On the evening of August 11th, white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate memorial statues in the city; they marched with torches onto the University of Virginia campus, terrorizing students and anti-racist activists, including those gathered in a house of worship to ready themselves as counter-protesters. On August 12th, white supremacists wreaked havoc across Charlottesville, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans including the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil!”; physically intimidating clergy members; and, assaulting counter-protesters. One white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing thirty-two-year white activist and Charlottesville-resident, Heather Heyer. White supremacists returned to Charlottesville on October 8th to again, ostensibly, protest the removal of Confederate statues. Both Rev. Catie and Zach Packard, one of our senior youth group members, have been thinking seriously about resistance and non-violence since the Charlottesville tragedy.
Catie: Zach, what interests you about non-violence and resistance?
Zach: I’m interested in resistance because as a UU, an anarcho-communist, and a human being I am opposed to all forms of oppression. As for non-violence, it depends on what you mean by non-violence. A lot of people mean an absolute refusal to use violence in any circumstance, which I say empowers those who would use violence against vulnerable communities. Neo-Nazis are perfectly willing to murder marginalized people and those who fight alongside them, and marginalized communities often don’t have the luxury to abide by the doctrine of “the moral high ground” and a refusal to use violence if their lives are in danger. I don’t think you can love Hitler into stopping him doing what he did. Right now there are people like Richard Spencer actually saying things like, “Is Black genocide right?”, and leading marches around black churches chanting “blood and soil!”. When you have people like that actually trying to incite genocide in America, I’d say it’s not fair to tell a marginalized group that they can’t defend themselves. When you are fighting people who are advocating genocide, you are not the aggressor, but a defender of all the people white supremacists seek to destroy. When you decide to fight people who are attacking you every day, it is defensive, you have a right to fight back. If someone were actively advocating the death of everyone who looks like me, and they were gaining influence on a national scale, not only would I be afraid for my safety as many people of color are, but I would be pretty annoyed at the people who weren’t being targeted if they tried to tell me I couldn’t defend myself.
Catie: It’s true that we are talking about real threats against marginalized communities. Absolute non-violence can allow violent people to abuse and even kill members of such communities and their allies. However, I remember the warning of Dr. King, that “violence begets violence, and hatred begets hatred.” He came to a stance of absolute non-violence through engaging with the words of prior pacifists and reformers like Gandhi, Tolstoy, and even two Unitarian/Universalists: Henry David Thoreau and Adin Ballou. So, as a modern Unitarian Universalist minister, I take the philosophy of non-violence seriously! If a counter-protester uses violence against a white supremacist — who, indeed, hatefully advocates violent racial genocide — will violence and hatred continue to grow in the heart of that white supremacist, and in the hearts of their families, friends, and wider communities? Furthermore, if a counter-protester resorts to violence, even in self-defense, doesn’t this plant seeds of violence and hatred in that individual’s heart?
Zach: I don’t deny that violence isn’t going win the white supremacists over to our side, but I don’t think that can be our primary concern right now. The long-term solution is to persuade racists to stop believing and doing these things, but the short-term is that someone is being attacked and must be defended and how do we do that? It may involve short-term violence. Privileged white people, along with straight, male, or cis people, should not be telling people of marginalized groups what to do to resist those who would commit acts of violence against them. I think an often unchallenged example of how oppressive ideology infiltrates liberal white communities is the demonization of groups like the Black Panther Party, or Malcolm X, who were willing to defend themselves and their communities. In school and in the media, and even “social justice” oriented circles, we are taught that resistance (be it LGBTQ, immigrant, black, Latinx, feminist, worker, etc.) is only valid if it’s entirely peaceful. This ideology systematically empowers the oppressors and disarms the oppressed, and it’s this kind of ideology that allows people like Donald Trump to get away with blaming both sides equally when one side was advocating genocide and another was defending themselves and their friends from the white supremacists.
Catie: This doesn’t answer the problem of whether “short-term” violence makes the the “long-term solution” harder to reach, though. I reflect back on Universalist and Unitarian objections to abolition and the Civil War. Many of our ancestors were ardent abolitionists who fought for an immediate end to slavery, but many others feared that violent conflict over the end of slavery would lead to lasting division in our country. On the one hand, abolition was absolutely necessary because slavery is a terrible evil. On the other hand, the concerns about our nation remaining divided after the violence and death during the Civil War were certainly true; the abolition of slavery through violent means did not change hateful prejudice in the hearts of those who did not believe black Americans were worthy of freedom. We see the effects of this enduring belief still now, 150 years after the war ended. However, I can’t say that I would have told enslaved African-Americans to “wait” for freedom!
Zach: We’re getting too focused on individuals. While hateful views are certainly part of the problem, the biggest issues are systemic. As an anarchist I would say that we need to abolish all the hierarchical oppressive social institutions that uphold white supremacy and other types of white supremacy, including the police, prison system, and all of capitalism. The system we currently live under perpetuates white supremacy, the exploitation of the workers, and the heteropatriarchy. Oppression is woven into the fiber that makes up the state and capitalism. The State in itself is essentially just a mechanism through which society’s rulers — the rich, white, straight, male, and cis — enforce their own dominance over the rest of society. As we’ve seen through all of history including in the U.S during the eras of the civil rights and labor movements, when propaganda efforts fail and the people rise up to liberate themselves the state cracks down with brute force. Oppressive systems always perpetuate themselves and defend themselves as long as they exist, and won’t dissolve themselves without a fight regardless of what we as individuals or communities do. Corporations will continue to think about the bottom line financially, even if it harms the environment, people of color, women, etc., and the Police will continue to repress the people, especially people of color, and to kidnap them for victimless crimes to keep the prison industrial complex running. If we want to end white supremacy permanently, we need to dismantle the institutions that create and uphold it: and that’s not going to happen through love alone. Because these systems are designed to protect and perpetuate themselves, we need to recognize that the systems will not allow us to work within them to dismantle them. If we want to dismantle oppressive institutions, we have to be willing to take direct action from outside the systems. We have to remember that since the systems attack us all (especially marginalized people) to attack the system is a defensive action.
Catie: Zach, you’re right that we have to think bigger than individuals or even individual communities. Can you think of a time when reformers have successfully taken down and reformed a system? I mean that as a genuine question! I’m struggling to think of such a time in history.
Zach: No full social revolution like the kind I’m talking about has ever taken place only through peaceful reform. The closest example we have of a full social revolution is the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which was definitely not peaceful. There has been some progress without revolution, like in the Civil Rights and labor movements, but these movements did not bring the people total liberation and we still live in an incredibly oppressive society ruled by the same people who ruled then. We also have to remember that these movements weren’t all reformist and peaceful: they’ve been heavily whitewashed. The State simultaneously co-opted Dr. King’s movement to take away its teeth, while flooding the segregated neighbors with drugs, stepping up police brutality to a new level, and just changing the nature of their oppression to create the illusion of great progress. We have to remember what the State did to the Black Panther Party, and various other organizations and movements at the time with COINTELPRO, and that the U.S. Government was found guilty by a civil court of having ordered the assassination of Dr. King. It’ll be hard to change hearts of fascists or even modern day “white moderates” about the big issues of racism, sexism, capitalism, etc., if the average person still believes in prisons, police, and other white supremacist institutions. You can’t eliminate one form of oppression without eliminating all of them, because they’re all connected and uphold each other. If you dismantle capitalism but not racism, economic oppression will just recreate itself. If you try and erase white supremacy without opposing capitalism, again, the hierarchies will just recreate themselves. I’ve seen a lot of white communists fall short because they refuse to talk about race or gender, calling it “divisive to the proletariat,” but I’ve also seen a lot of liberals fall short by coming out strong against racism, sexism, etc. while refusing to acknowledge the systemic structures that created those things or the problems with capitalism. We must radically oppose all forms of oppression if we want to eliminate any form of oppression.
Catie: We definitely agree on the need for intersectional resistance. We are indebted to scholars and revolutionaries like Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks who realized that all justice is interconnected and interdependent; as poet Emma Lazarus put it, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” That, in fact, includes those “of privilege,” who are trained not to acknowledge the full humanity and value of those who are oppressed, which creates real barriers for genuine relationship and even self-worth. Privilege and oppression of all varieties is rooted in the idea that some people, by their mere identities, are “better than” others. You mentioned this before about our systemic structures of hierarchy. Until all of these “better than” ideas — which exist both systemically and personally — are swept away, the roots of oppression will keep nourishing new growth. We must all work together to challenge every form of supremacy, as to unroot them all: racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, colonialism, ableism, nativism, religious hegemony, etc. There are many ways we can resist and advocate: some of us are gifted at changing individual hearts, some at legislative advocacy, some at active protest and civil disobedience. We all have to follow our calls and do what we can do for justice.
Zach: Absolutely. Others say we must remain entirely peaceful because violence is a “PR problem” for progressive causes — but we have to think about who our “target audience” is for our actions. A large portion of the population gets more angry about property damage or people defending themselves against Nazis than they do about black people being murdered by the police, I don’t think that we’ll get anywhere by only using tactics approved by these people since these people are the “white moderates” that uphold the system itself. We also have to keep in mind that these people are the same sorts of people who don’t even find peaceful protest acceptable and condemn Colin Kaepernick for peacefully kneeling. There is also a sizeable group of people who view more militant actions against Neo-Nazis positively, they’re just not often the kind of voices you would here on a news station targeted towards centrist middle class white people. Love should be our motivation, but love is not enough to stop oppression; we need action, and that action cannot be held down by public opinion. We have to do what’s right no matter what, and it has to be done now because people are dying. The systems of oppression will defend themselves, and we have to do what’s necessary to end systemic oppression. When some people try and tell other people who are fighting for basic human rights that they have to conform to a certain standard of “respectability” or peacefulness, what they’re really saying is that their comfort is a lot more important to them than the lives of oppressed people. If oppressed people based their activism on the opinions of their oppressors, they wouldn’t be activists at all. Respectability politics are essentially the idea of liberating yourself by conforming to all your oppressors’ standards. While it’s certainly not wrong for targeted communities to use respectability politics to try to keep themselves safe from violence and discrimination, it will never end oppression, and just reinforces the social pressure to conform to the whims of the oppressors. We can’t abolish oppression by only using methods approved by the oppressor.
Catie: The Civil Rights Movement definitely capitalized on “respectability politics” (i.e., wearing “Sunday best” to protests and putting relatively privileged activists up at the podiums) and I’ve heard critiques of the marriage equality movement doing the same (e.g., centering LGBTQ rights on marriage and love and ignoring issues impacting other “letters” of the LGBTQ community). I wonder if many of us have bought into respectability politics as normatively good and effective because of the successes in the Civil Rights and marriage equality movements, even though “respectable” activists aren’t the only ones who have moved our country forward… And thus, we’re quick to dismiss activists who aren’t “respectable” enough in our estimation. Audre Lorde declared that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — we have to be careful that our tactics for justice are intersectional so we don’t, through our ignorance or negligence, further the oppression of any marginalized group.
Zach: Absolutely. What we really need to hammer home is that people’s lives are at stake. Every day people of color are murdered by the police, harassed by white supremacists, thrown in prison for victimless crimes by the cops; LGBTQ kids are bullied into committing suicide, threatened, and often murdered; working class people are having their wages stolen and life saving healthcare taken away; and indigenous people are having their land stolen and their water poisoned; and sooner or later climate change is going to seriously impact us all. A lot of people don’t have the choice to resist or not, it’s resist or die. If we aren’t one of those people, then we have a choice: we can either sit back and let others die, or we can be willing to put our own lives on the line and stand up for the people who are being targeted. So long as the Klan exists or anyone is advocating genocide, or the police are using violence to keep systems of oppression in place, we have to be willing to fight if we believe in a free and equal society.
Catie: I have realized that a commitment to absolute non-violence requires a willingness to be severely harmed, or even die, for our values. Absolute non-violence means we don’t depend on someone else’s violence (such as expecting the police or Antifa to defend us from white supremacists’ violence) and thus we put ourselves at real bodily risk. I honestly don’t think I can say that for myself yet, that I believe in nonviolence so much, even though philosophically it makes sense to me. I’ll be reflecting on my wavering personal commitment to this, while remembering to refrain from snap judgments about how others choose to resist.
Both Rev. Catie and Zach are curious to hear how other members and friends of First Parish are thinking about resistance and nonviolence. Are you committed to nonviolence in protest, and what does that mean for you? Where have we seen judgment of marginalized communities and individuals in their forms of counter/protest against injustice? How do you remind yourself of the intersections of all forms of oppression, and how will you work to help everyone “get free”? You can comment here on the blog and you are welcome to reach out to us at an upcoming worship service!