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Nonviolence? How About Fierce Love?
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Reflections Following the West Coast Port Shutdown on December 12, 2011

I am grateful to countless people who have educated me about nonviolence and diversity of tactics in social movements, sometimes in person, sometimes in public forums or writings, and sometimes online. This reflection is especially influenced by conversations I’ve had recently with Johari Jabir, Miki Kashtan, Sri Louise, Nancy Inotowok, and Cecilia Lucas—you all have my deepest gratitude for your efforts to hold the complexity.
 
On Monday, December 12, thousands of activists converged on the Port of Oakland in several waves, shutting down the port for three consecutive shifts. I believe this was an act of great love—love for the longshoremen and –women whose ability to resolve labor disputes has been greatly weakened in recent years, love for the truck drivers who are forced to remain independent contractors so that they can’t receive benefits or unionize, love for the children of Oakland who have asthma in part as a result of their constant exposure to diesel exhaust from the trucks going in and out of the port, love for the earth that has been poisoned by that exhaust and for the animals and many generations of people who will not be able to eat from that land, and love for the residents of West Oakland, one of the poorest neighborhoods in California despite being home to the fifth largest port in the country. I believe it was also, in some ways, an act of great love toward those who profit from the port—the executives at Goldmann Sachs (which partially owns SSA Terminals), at EGT (the multinational corporation currently in a bitter labor dispute with longshoremen and dock workers in Longview, Washington), and at the huge corporations who ship and receive goods through the port, because their present behavior is a violation of their humanity and is, whether they feel it yet or not, costing them their lives.
 
On Tuesday, December 13, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan called the port shutdown an act of economic violence.
 
So which is it—an act of love or an act of violence?
 
According to the logic of those who classify property destruction as violent, or at least as inconsistent with nonviolence, Jean Quan may be right. No doubt the port closure cut into profits that some might consider their rightful “property.” It certainly did cost truck drivers their daily wages (although Code Pink took up a sizeable collection for them to help offset that), and although dockworkers should be paid for the day, it is remotely possible that the port will lose business, costing Oakland jobs. But even acknowledging that harm may have been done, most of us would agree that doesn’t tell the whole story. To emphasize the port shutdown as economic violence without also acknowledging and condemning the grinding daily economic violence of the banking and corporate profiteering systems in this country, not to mention the increasing police violence deployed to protect those systems, is more than dishonest. It is a travesty. It ignores the pervasive and debilitating violence of the status quo and focuses recriminations on the targeted, time-limited, arguably nonviolent “violence” of those who seek to end the daily violence.
 
Increasingly, I am finding the language of violence and nonviolence unhelpful. We simply don’t have any way of agreeing on what these terms mean. We can say that violence is “doing harm,” but who decides what is harm and when it has occurred? Is it “harm” to call out the shameful behavior of corporate executives? Is it harm to embarrass someone who is sexually harassing you? Is it harm to challenge people with unconscious white privilege about how they are using it to hurt people of color and ultimately themselves? Certainly it makes them uncomfortable. Is discomfort “harm”? Is it “violence”?
 
I have tremendous regard and gratitude for the nonviolent movements and by leaders like Mohatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am hugely influenced by them and could not be doing the work I am doing were it not for those movements.
 
At the same time, I recognize that the successes of both the Indian liberation movement and the U.S. Civil Rights movement may have resulted from the parallel efforts of nonviolent movements and those that were not expressly nonviolent. In India, the struggle for independence became increasingly violent as time went on. How much of the eventual victory was due to the Gandhian movement and how much to violent freedom fighters? To what degree were civil rights won in this country as a result solely of the nonviolent Kingian movement, and to what degree did the more radical Nation of Islam and Black Panther movements contribute, if only by scaring the country into compliance with King’s more moderate approach? I also wonder: Would there have ever been an end to slavery—that most brutal exploitation and subjugation of our fellow human beings—in this country without the Civil War? We can’t really know the answers to these questions.
 
All of that said, I do believe that actively, consciously doing harm to our fellow beings diminishes our humanity and leads to spiritual death. For that reason, I urge us all to avoid it to the greatest degree possible, and when we do have to do harm in the name of liberation (whether it is embarrassing someone, making them uncomfortable, diminishing their profit, or physically restraining them), to do it with tremendous love for them as well as for all beings they are harming.
 
I am quite willing to admit that the port action on Monday may have fallen short of this ideal. I am not convinced that we did an adequate job explaining to our targets, or even to the public, why we were shutting them down. I know that there was more often  self-righteousness in my consciousness toward the profiteers than there was love toward them.  I would not call that violence. I would call it a failure of love. What I continue to celebrate is the love we held for those who have been harmed by the port and those who profit from it. We need to hold all parties in that same love and work for the liberation of the perpetrators as well as the victims.
 
This is incredibly difficult, almost impossible, and it is usually disproportionately so for those who have sustained the most direct damages and been hurt the worst. Please, let’s hold each other with great tenderness as we continue this work.

Copyright 2011 Seminary of the Street