Friday, January 29, 2010

Negotiate or nonviolent action? Yes

Nonviolence is not shirking from engagement, and it's not an attempt to crush the opponent. It's a third way. It seeks dialog. It listens. But it also insists that it must be heard. When, for example, we tried to get Senator Ron Wyden to take some leadership on the occupation of Iraq in 2005, we did not threaten that we would shut down his office, that we would campaign against him, or anything so blustering. I prepared a little leaflet to explain that we simply felt unheard and we were determined to be able to voice our analysis and intentions to him. I titled the brochure, Nonviolence is negotiation. My inspiration came straight from Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Here is an excerpt:

"You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue."

This approach is soft power but it is power. It is not power-over, but power-with. It seems to some as adversarial, but it actually seeks consensus and collaboration. The idea of a fine nonviolent campaign is that everyone is an ally or a potential ally.

There need be no contradiction between nonviolent action and negotiation. Indeed, it's best assessed and employed as a precursor, not a monological attempt to shout more loudly.

My friend Walter Bresette could really deliver a powerfully angry speech. When he and others used nonviolent direct action to stop trains carrying millions of gallons of acid across Bad River Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin they were angling toward and achieved a seat at the negotiating table. They won their struggle. This is how we can Just Say Yes to both nonviolent action and negotiation.

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