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Peace and Power: The Deep Links Between Democracy and Nonviolence | East Bay Express


In recent weeks, leaders and commentators here and abroad have rightly framed Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine as a struggle between autocracy and democracy.

There are good reasons to frame the conflict in these terms, but in our own country there are also reasons to use the term “democracy” with some caution. Our democracy rests on unsteady feet. Congress continues to investigate the January 6 attack that was intended to block the peaceful transition of power. Watchdog organizations like the US-based Freedom House and the Stockholm-based International Electoral Assistance Institute have sounded the alarm about the state of US democracy, once considered one of the strongest strong in the world.

A recent Freedom House report cites racial injustice, the outsized influence of money in politics, and the intense polarization of American society as causes of the downgrading of American democracy.

But there is another dimension of true democracy that needs to be noted, and that is its deep connection to non-violence. The Reverend James M. Lawson, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King and a lifelong educator and activist engaged in nonviolent struggles for justice, defines nonviolence as “the use of power to attempt to resolve conflicts, hurts and problems in order to heal and uplift, to strengthen community and to help people take power and use their power creatively. In contrast, he says, violence is “the use of power to harass, intimidate, injure, chain, kill or destroy a person or persons”.

These concepts and their connection to democracy can be seen illustrated in a visual image – whether in photography, video or painting – of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. There, several hundred nonviolent protesters marching from Selma in Montgomery, AL’s In the Name of Suffrage was met with a violent response from everyone from state troopers to local law enforcement officials and legislators. With the moral clarity of allegory, the image of this scene encapsulated, on the one hand, the indivisibility of non-violence and the popular democratic aspiration to political equality. On the other hand, the beatings and tear gas inflicted by the officers clearly showed the violence deemed necessary to thwart this people’s quest for full democratic participation.

Individuals and groups in power, of course, do not always need clubs and tear gas to suppress democracy. They have other tools at their disposal. A handful of justices, meeting recently in the august halls of the United States Supreme Court, chose to let stand a patently discriminatory redistricting plan that is diluting the votes of African Americans in a congressional district in Alabama. Seemingly administered with clean hands, this and other voter suppression tools also enact violence in an effort to silence people’s voices and diminish their stature in a community. Or, to borrow from Reverend Lawson, they are attempts to “chain” a people and their aspirations.

Institutional violence like this can take many forms, and sadly, the United States is teeming with manifestations of it. Recently, the US Senate had the opportunity to expand the child tax credit that helped lift millions of children temporarily out of poverty when it was passed last year as part of the US bailout of $1.9 trillion. Extending credit, as research studies have shown, would bring immense benefits to children’s health, well-being, and educational outcomes. But the refusal of senators (mainly Republican senators) to embrace the credit has allowed children to fall back into poverty and the longer-term benefits to evaporate. This too was a form of violence, a violence made all the more bitter by the worsening of economic inequalities.

To some, it may seem entirely inappropriate to speak or write about nonviolence when soldiers and civilians are engaged in a deadly struggle for freedom – for existence itself. This is despite the fact that civil resistance has indeed been part of the struggle in Ukraine as well as in Russia.

But the unstable state of our own democracy demands continued reflection on the degree of violence in America — and the misplaced priorities such violence entails. Can we reconsider our definition of national security when a $753 billion defense budget, and all the advanced weapons it can buy, have proven useless in preventing the 973,000 civilian casualties caused by COVID ?

Such reflection also asks us to consider the democratic possibilities of redemptive nonviolence. Just as America’s founders could hardly have imagined that the descendants of their slaves would ever vote and exercise their rights in the public sphere, it may also be difficult for some to envision a truly nonviolent democracy in America: a society just and fair in all respects. . It certainly won’t happen all at once; there is a great need for education (of our own nonviolent histories and nonviolent movements active today), but a starting point is to ask some basic questions. What are the essential values ​​of a democratic society? When we aspire to be fully democratic, what are we really aiming for?

Andrew Moss, syndicated by voice of peace, is Professor Emeritus (English, Nonviolence Studies) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona