FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Makes a Protest Violent?

by RON JACOBS

In September 1981 I was arrested at an antinuclear protest in San Luis Obispo, California. The protest was organized by the Abalone Alliance, a group of liberals, radicals, environmentalists, and assorted countercultural types to oppose the construction of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Before the action where I was arrested, every protester was required to participate in a three-hour non-violence training session. The training consisted of roleplaying various scenarios and learning nonviolent responses to those scenarios. As far as I was concerned at the time, the organizers were too afraid of confrontation and were confusing violence with almost any form of physical resistance. Their pacifism bordered on the pathological. I had been on the streets for a couple years by this time and my interactions with police, especially those who had their nightsticks drawn, was that they were going to beat me no matter what. But, since I wanted to take part in the protest, I agreed to go along with the role that had been scripted for us protesters. Still, our affinity group had a plan B.

The morning of our action, our affinity group joined at least a thousand other people on the road leading into the main gate of the power plant site. There were numerous protest marshals telling us where we were supposed to stand. In addition, there were hundreds of police garbed in the 1980s version of storm trooper ware. Our affinity group decided that we were going with plan B. This involved ignoring the boundaries given us by the marshals and the police, laying our boards with nails in them point up across the road, and refusing to leave the road when ordered by the police. When the police moved in formation toward us we refused to leave the road or sit down and go meekly into the waiting Army trucks waiting for the arrestees. In fact, we pushed back. Once we began resisting physically, the marshals came from behind and attempted to pull us toward the trucks. The cops started hitting us with their sticks and eventually were able to pick us up, put plastic cuffs on our wrists and throw us in back of the truck, where we were subjected to scolding from some of our fellow protesters who had followed the script.

After being taken to the detention center set up by authorities to handle the arrestees, we were processed and shown the mattress pads we would be sleeping. We were not put in cells and were allowed to wander the facility as long as we did so where we were permitted. Conversations were taking place among different groups of detainees. I joined one led more or less by Reverend Cecil Williams of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. Rev. Williams was a longtime social justice activist and a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Needless to say, he was firmly committed to King’s approach to nonviolence. During the course of the conversation, which centered around the wars of liberation then taking place in Central America and the victory of the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, one young man insisted that the Sandinistas were wrong for their use of violence. Rev. Williams proceeded to challenge this train of thought – without scorn or pedantry.

Just because nonviolence was our preferred method of resistance, asked Williams, were other forms of resistance invalid? On another point, he continued, did it even make sense for the Nicaraguan people to try and adhere to nonviolence after the violence that had been visited on them by the Somoza regime over decades of history? Was this assumption that nonviolence was the only path to social change and that those movements that utilized other means were less pure just another form of cultural imperialism? What about the Black Panther Party in the United States? Was its strategy of armed self-defense wrong? Could social justice activists in the United States who were committed to non-violence support the Sandinistas and similar armed movements in other countries? Or was such support a betrayal of their commitment?

Seventeen years later, my book The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground was published. During the writing of this book, I was presented with these and other questions once again. After the book’s publication, I received a number of emails, phone calls and letters regarding its subject. Most of the responses challenged my take on Weather, which was critical but not dismissive or mere finger-pointing. Many, including some former Weather Underground Organization (WUO) members, blamed Weather for the demise of the New Left. Others, usually younger and part of the anarchist milieu then making noise in the Pacific Northwest, championed the WUO as the only true white revolutionaries in the New Left. A few folks even told me that by writing the book I too had the blood that (they believed) the WUO had shed on my hands.

Almost two years to the date of the book’s publication, the massive protests and direct action against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, Washington took place. Despite the fact the most of the violence (of any kind) was committed by the authorities against protesters and civilians, the capitalist media focused on the window smashing and looting that began when a group of Pacific Northwest anarchists began to break the windows of shops owned by various corporate giants. Some on the Left joined in the attacks. Once again, the issue of political violence was a source of divisive debate on the Left. The arguments for and against were essentially the same, except that this time around those that considered any type of confrontation to be violence were met with determined arguments legitimizing direct action that was confrontational. Still, property destruction, even when targeted against corporations profiting from violence against their workers was verboten.

Then came the events known as 9-11. The destruction and mass murder that took place on that day made it easy for those opposed to political violence not committed by the State to label anyone who supported such violence as terrorists. Besides opening such folks up to the increased surveillance and legal actions that came with the label, this made it easier for the State to define what connoted violence. Naturally, anything the State and those connected to it did, from pepper spraying protesters to bombing whole countries and sending killer drones into other nations, was justifiable. Naturally, too, this meant that anything protesters did except to follow orders and protest when, where and how they were instructed to do so by the State, was considered violence.

The conversation has changed but the essential reality remains: the State and its enforcers (public and private) determine what acceptable violence is and what isn’t. This determination is not arrived at according to the nature or degree of the violent acts; it is arrived at according to who is perpetrating said act.

As for me, my guideline is similar to what Daniel Berrigan advised the Weather Underground four decades ago. “Do only that,” wrote Berrigan. “Which you cannot not do.”

This originally appeared in the Autumn 2013 installment of State of Nature.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
May 26, 2016
Paul Craig Roberts
The Looting Stage of Capitalism: Germany’s Assault on the IMF
Pepe Escobar
Hillary Clinton: A Major Gold-Digging Liability
Sam Pizzigati
America’s Cosmic Tax Gap
Ramzy Baroud
Time to End the ‘Hasbara’: Palestinian Media and the Search for a Common Story
José L. Flores
Wall Street’s New Man in Brazil: The Forces Behind Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment
Patrick Cockburn
The Battle of Fallujah: ISIS Unleashes Its Death Squads
John Feffer
The Coming Drone Blowback
Alex Ray
The Death Toll in Syria: What Do the Numbers Really Say?
Richard Pithouse
We Shall be the Prey and the Vulture
Binoy Kampmark
Trump and the Polls of Loathing
Manuel E. Yepe
A Cruise Ship Without Tourists Arrives in Havana
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt Negotiations: Will the IMF Exit the Troika?
Ajamu Nangwaya
Pan-Africanism, Feminism and Finding Missing Pan-Africanist Women
Howard Lisnoff
Israel, a Palestinian State and Anti-Semitism
May 25, 2016
Eric Draitser
Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
Does Venezuela’s Crisis Prove Socialism Doesn’t Work?
Dan Arel
The Socialist Revolution Beyond Sanders and the Democratic Party
Marc Estrin
Cocky-Doody Politics and World Affairs
Sam Husseini
Layers of Islamophobia: Do Liberals Care That Hillary Returned “Muslim Money”?
Susan Babbitt
Invisible in Life, Invisible in Death: How Information Becomes Useless
Mel Gurtov
Hillary’s Cowgirl Diplomacy?
Kathy Kelly
Hammering for Peace
Dick Reavis
The Impeachment of Donald Trump
Wahid Azal
Behind the Politics of a Current Brouhaha in Iran: an Ex-President Ayatollah’s Daughter and the Baha’is
Jesse Jackson
Obama Must Recommit to Eliminating Nuclear Arms
Colin Todhunter
From the Green Revolution to GMOs: Living in the Shadow of Global Agribusiness
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey as Terror: the Role of Ankara in the Brexit Referendum
Dave Lindorff
72-Year-Old Fringe Left Candidate Wins Presidency in Austrian Run-Off Election
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail