN: Derrick Jensen, we let people know that I was going to be interviewing you, and a lot of people wrote in questions. And a few of them asked you to talk about what they call you advocating the use of violence. You have written, quote, “What I want is for all activists to act like they are serious about their resistance and that might include assassinations.” What do you mean by that?
DERRICK JENSEN: The world is being killed. And if they were space aliens who had come down from outer space and they were systematically deforesting the planet and vacuuming the oceans and changing the climate, what would we do?
. . .
And I want to be really clear that I don’t advocate violence any more than I advocate nonviolence. What I advocate is looking at the circumstances and deciding what would be the appropriate action, both personally and socially. And we can look at this in World War II. A great example is that the—you know, the Danish resistance in World War II, we’re all aware of how when the Jews had to put the stars on, the king put the first star on. That’s great, but that’s because Hitler declared Denmark a model protectorate. And if somebody in Poland would have tried that, it’s like, “Great, you can join them on the cattle car.” It wouldn’t have-the tactic wouldn’t have worked. And so, I think it’s really important, once again, to ask ourselves what we want and then to ask ourselves how we’re going to get there.
On so emotional a topic, how do activists, united by common objectives, accommodate diversity concerning methods? I think Jensen has part of the answer (it won’t surprise my readers to learn that the answer that I like goes beyond the lie of either-or), and his answer revolves around our responsibility to each other as activitsts:
We need it all. We need people to take out dams and we need people to knock out electrical infrastructures. We need people to protest and to chain themselves to trees. We also need people working to ensure that as many people as possible are equipped to deal with the fallout when the collapse comes. We need people working to teach others what wild plants to eat, what plants are natural antibiotics. We need people teaching others how to purify water, how to build shelters. All of this can look like supporting traditional, local knowledge, it can look like starting rooftop gardens, it can look like planting local varieties of medicinal herbs, and it can look like teaching people how to sing.
The truth is that although I do not believe that designing groovy eco-villages will help bring down civilization, when the crash comes, I’m sure to be first in line knocking on their doors asking for food.
People taking out dams do not have a responsibility to ensure that people in homes previously powered by hydro know how to cook over a fire. They do however have a responsibility to support the people doing that work.
Similarly, those people growing medicinal plants (in preparation for the end of civilization) do not have a responsibility to take out dams. They do however have a responsibility at the very least to not condemn those people who have chosen that work. In fact they have a responsibility to support them. They especially have a responsibility to not report them to the cops.
It’s the same old story: the good thing about everything being so fucked up is that no matter where you look, there is great work to be done. Do what you love. Do what you can. Do what best serves your landbase. We need it all.
My own view is that, having soaked in patriarchy (which is premised on the use of violence to achieve power-over, rather than power-with) even inside our mothers’ wombs, we need to very seriously question use of any means other than non-violence. Having been reared on violence and still living in a world where non-violent resistance seems the unusual choice (indeed, we frame it by reference to what it is not; we’ll have won a big victory when violence is framed by reference to what it is not), we need to look deeply to be certain that using violence won’t simply perpetrate the foundation of the system we want to change. We need to be certain that, by using violence, we aren’t allowing patriarchy to occupy us from inside our own souls, spreading like a virus from the host of the over-culture to the host of the new community we seek to create. We need to be certain that the short-term gain is worth the long-term loss when we use methods that give rise to the conditions we want to eliminate. We need to be sure that we’ve put ourselves through the same sort of cleansing process that Dr. King described in Letter from Birmingham Jail:
We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
What questions should we have to repeatedly ask ourselves before using violence?
And, yet, I reject the automatic use of a Ghandi Shield. I reject misuse of Audre Lord‘s statement that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
The essay has nothing to do with pacifism, but with the exclusion of marginalized voices from discourse ostensibly having to do with social change. If any of these pacifists had read her essay, they would undoubtedly have been horrified, because she is, reasonably enough, suggesting a multivaried approach to the multi-various problems we face. She says, “As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” We can say the same for unarmed versus armed resistance, that activists have been taught to view our differences as causes for separation and suspicion, rather than as forces for change. That’s a fatal error. She continues, “Survival is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Today is one of the few days when America stops to honor a practitioner of non-violence. We have too many days devoted to practitioners of violence. Today is one of the few days when America stops to honor an activist who was willing to accept and respond thoughtfully, after having done the important work of self-purification, to criticism from those who shared his goals, but condemned his methods. We need more such activists.
Blessed be the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. What is remembered does not die.