Dealing with Errors and Breaking with Empires
by Matt Meyer
In my recent piece Building Bridges between Principles and Practice, I noted that there were “concrete, historical incidents in which principled pacifists stuck to their ideals about not engaging in individual acts of violence, but were blinded to the larger issues of institutional violence being perpetrated against those socially considered ‘others.’” These incidents, I wrote, are seemingly more than simple coincidences:
“They suggest fault lines, especially along race and class, where one set of principles contradicted or trumped another. Sometimes without self-awareness, time and again, pacifist attempts to create a nonviolent culture (especially a single, white-washed or homogenized culture) led to acts which served to solidify institutional violence. Similarly, through ignorance or distance from those oppressed peoples struggling for justice ‘by any means necessary,’ even when they were often predominantly using nonviolent tactics, ‘First World’ pacifists missed — and still miss — the vital lessons offered by people who could easily be our closest colleagues.”
In an effort to be honest with ourselves about past and present errors, in ways meant to neither embarrass nor condemn those involved, last year I named specific examples of these errors in a talk at the annual conference of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. As this year’s conference approaches, it seems fitting to repeat those summaries here — neither to embarrass nor condemn the organizations or individuals involved, but to shed light on our common foibles and missteps. I firmly believe that this is the best way to move forward to a time when those errors can truly become a thing of the past.
Three examples will serve to illustrate the point:
- The leading inter-faith pacifist religious fellowship organization in the United States has, for over ninety years, been engaged in every significant campaign for social change in the States in the country for over 90 years. Yet despite a proud and boastful grouping of members who have come from all backgrounds to lead their own communities in transformative endeavors, the organization itself remains fraught with an inability to maintain cross-racial institutional programs. In a period crucial also for Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue, it has lost key leadership amongst the most disenfranchised of these groups because of inattention to these divides. Publically, though, it has claimed major responsibility and influence for the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, because one Egyptian blogger noted that she had read an Arabic reprint of a 45-year-old pamphlet based on King’s work in Montgomery that they had published.
- Meanwhile, the leading secular pacifist group in the U.S. was publicly criticized in the post-9/11 era for resisting internal calls within the organization’s staff and national decision-making body for a more inclusive programmatic and coalition orientation, especially a youth-of-color-led initiative. Though that group’s primary response to the criticism was direct and ongoing engagement with some of the critics, leading eventually to cooperative work together, it is also true that the same group has undergone a revolving door of staff members of color, many unwilling or unable to break through the cultural homogeneity of the majority work style.
- Finally, one of the nation’s oldest and largest peace organizations, based on the perspectives of a traditional pacifist church, has endured an historic downsizing which disproportionately affected staff people of color and programs based in the most marginalized communities. Here again, the public perception has been carefully crafted to reflect the opposite of this uncomfortable fact of moving away from the ideals and politics of King’s beloved community. In the centenary year of civil rights and gay liberation icon Bayard Rustin, and one year before the 50th anniversary celebrations of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of which Rustin was the chief architect, this same group has been at the forefront of acknowledging Rustin’s part in their history. If we are, however, to take seriously the title of the enormously important 1955 publication, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence (which Rustin helped pen — a fact just publicly acknowledged by the group after decades of having his name removed), then we must be frank about truthfully confronting the past and current cover-ups of the nonviolence movements of the Global North.
These incidents point to a vital flaw in our collective work: by not living up to the whole of our stated principles, we have suffered major strategic losses.
It has always been both ironic and problematic that pacifists of the Global North who have fallen victim to and sometimes perpetuated the social landmines of race, gender, and class are often also those most responsible for the two-dimensional iconized and caricatured idolization of those so oft-quoted men of color, Gandhi and King. Greensboro anti-Klan organizer and civil rights movement scholar Sally Bermanzohn is one amongst many who has documented, in her work for New Political Science, the ways in which King was a practical pacifist, basing much of his work on tactical and strategic considerations. And Gandhi himself, as Gene Sharp and others have documented, was a wily strategist who well understood the essential interconnections between confrontational direct action and the morality of kindness. He was not afraid to draw tactical lines of distinction between nonviolent campaigners and the supporters of colonialism.
When challenged by one of the most vicious acts of violence on the part of the British during the campaigns for independence, Gandhi did more than reach out to his enemies with love and forgiveness. The 1919 massacre at Amritsar, where British troops fired into an unarmed Indian crowd, has elicited many myths about appropriate practical responses. Narayan Desai, dean of the Gandhi-founded Gujarat Vidyapith and founder of the Institute for Total Revolution, in his comprehensive and reflective four-volume biographical overview of Gandhi, My Life is My Message, reveals that “the greatest effect” of the widely-condemned massacre “was on the working of [Gandhi’s] mind.” He ultimately returned a previously awarded Kaiser-i-Hind medal which had been bestowed upon him by the British monarch and, according to Desai — whose father was Gandhi’s close friend and personal secretary — “his loyalty to the British Empire was completely uprooted.”
If Gandhi in his day understood clearly the need to split with empire, it seems only appropriate that nonviolent activists today of all varieties and self-definitions, must do nothing less. In order to reach beyond the false divides of philosophy versus strategy, to live beyond the landmines of divisions based on race, class, and gender, we must learn from our contemporary colleagues in the Global South, whose work against neoliberalism and the new forms of colonialism have begun to embrace all people fighting against imperial endeavors. In order to show that we have learned from our mistakes of the past, we must build bridges toward a new revolutionary nonviolence.
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.