I winced when the reporter from the Washington Post asked me on the 2nd anniversary of the war, what happened to the mass protests that I had forecast back in early 2003 should Bush actually take us to war in Iraq. I had predicted social disruption the likes of which we hadnít seen since Vietnam. As I fumbled for an explanation, he reassured me that this was not my singular mistake - "lots of activists told me the same thing," he said.
What happened? How could so many seasoned activists and organizers be so profoundly disturbed by the pending war, predicting "no business as usual" should it start, and yet when the war actually does start, our protests and actions all peter out... and only now are building back to pre-war levels?
I believe a key to this dilemma lies in nonviolence, and its current marginalization in the contemporary American peace movement.
Nonviolence, and specifically nonviolent resistance, is probably the single most misunderstood concept in the peace movement. Many committed peace activists believe that nonviolence means simply the absence of violence. Others now use the terms "protest" and "resistance" interchangeably, as if they were equivalent.
The mass nonviolent resistance action being planned for the White House on September 26th, at the culmination of the upcoming anti-war mobilizations in Washington DC (see below), is still a rarity in a movement which regards Gandhi and King as heroes, yet which rarely discusses nonviolence as a central component of our strategies - even though it is at the core of everything Gandhi and King taught and practiced. With few exceptions, serious discussion of nonviolence strategies is absent from the journals and books of the anti-war left. Institutional funders refuse to support nonviolent resistance strategies. Large anti-war coalitions like Win Without War and ANSWER decline to use nonviolent strategies or tactics.
Once again, why? Perhaps the answer can be found in our movementís - and societyís - strong avoidance of the peculiar discipline that makes nonviolence effective: the willingness to make sacrifices and to accept suffering.
Gandhi and King made it crystal clear that a willingness to make sacrifices and accept suffering, to even embrace them joyfully in pursuit of a greater good, is fundamental to successful nonviolent resistance strategies. It is what touches peoplesí hearts, long after the buzz of conflicting facts has left their mind numb. Morally motivated human beings making common cause with one another and undertaking resistance at risk to their own liberty, treasure and reputation communicate a seriousness of purpose that the public generally understands and respects. They reference deep traditions of peaceful change and forceful opposition to violence, war and injustice.
Depending on oneís situation, of course, simple protest can require both sacrifice and suffering. Members of the military or their families who speak out publicly against the war, for instance, often face social isolation, job loss, serious harassment, or worse. For the large majority of us in the peace movement, however, speaking out publicly and demonstrating involves little or no risk or sacrifice.
Itís also not that simple protest isnít necessary. It is, in fact, part of nonviolent social change strategy as outlined by Gandhi and King. But it is only one stage, and not the ultimate one. If it is not successful in achieving its goal, then the ante must be raised, and actual resistance - which includes both disobedience and noncooperation - must be employed.
But thatís what we donít do. Itís clear that this administration regards even mass protest as little more than a "focus group," or worse still, an example of our freedoms which they can then cynically use to justify their war, yet we have generally continued to employ the same strategies, holding the same rallies, marches and meetings. It is ironic, but not coincidental, that we have a President who believes that we can wage wars without shared sacrifice at the same time that we have a movement that believes we can stop wars without demanding any real sacrifice of ourselves.
Our shared reluctance to take that next step of actual resistance becomes much clearer in the context of our societyís radical devotion to consumerism. Our first priority as consumers, which we are taught from our earliest moments, is to seek our own comfort, and above all else, to avoid suffering - and this is the antithesis of nonviolence. We understand suffering when it comes to limited individual goals, such as "no pain, no gain" when we exercise, but when it comes to large scale problems, our brains have been programmed to seek entertainment, or to buy something, or to have a drink. It is not for nothing that
King identified materialism as one of the "giant triplets" which must be conquered, along with racism and militarism. It not only robs people in poor countries of their resources, it makes those of us in the wealthy countries too comfortable to offer real resistance.
And this same comfort also blinds us to the reality that our lifestyle is part and parcel of the very system we wish to change. The nonviolent movement in India required adherents to make their own cloth, and later, their own salt, because they realized that purchase of English made cloth and salt contributed to their own oppression. In Selma they realized that riding on segregated buses only supported segregation, so they stopped riding. Our peace movement, by contrast, will proclaim loudly (and correctly) that the war in Iraq is based on oil, yet why is there nary a word about a radical (and politically targeted) reduction of our own use of oil? Should we not have to disrupt our own "business as usual" before we can disrupt the governmentís?
This is not meant to be glib about the challenges of such an immense social change enterprise, or even much more seemingly limited but still daunting forms for resistance, such as civil disobedience or tax resistance. But such change is a necessity if we ultimately wish not only to end this war but also to prevent others. The realities of global warming and peak global oil production also suggest that our economy will change dramatically, and probably sooner than we think. Why not get a head start, and create some political change in the process?
This idea that we must seek a "significant and profound change in American life and policy" is, of course, the conclusion of Dr. Kingís famous "Beyond Vietnam" speech at the Riverside Church in 1967. He called on the anti-war movement, on all Americans, to create a world where people are more important than profit motives and property rights, to "rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society." He was also clear that the price of our failure to do this meant that we will be "marching... and attending rallies without end...."
That line got "sustained applause" when King said it, according to the speech transcript, but goodness knows itís difficult to do. One good way to start, though, would be to join us for "Remembrance and Resistance," the mass nonviolent resistance action at the White House on Monday, Sept. 26, at the conclusion of this upcoming weekend mobilization in Washington, D.C. For more information go to www.unitedforpeace.org. Hope to see you there!
Gordon Clark is Coordinator of the Iraq Pledge of Resistance (www.iraqpledge.org) and the former Executive Director of Peace Action, the nationís largest grassroots peace and disarmament organization.