Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nonviolence is high maintenance

Last night I went to the first Annual Genevieve Nelson Nonviolence and Economic Human Rights Award. I was inspired enough to purchase more decks of meal tickets to give to my students, but troubled by the tone of the performers, both Mic Crenshaw and Good Sista Bad Sista.

Genny Nelson founded Sisters of the Road Cafe more than 20 years ago on the principles and practices of nonviolence. This has informed and indeed provided the foundation for her personal, public, and political activism since the beginning, since before the founding of the Cafe, when she was a young Catholic Worker, living with the poorest Portlanders in her own house. The Catholic Worker philosophy was begun with Dorothy Day's adherence to the values of pacifism and working to serve the poor and concomitantly offer nonviolent resistance to militarism. Genny has always lived those ideals remarkably faithfully. She has lived her entire adult life as a person making an income that would be meager for a single person, but she also had two children. Sisters always decided to employ more people rather than pay a few well, a decision that many nonprofits do not make.

She created a place of nonviolence, where people would find safety, solace and respite from the harsh life of the street and a nutritious meal for very low price indeed. The 50 meal coupons I bought were just $2 each, a true bargain in our $5.50-cup-of-designer-coffee world. I give them to students, which opens space for us to discuss Sisters and its mission and how they might get involved. I tell them that if there is any Portland institution that is putting the principles of nonviolence into play, it's Sisters.

But now I'm worried about the need to maintain those principles. Calling them operant and living them are two radically different propositions. For her health, Genny had to retire and immediately the tendency to undermine the principles of nonviolence began to reverse the ethos she built for 30 years. Violent people began to edge closer to the Cafe and soon were doing drug deals right in front of the big plate glass windows. That atmosphere crept into the Cafe, with more threats, more blustering, than ever. Staff, lacking the charismatic and immensely respected presence that Genny provided, began to put out the word that they were not going to limit themselves to a nonviolent response to violence. Rather than an a priori assumption that leads to creative development of committed nonviolence, the new environment at Sisters is more of a debate about whether or not to maintain that value.

This was made evident in the entertainment choices for the ironically named Peaceroots ceremony. Good Sista Bad Sista did physical punching and chopping motions during their poetry to show their aggression and anger. Mic Crenshaw, at an event nominally dedicated to nonviolence, went out of his way to proclaim, "I'm not a pacifist," and then alluded to what he would do when his "back is against the wall."

These performers have all the rights in the world to call for violence. It's their performance. But who chose to line them up for this event? Who is deciding to send a mixed message about nonviolence on the one hand and using violence on the other? These are decisions that need review. As Genny lies in a hospital bed trying to outlive her heart attacks and diabetes, people are giving her awards and then breaking her heart with an increasing erosion of the core of her philosophy and practice.

Nonviolence isn't easy and it doesn't maintain itself. It takes an enormous amount of work, work that Genny did for decades. Who will take it up now at Sisters? The answer is either, a) everyone on the staff, from Executive Director to dishwasher, or b) not enough of them.

There is no more robust institution of structural nonviolence in Portland, Oregon than Sisters of the Road Cafe. Its future may be prosperous and program-heavy, but will it actually promote systemic change, as Genny always did? Or will it erode into just another nice social service organization? Or will it become more open to a so-called 'diversity of tactics,' welcoming those who struggle with violent rhetoric and the threat of violence? This is not known now, but there are troubling signs. Pacifist anarchist Ammon Hennacy had a great answer to Mic Crenshaw and the self-proclaimed radicals who proudly proclaim that they are ready to use violence when their backs are against the wall--which is exactly where the backs of those who use nonviolence have always been, from the struggle to get the British out of India to the nonviolent liberation movements in Zambia and Ghana, to the Civil Rights movement to the Filipinas up against the US-supported Marcos regime, to the Velvet Revolution facing the Soviet war machine to Serb kids up against the bloodiest European dictator since Hitler, and on and on. When your back is against the wall is when the nonviolence actually matters. Hennacy said being nonviolent between wars is like being a vegetarian between meals. We will see what the community and the Sisters leadership decide about Genny's legacy.

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