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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.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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