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Building New “Nonviolent Cities”

Last year, I was invited to give a talk on peace in Carbondale, Illinois. I was surprised to discover that in recent years, activists from across Carbondale had come together with a broad vision of what their community could one day become—a nonviolent city. They wanted a new holistic approach to their work, with a positive vision for the future, so that over time their community would be transformed into a culture of nonviolence.

They created a coalition, a movement, and a city-wide week of action and called it, “Nonviolent Carbondale.” They set up a new website, www.nonviolentcarbondale.org, established a steering committee, set up monthly meetings, and launched “Nonviolent Carbondale” as a positive way to promote peace and justice locally. In doing so, they gave everyone in Carbondale a new vision of what their community could become.

From the start, the Carbondale activists held their local organizing meetings occasionally before city council meetings, which they then attended together as a group. At city council meetings, they started suggesting and lobbying ways their city could become more nonviolent. Their movement eventually became based out of the main Carbondale Library. Over the years, they have done positive work with their police department, local schools and the school system, religious communities, the library system, and local non-profits. As grassroots activists, they have lifted up a positive vision of their community and brought it into the mainstream.

Over the years, they put their energies into their “11 Days” program – 11 days in March filled with scores of actions and events for all ages across the city. Twice their 11 days focused on peace; twice on compassion, and last year the focus was on food. One of the outcomes from last year’s 11 Days, for example, was a new organic food market started in the poorest neighborhood in town.

“Nonviolent Carbondale” offers a model for activists, movements, and cities across the country. With their example in mind, the group I work with, Campaign Nonviolence, [www.campaignnonviolence.org] is launching the “Nonviolent Cities” project using “Nonviolent Carbondale” as an organizing model for other cities.

Taking the lead from friends and activists in Carbondale, Campaign Nonviolence invites citizens across the U.S. to organize a similar grassroots movement in their city, to put the word “nonviolent” in front of their city, and to help others envision, organize and work for a nonviolent local community. As far as we can tell, this organizing tool has never been formally tried anywhere in the U.S., except in Carbondale. This movement is a new next step in the visionary, organizing nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Perhaps the key aspect of “Nonviolent Cities” is that each city will be summoned to address its violence in all its aspects, structures, and systems; to connect the dots between its violence; and to pursue a more holistic, creative, city-wide nonviolence, where everyone together is trying to practice nonviolence, promote nonviolence, teach nonviolence and institutionalize nonviolence on the local level, to really build a new nonviolent community for itself and others. We want not just to undermine the local and regional culture of violence, and end all the killings, but to transform it into a culture of nonviolence.

This means that “Nonviolent Cities” organizers would promote the vision, teach nonviolence, and inspire people at every level in their community to work together for a new nonviolent community and a new nonviolent future. That would include everyone from the mayor and city council members to the police chief and police officers, to all religious and civic leaders, to all educators and healthcare workers, to housing authorities, to news reporters and local media; to youth and grassroots activists, to the poor and marginalized, children and the elderly. Together, they would address all the issues of violence and pursue all the angles and possibilities of nonviolence for their city’s transformation into a more nonviolent community. The first goal would be a rapid reduction in violence and an end to killing.

Nonviolent cities would work to end racism, poverty, homelessness, and violence at every level and in every form; dismantle housing segregation and pursue racial, social and economic integration; end police violence and institutionalize police nonviolence; organize to end domestic violence and teach nonviolence between spouses, and nonviolence toward all children; work to end gang violence and teach nonviolence to gang members; teach nonviolence in every school; pursue more nonviolent immigration programs and policies; get religious leaders and communities to promote nonviolence and the vision of a new nonviolent city; reform local jails and prisons so they are more nonviolent and educate guards and prisoners in nonviolence; move from retributive to restorative justice in the entire criminal justice system; address local environmental destruction, climate change, and environmental racism, pursue clean water, solar and wind power, and a 100 percent green community; and in general, do everything possible to help their local community become more disarmed, more reconciled, more just, more welcoming, more inclusive, and more nonviolent.

If Carbondale, Illinois can seek to become a nonviolent city, any city can seek to become a nonviolent city. This is an idea whose time has come. This is an organizing strategy that should be tried around the nation and the world. The only way it can happen is through bottom-up, grassroots organizing, that reaches out to include everyone in the community, and eventually becomes widely accepted, even by the government, media, and police.

Two international groups pursue a similar vision–International Cities for Peace (www.internationalcitiesforpeace.org) and Mayors for Peace (www.mayorsforpeace.org, which has 6965 cities committed in 161 countries)—but, as far as I can tell, no U.S. group has ever attempted to invite local communities to pursue a vision of holistic city-wide nonviolence or organize a grassroots movements of nonviolent cities.

On our website, www.campaignnonviolence.org, we have posted “Ten Steps Toward a Nonviolent City,” a basic initial list of organizing tasks for local activists which includes: creating a local steering committee; finding a mainstream institution that can serve as a base; organizing a series of public meetings and forums; studying violence in the community; meeting with the mayor and the city council; and organizing a city-wide launch.

Gandhi once remarked that we are constantly being astonished by the advances in violence, but if we try, if we organize, if we can commit ourselves, he declared, we can make even more astonishing new discoveries and advances in nonviolence. With the example of “Nonviolent Carbondale” before us, we have a way to organize every local community and city in the nation, a way to envision how we can all one day live together in peace with justice, and the possibility of new hope. If we follow the example of Nonviolent Carbondale, we can help transform our culture of violence into something completely new—a culture of nonviolence. That should always be our goal.

More articles by:

John Dear, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an American Catholic priest nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also a Christian pacifist, an author, and lecturer.

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