AFTER SEVERAL DECADES characterized by collective somnambulence at best,
and unrepentant self-serving gluttony at worst, Americans have begun to wake
up to some very ugly truths. Everything from our basic civil liberties to
the climate and the safety of the food we eat is imperiled.
By way of response, the direct action against the WTO in Seattle ushered
in a new era of activism, and with it a commitment to challenging the
unsavory practices of multinational corporations, governmental bodies and
other institutions that wield power over our lives.
Buoyed by this vibrant energy, I am not alone in feeling tingly with hope
for the first time in years. And yet I am disturbed by the tactics of some
of today's activists. Fortunately, whether we're talking about AIDS
research, animal rights, saving redwoods, or stopping sweatshop labor, the
overwhelming majority of activists is committed to nonviolent action.
As a pacifist and a realist, I applaud this path and walk it myself. My
concern is with those whose approach includes smashing storefronts, setting
fires and throwing rocks at police. Equally disturbing are environmentalists
who spike trees, endangering the lives of loggers and mill workers, AIDS
activists who disrupt civic meetings and hurl fake blood at pharmaceutical
company executives and animal liberationists who torch labs.
I certainly share in the outrage of anyone who has seen a clear-cut
forest, watched an animal suffer or a friend die because he couldn't afford
medication. But how can we expect anyone else to stop committing acts of
personal or institutional violence if we ourselves cannot? Many sincere,
committed activists are convinced that violence is justified in the
service of the greater good. To such people I say: You cannot do this alone.
To make the changes this country so desperately needs, you must have at
least the tacit support of the majority of Americans -- which you'll never
get by dishing up mayhem on the evening news.
Violent tactics serve to alienate the very people whom the activists are
trying to convince, while simultaneously deflecting attention from their
Violence is counterproductive and symptomatic of old-paradigm thinking
that we need outgrow. When we act from a place of rage and hate, we will
only generate like energy in return. Instead we ought to turn, for example,
to South Africa as a model for compassionate change -- coming from a people
who chose reconciliation over retribution despite centuries of subjugation.
At the same time, it behooves us to remember one thing about those whose
policies poison ground water, block paths to potential cures, criminalize
classes of people, play Russian Roulette with our genetic inheritance and
force people to work at less-than-subsistence wages: they are asleep to
their own humanity and oblivious to that of others.
People who make power or profits their God are not so much evil as they
are profoundly and dangerously ill. And just as we don't get an alcoholic
sober by beating him over the head with a whiskey bottle, so too will we
fail to awaken the hearts of government and industry leaders by attacking
Instead, by engaging in peaceful demonstrations, ballot initiatives,
informational picket lines, class-action lawsuits, consumer boycotts,
letter-writing campaigns, and good, old-fashioned voting, we raise awareness
about effective alternatives to animal testing; the number of jobs the
United States lost to NAFTA;
inhumane working conditions in factories where our athletic shoes are made;
the dangers of unleashing genetically engineered crops without adequate
research into the ramifications; the incalculable value of medicinal plants
in rain forests being wiped out in favor of grazing cattle for ever more
MacBurgers. Through thoughtful engagement, we open a public dialogue.
Spiking a tree is a statement. Statement is monologue. You cannot debate
a spike, discuss with a rock, or open a dialogue with a Molotov cocktail.
Communication, not escalation, is the key.
And if we think ``the enemy'' is cruel and inhumane, then we must strive
harder to model the sort of behavior we wish to see in others. Let us summon
the courage of ``ordinary people,'' like Rosa Parks and Erin Brokovich, who
showed us just how powerful individuals can be.
It is through nonviolent direct action that we demand -- and are beginning
to effect -- change. For though they are the beholden to no one, the
corollary and hope rests in the fact that governments and corporations are
beholden to everyone. And therein lies the rub.
Activists who resort to violent tactics do so in part as a reaction to
the passivity of a silent majority who can't find a reason to vote, much
less save the spotted owl. By the same token, is it any wonder that people
in power think that either we don't care or are happy with the way things
are because so many don't vote?
In a society spoiled by instant gratification, we are unaccustomed to
efforts that take time and discipline. So, be patient. Go out and vote your
conscience. Vote as if your life depended on it. Because, my friend, it
Lisa Martinovic is a San Francisco free-lance writer and slam poet.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle