Michael Ashmore, of Hooks, Texas, leans against the White House fence with his confederate flag. He and other demonstrators have walked here after attending a rally at the WWII Memorial to protest its' closing on October, 13, 2013. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post, via Getty)
Do we care about who we actually are, what our beliefs are, and about authenticity, or do we care about the image of our campaign or our movement?
If we who promote nonviolence obsess about being certain that we are a leaderless (read anarchical) movement, we will put out images that make us look confused, disorganized, adversarial, and like a failure waiting to flop. Eleanor Clift writes about the increasingly dysfunctional image of the Tea Party that is holding the economy of the US and the world in its self-destructive grip right now. That image includes Confederate flags, racist tweets from the likes of Joe the Plumber ("we need a white president") and a generally total failure of the Republicans to denounce or even distance themselves from such 19th century losing attitudes.
And yet, so often in the 'progressive' movement we not only see the mirror image of this alienation approach, we even find 'radical' academics who defend 'our' version of this. When I noted two years ago that the Occupy movement had failed to create an image sympathetic to average working Americans in many towns--and cited direct evidence from my own city, Portland, Oregon, where drug use, guns, and other practices were increasingly tolerated by Occupy, the Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Randall Amster, denounced me by name in a War Resisters League publication. Amster is a scholar who has written extensively about homelessness and decided, apparently, to take exception, if not umbrage, at my mention of the natural attraction of free food and some protection from police harassment that had drawn in many homeless to Occupy, but Occupy had failed to provide nonviolent security for its own campers, thus contributing to an increasingly negative image to my fellow Portlanders. One of my students had been very involved and even had a gun pulled on her there. Amster seemed unconcerned about all that and instead focused on the necessity to embrace the entire 99 percent if we wanted the movement to be authentic and presumably radical enough for him, even if part of that 99 percent uses violence. Amster says he isn't saying "anything goes," but he then justifies tolerating all the behaviors that turn off the vast majority of Americans.
Do the math. If you lose 98 percent because you justify the negative behaviors of the one percent who come ready to commit violence, you effectively protect the other one percent--the owners--from your rapidly disintegrating movement. Really? I mean, you look great in your berets with your soft hands and squishy arms raised in fists, but I'd suggest to my fellow academics that some years on the streets and some years living with the poorest of the poor might be instructive. As the co-founder of two Catholic Worker houses and as a street activist for a few decades I can report that it's not easy to enforce nonviolence, but it's possible. Bullies and explosive personalities can be found amongst both the oppressors and oppressed and everyone knows that. Real nonviolence and effective nonviolence requires standing up to them wherever they try to dominate. It's not always successful (I was not born with the nose I have--police rearranged it for me one thrilling night in my youth, and contributed about 30 stitches all around my eyes whilst they were at it). I've been physically attacked by both sides, police and anarchists. Oh well!
As long as activists and scholars of social movements tolerate such corrosive behavior our justice and peace movements will be easily tarred and dismissed. This backfire works with all violence and threats of violence. We will pay attention to it and grow the backbone required to police ourselves or we will lose by marginalizing ourselves every time. The Tea Party is doing that to the Republicans right now and it's easy to experience schadenfreude as we see them self-immolate. I just wish we could learn those lessons on our side of peace, nonviolence, justice and equality.