I eventually came to understand that the brilliance behind this program was the manner in which Bresette reconceptualized the struggle. In the beginning, it was easy to see the mobs of White sports fishers as the enemy. However, Bresette argued that Native peoples and their allies needed to look at this conflict in a broader context. It had recently become profitable for mining corporations to begin mining for natural resources in that area. However, the first attempts to begin mining were derailed by a united Indian and non-Indian opposition to the mining. The courts’ recognition of the Ojibwe’s right to hunt, fish, and gather posed an additional threat to these companies because if mining operations so degraded the environment that the Ojibwe could not hunt, fish and gather, then the Ojibwe were in a position to argue that such operations would be a violation of treaty rights. Consequently, argued Bresette, it is entirely possible that these mining companies are actually funding these hate groups. The problem is not these sports fishers, who actually have every bit as much to lose if mining companies come in and destroy their tourist economies. Rather, it is the mining companies who are probably promoting disunity in Northern Wisconsin so there will be less political opposition to their mining operations.
As a result, nonviolent witnesses were instructed to conduct themselves in such a way that would help defuse the violence, but that did not create such hostility among the sports fishers that it would become impossible to build alliances with them in the future. The people yelling at us today, we were told, could be our future allies.
As it happened, Exxon and Rio Algom began the process of opening a sulfite mine in Northern Wisconsin. The Midwest Treaty Network immediately began an educational tour that reached over 1,000 White residents in Northern Wisconsin to inform them of the importance of siding with the Ojibwe to stop Exxon. They and other organizations were so successful in mobilizing support to stop mining in Wisconsin among White people that Wisconsin’s pro-mining governor at the time, Tommy Thompson, was compelled to sign a mining moratorium in 1997. Exxon then withdrew from northern Wisconsin in 1998. Of course, racial conflict has not ended in northern Wisconsin, nor have the threats posed by mining companies. Still, this effort is a very significant success in which the alliance-building done by a relatively small number of Native rights’ groups were able to stop Exxon – a success not many groups can claim.
Violent and Nonviolent Postures
If we disrupt the divide between violent and nonviolent action, we recognize that a world without violence is not simply about ceasing to engage in certain actions, but it is a positive project about creating new systems of care and relationality such that violence would start to be unthinkable. Many organizers rightfully critique nonviolence when it is used to strengthen the powerful. One example would be Peter Gelderloos’s book, How Nonviolence Protects the State. A problem with some theories of nonviolence struggle is that it tends to render invisible the violence of the current political and economic system. For instance, when people in the Movement for Black Lives protest police brutality, they are deemed “violent,” but the actions of the police that led to the protest are deemed business as usual. Furthermore, just living in the United States is an act of violence because we live in a system that was built on slavery and Indigenous genocide as well as the appropriation of resources from the Global South. In this respect, there really is no such thing as nonviolence because nobody can escape their complicity in the structures of violence that govern the world.
For this reason, organizations I have been involved in started describing themselves as “anti-violent” rather than “nonviolent,” such as Incite! Feminists of Color Against Violence. That is, we express our commitment to ending structures of violence, while remaining aware of our current complicity in structures of violence and understanding that we cannot claim clean hands.
In addition, this position does not necessarily preclude us from engaging in acts of resistance that may be deemed “violent” by others, since we are aware that there is no way to avoid acting violently in our current political and economic system. When we have a rigid divide between violence and nonviolence, we can actually increase the demonization and disposability of others. That is, there are always going to be situations in which the moral action is unclear. Is it okay to kill someone who is trying to kill you? And then what counts as “trying to kill you”? Is it okay to engage in property damage to save a life? For other reasons? When faced with moral quandaries, the general response is to say that the action I want to engage in does not count as violence. The result, however, is that the persons negatively impacted by our actions gets erased from consideration because we put our actions in the category of “nonviolent.” Instead, I have found it helpful to put all actions that negatively impact others in the category of “violence” and then understand that violence may sometimes be a necessary tragedy. That is, it becomes possible to engage in action because it might be a necessary step given the constraints in which we operate, and at the same time, we can mourn the losses that result from the action. Being able to mourn those losses enables us to always be struggling for how to create a world in which such actions would no longer feel necessary in the future.
An anti-violent posture can also help us develop a more holistic approach in terms of strategy. Instead of dividing “good” (i.e., nonviolent) strategies from “bad” (i.e., violent) strategies, we can address each strategy from the perspective of harm reduction. That is, there is no strategy that does not result in harm. Martin Luther King’s strategies were premised on the idea that he knew nonviolent resistance would provide violence from the state and expose it to the larger public. People were certainly hurt by violence from these strategies. Nonetheless, his strategies were effective in helping to end formal racial segregation despite the harm that resulted.
Thus, we can evaluate each strategy in terms of its likely effectiveness in tension with the harm that is likely to result from that strategy. And we do not ignore or absolve ourselves of the harm that does result. Such an approach enables us to see all the losses that result from a particular strategy, to mourn those losses, even as we might still need to engage that particular strategy at a moment in time. Nonviolence signifies a world we wish to bring into being through radical imagining.
On the other hand, I see in some circles that strategies deemed more “violent” are often romanticized as the more revolutionary strategy. I remember some young aspiring activists talking about how they were willing to “die for the people.” I replied, “That’s great! But most organizing is actually slow and tedious, getting to know people and getting them involved. So are you willing to stuff envelopes for the people?” Sadly, they were not. Revolutionary chic often provides a distorted view of what organizing involves, and it often relies upon rendering the target of a violent action disposable. It is not a surprise that even when revolutionary movements are successful, they end up replicating the systems they were trying to end. This revolutionary chic framework also obscures the fact that many strategies deemed nonviolent can be much more effective. As historian Howard Zinn noted, revolutionary chic is often based on a few people being the true revolutionaries who need to engage in extreme actions. But if you actually do organizing work and get millions of people involved, then nonviolent strategies that might seem more passive can be very effective.
A New World Vision
If we disrupt the divide between violent and nonviolent action, we recognize that a world without violence is not simply about ceasing to engage in certain actions, but it is a positive project about creating new systems of care and relationality such that violence would start to be unthinkable. We need new economic, political, and social systems in which all are cared for, everyone is respected, and we recognize that we are related to each other.
One such example would be the statements issued by Indigenous peoples’ organizations at the 2008 World Social Forum. These groups contended that the goal of indigenous struggle was not simply to fight for the survival of their particular peoples, but to transform the world so that it is governed through principles of participatory democracy rather than through colonial states. Their vision of nationhood required a radical reorientation toward land. All are welcome to live on the land, they asserted, but we must all live in a different relationship to the land. We must understand ourselves as peoples who must care for the land rather than control it. Furthermore, we have to understand ourselves as constituted through radical relationality to all people and all of creation. Instead of the western framework, in which I know who I am because I am not you, we must embrace the indigenous principles, I know who I am because of you and because of my relationships with you. From this epistemology arises a different understanding of nationhood. Rather than a nation-state model in which nations make exclusive claims to land, indigenous nationhood is premised on the principle that one’s nation can only thrive when all other nations also thrive.
Similarly, we see the same theme in which land is understood to be God’s. Some peoples may be bestowed the original instructions of how to care for the land, but they do not “own the land.” In fact, as stated in Psalms 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” We also read in Leviticus 25:23, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” From such a framework, we can begin to imagine new systems of the world in which we understand that we are all related. Because we are all related, we create new systems of governance that are not based on competing for land or resources which gives rise to violence, domination and control, but are based on ensuring the well-beings of all peoples and all of creation based on principles of justice, interrelatedness, respect, and mutuality.
I suggest that we no longer equate “nonviolence” with a specific set of strategies that are ethically pure and can easily be demarcated. Instead nonviolence signifies a world we wish to bring into being through radical imagining. Until we create that world, we can adopt a position of anti-violence in which we acknowledge our complicity and try to reduce harm around the structures of violence which are unavoidably constituted through today.