Nonviolence is Racist

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 29, 2018

I do not mean to exchange insults, and I use the epithet racist only after careful consideration. Nonviolence is an inherently privileged position in the modern context. Besides the fact that the typical pacifist is quite clearly white and middle class, pacifism as an ideology comes from a privileged context. It ignores that violence is already here; that violence is an unavoidable, structurally integral part of the current social hierarchy; and that it is people of color who are most affected by that violence. Pacifism assumes that white people who grew up in the suburbs with all their basic needs met can counsel oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably greater violence, until such time as the Great White Father is swayed by the movement’s demands or the pacifists achieve that legendary “critical mass.”

People of color in the internal colonies of the US cannot defend themselves against police brutality or expropriate the means of survival to free themselves from economic servitude. They must wait for enough people of color who have attained more economic privilege (the “house slaves” of Malcolm X’s analysis[47]) and conscientious white people to gather together and hold hands and sing songs. Then, they believe, change will surely come. People in Latin America must suffer patiently, like true martyrs, while white activists in the US “bear witness” and write to Congress. People in Iraq must not fight back. Only if they remain civilians will their deaths be counted and mourned by white peace activists who will, one of these days, muster a protest large enough to stop the war. Indigenous people need to wait just a little longer (say, another 500 years) under the shadow of genocide, slowly dying off on marginal lands, until-well, they’re not a priority right now, so perhaps they need to organize a demonstration or two to win the attention and sympathy of the powerful. Or maybe they could go on strike, engage in Gandhian noncooperation? But wait-a majority of them are already unemployed, noncooperating, fully excluded from the functioning of the system.

Nonviolence declares that the American Indians could have fought off Columbus, George Washington, and all the other genocidal butchers with sit-ins; that Crazy Horse, by using violent resistance, became part of the cycle of violence, and was “as bad as” Custer. Nonviolence declares that Africans could have stopped the slave trade with hunger strikes and petitions, and that those who mutinied were as bad as their captors; that mutiny, a form of violence, led to more violence, and, thus, resistance led to more enslavement. Nonviolence refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.

Pacifists must know, at least subconsciously, that nonviolence is an absurdly privileged position, so they make frequent usage of race by taking activists of color out of their contexts and selectively using them as spokespersons for nonviolence. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are turned into representatives for all people of color. Nelson Mandela was too, until it dawned on white pacifists that Mandela used nonviolence selectively, and that he actually was involved in liberation activities such as bombings and preparation for armed uprising.[48] Even Gandhi and King agreed it was necessary to support armed liberation movements (citing two examples, those in Palestine and Vietnam, respectively) where there was no nonviolent alternative, clearly prioritizing goals over particular tactics. But the mostly white pacifists of today erase this part of the history and re-create nonviolence to fit their comfort level, even while “claiming the mantle” of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.[49] One gets the impression that if Martin Luther King Jr. were to come in disguise to one of these pacifist vigils, he would not be allowed to speak. As he pointed out:

Apart from bigots and backlashers, it seems to be a malady even among those whites who like to regard themselves as “enlightened.” I would especially refer to those who counsel, “Wait!” and to those who say that they sympathize with our goals but cannot condone our methods of direct-action in pursuit of those goals. I wonder at men who dare to feel that they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another man’s liberation.

Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates.” I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler [sic] or the Ku Klux Klanner.


And it must be added that privileged white people were instrumental in appointing activists such as Gandhi and King to positions of leadership on a national scale. Among white activists and, not coincidentally, the white-supremacist ruling class, the civil rights-era March on Washington is associated first and foremost with Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream” speech. Mostly absent from the white consciousness, but at least as influential to black people, was Malcolm X’s perspective, as articulated in his speech criticizing the march’s leadership.

It was the grassroots out there in the street. It scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington, DC, to death; I was there. When they found out this black steamroller was going to come down on the capital, they called in...these national Negro leaders that you respect and told them, “Call it off.” Kennedy said, “Look, you all are letting this thing go too far.” And Old Tom said, “Boss, I can’t stop it because I didn’t start it.” I’m telling you what they said. They said, “I’m not even in it, much less at the head of it.” They said, “These Negroes are doing things on their own. They’re running ahead of us.” And that old shrewd fox, he said, “If you all aren’t in it, I’ll put you in it. I’ll put you at the head of it. I’ll endorse it. I’ll welcome it....

This is what they did at the march on Washington. They joined it...became part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all....
No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover....They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make, and then told them to get out of town by sundown.


The end result of the march was to invest significant movement resources, at a critical time, in an ultimately pacifying event. In the words of Bayard Rustin, one of the chief organizers of the march, “You start to organize a mass march by making an ugly assumption. You assume that everyone who is coming has the mentality of a three-year-old.”[52] Demonstrators received premade protest signs with government-approved slogans; the speeches of several protest leaders, including SNCC chairman John Lewis, were censored to take out threats of armed struggle and criticisms of the government’s civil rights bill; and, just as Malcolm X described, at the end, the whole crowd was told to leave as soon as possible.

Though he enjoys comparatively little attention in mainstream histories, Malcolm X was extremely influential on the black liberation movement, and he was recognized as such by the movement itself and by government forces charged with destroying the movement. In an internal memo, the FBI addresses the need to prevent the rise of a black “messiah” as part of its Counter Intelligence Program. According to the FBI, it is Malcolm X who “might have been such a ‘messiah’; he is the martyr of the movement today.”[53] The fact that Malcolm X was singled out by the FBI as a major threat raises the possibility of state involvement with his assassination;[54] certainly other non-pacifist black activists, who were identified by the FBI as particularly effective organizers, were targeted for elimination by means including assassination.[55] Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. was allowed his celebrity and influence until he became more radical, spoke of anti-capitalist revolution, and advocated solidarity with the armed struggle of the Vietnamese.

In effect, white activists, particularly those interested in minimizing the role of militant and armed struggle, assist the state in assassinating Malcolm X (and similar revolutionaries). They perform the cleaner half of the job, in disappearing his memory and erasing him from history.[56] And despite their absurdly disproportionate professions of devotion to him (there were, after all, a few other people who took part in the civil rights movement), they similarly help assassinate Martin Luther King Jr., though in his case a more Orwellian method (assassinate, reformulate, and co-opt) is used. Darren Parker, a black activist and consultant to grassroots groups whose criticisms have contributed to my own understanding of nonviolence, writes,

The number of times people quote King is one of the most off-putting things for most black folk because they know how much his life was focused on the race struggle...and when you actually read King, you tend to wonder why the parts critical of white people, which are the majority of the things he said and wrote, never get quoted


Thus King’s more disturbing (to white people) criticism of racism is avoided,[58] and his clichéd prescriptions for feel-good, nonviolent activism are repeated ad nauseum, allowing white pacifists to cash in on an authoritative cultural resource to confirm their nonviolent activism and prevent the acknowledgement of the racism inherent in their position by associating themselves with a noncontroversial black figurehead.
Pacifists’ revising of history to remove examples of militant struggles against white supremacy cannot be divorced from a racism that is inherent in the pacifist position. It is impossible to claim support for, much less solidarity with, people of color in their struggles when unavoidably significant groups such as the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, and the Vietcong are actively ignored in favor of a homogeneous picture of anti-racist struggle that acknowledges only those segments that do not contradict the relatively comfortable vision of revolution preferred mostly by white radicals. Claims of support and solidarity become even more pretentious when white pacifists draft rules of acceptable tactics and impose them across the movement, in denial of the importance of race, class background, and other contextual factors.

The point is not that white activists, in order to be anti-racist, need to uncritically support any Asian, Latino, indigenous, or black resistance group that pops up. However, there is a Eurocentric universalism in the idea that we are all part of the same homogeneous struggle and white people at the heart of the Empire can tell people of color and people in the (neo)colonies the best way to resist. The people most affected by a system of oppression should be at the forefront of the struggle against that particular oppression,[59] yet pacifism again and again produces organizations and movements of white people illuminating the path and leading the way to save brown people, because the imperative of nonviolence overrides the basic respect of trusting people to liberate themselves. Whenever white pacifists concern themselves with a cause that affects people of color, and resisters among the affected people of color do not conform to the particular definition of nonviolence in use, the white activists place themselves as the teachers and guides, creating a dynamic that is remarkably colonial. Of course, this is largely a function of whiteness (a socially constructed worldview taught diffusively to all people identified by society as “white”). Militant white activists can and do incur similar problems when they disrespect allies of color by dictating the appropriate, orthodox method of struggle.
The Weather Underground and other militant white groups of the 1960s and 70s did a horrible job of extending solidarity to the black liberation movement, voicing support but withholding any material aid, in part because they viewed themselves as a vanguard and the black groups as ideological competitors. Other white organizations, such as the Liberation Support Movement, used their support to exercise control over the anti-colonial liberation movements they claimed to be acting in solidarity with,[60] much the way a government aid agency operates.

Interestingly, even among militant white activists, racism encourages passivity. One of the problems of the Weather Underground is that they were claiming to fight alongside black and Vietnamese people, but this was just posturing — they conducted harmless, symbolic bombings and disdained actions likely to put their own lives at risk. Today, their veterans are not dead or imprisoned (excepting three victims of an early explosives making accident and those who left Weather to fight alongside members of the Black Liberation Army); they are living comfortably as academics and professionals.[61] Militant white anarchists in North America today exhibit similar tendencies. Many of the most vocal disdain ongoing liberation struggles, denouncing them as “not anarchist,” rather than supporting their most anti-authoritarian elements. The result is that these hard-core (and, at the same time, armchair) anarchists can find no real (and dangerous) resistance worthy of their support, so they stick to militant postures and the violence of ideological hairsplitting.

A white supremacist system punishes the resistance of people of color more harshly than the resistance of white people. Even white activists who have made ourselves aware of the dynamics of racism find the resulting privilege, one of socially guaranteed safety, difficult to relinquish. Accordingly, those who challenge white supremacy directly and militantly will seem threatening to us. Mumia Abu-Jamal writes:

The accolades and bouquets of late-20th-century Black struggle were awarded to veterans of the civil rights struggle epitomized by the martyred Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elevated by white and Black elites to the heights of social acceptance, Dr. King’s message of Christian forbearance and his turn-the-other-cheek doctrine were calming to the white psyche. To Americans bred for comfort, Dr. King was, above all, safe.
The Black Panther Party was the antithesis of Dr. King.

The Party was not a civil rights group...but practiced the human right of self-defense ....The Black Panther Party made (white) Americans feel many things, but safe wasn’t one of them


White pacifists (and even bourgeois black pacifists) are afraid of the total abolition of the white supremacist, capitalist system. They preach nonviolence to the people at the bottom of the racial and economic hierarchy precisely because nonviolence is ineffective, and any revolution launched ‘by those people,’ provided it remains nonviolent, will be unable to fully unseat white people and rich people from their privileged positions. Even strains of nonviolence that seek to abolish the state aim to do so by transforming it (and converting the people in power); thus, nonviolence requires that activists attempt to influence the power structure, which requires that they approach it, which means that privileged people, who have better access to power, will retain control of any movement as the gatekeepers and intermediaries who allow the masses to ‘speak truth to power.’

In November 2003, School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) activists organized an anti-oppression discussion during their annual pacifist vigil outside Fort Benning Army Base (which houses the School of the Americas, a military-training school prominently connected to human-rights abuses in Latin America). The organizers of the discussion had a difficult time getting the white, middle-class participants (by far the dominant demographic at the explicitly nonviolent vigil) to focus on oppressive dynamics (such as racism, classism, sexism, and transphobia) within the organization and among activists associated with SOAW’s anti-militarist efforts. Instead, people at the discussion, particularly older, white, self-proclaimed pacifists, kept returning to forms of oppression practiced by some external force — the police keeping an eye on the vigil, or the military subjugating people in Latin America. It was quite apparent that self-criticism (and -improvement) was an undesirable option; the preferable alternative was to focus on the faults of a violent other, emphasizing their own victimization by (and, hence, moral superiority to) the forces of state power. Eventually, a number of veteran activists of color who attended the discussion were able to move attention to the many forms of racism within the anti-SOA milieu that prevented it from attracting more support from non-privileged populations. Perhaps their major criticism, in pointing out the racism they witnessed, was against the organization’s practice of pacifism. They spoke against the white pacifists’ privileged, comfortable take on activism, and lambasted the casual, entertaining, celebratory attitude of the protest, with its pretensions of being revolutionary, even of being a protest.

One black woman was particularly incensed at an experience she had had while taking a bus down to the Fort Benning vigil with other anti-SOA activists. During a conversation with a white activist, she stated that she did not support the practice of nonviolence. That activist then told her she was “on the wrong bus” and did not belong at the protest. When I related this story and the other criticisms made by people of color during the discussion to a listserv of SOAW-affiliated former prisoners (after serving a fully voluntary, six-month-maximum prison sentence, they gave themselves the honorific title “prisoner of conscience”), one white peace activist wrote back to me that she was surprised that a black woman would be ideologically opposed to nonviolence, in spite of Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy of the civil rights movement.[63]

Beneath their frequent and manipulative usage of people of color as figureheads and tame spokespersons, pacifists follow a tactical and ideological framework formulated almost exclusively by white theorists. Whereas revolutionary activists are hard-pressed to find white theorists with anything relevant to say regarding the methods of militant struggle, the teachers of pacifism are primarily white (for example; David Dellinger, the Berrigans, George Lakey, Gene Sharp, Dorothy Day, and AJ Muste). An article espousing nonviolence published, appropriately enough, in The Nation, drops Gandhi’s name like a banner but primarily quotes white activists and scholars to articulate a more precise strategy.[64] Another article on nonviolence, recommended by a pacifist anti-SOA activist to non-pacifist activists who doubted pacifism’s strategic depth, relies solely on white sources.[65] A book popular among US pacifists states that “America has more often been the teacher than the student of the nonviolent ideal.[66]

Pacifists would also do well to examine the color of violence. When we mention riots, whom do we envision? White activists committing property destruction as a form of civil disobedience may stretch, but do not usually lose, the protective covering of “nonviolence.” People of color engaged in politically motivated property destruction, unless strictly within the rubric of a white activist-organized protest, are banished to the realm of violence, denied consideration as activists, not portrayed as conscientious.

The racism of the judicial system, a major and violent component of our society, though one rarely prioritized for opposition by pacifists, has had a major impact on the American psyche. Violence and criminality are nearly interchangeable concepts (consider how comfortable pacifists are in using the terminology of statist morality — for example, “justice” — as their own), and a chief purpose of both concepts is to establish blame. Just as criminals deserve repression and punishment, people who use violence deserve the inevitable karmic violent consequences; this is integral to the pacifist position. They may deny believing that anyone deserves to have violence used against them, but a stock argument common among pacifists is that revolutionaries should not use violence because the state will then use this to “justify” violent repression. Well, to whom is this violent repression justified, and why aren’t those who claim to be against violence trying to un-justify it? Why do nonviolent activists seek to change society’s morality in how it views oppression or war, but accept the morality of repression as natural and untouchable?

This idea of the inevitable repressive consequences of militancy frequently goes beyond hypocrisy to outright victim-blaming and approval of repressive violence. People of color who are oppressed with police and structural violence every day are counseled against responding with violence because that would justify the state violence already mobilized against them. Victim-blaming was a key part of pacifist discourse, strategy even, in the 1960s and 70s, when many white activists helped justify state actions and neutralize what could have become anti-government outrage at violent state repression of black and other liberation movements, such as the police assassinations of Panther organizers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Rather than supporting and aiding the Panthers, white pacifists found it more fashionable to state that they had “provoked violence” and “brought this on themselves.”[67]

More recently, at the previously mentioned anarchist conference, I charged that the US anti-war movement deserved to share the blame in the deaths of three million Vietnamese for being so accommodating to state power. A pacifist, anarchist, and Christian Peacemaker responded to my charge by stating that the blame belonged with (I expected him to say the US military alone, but no!) Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese leadership for practicing armed struggle.[68] (Either this pacifist considers the Vietnamese people unable to have made the highly popular step toward violent resistance themselves, or he blames them as well.) One gets the impression that if more Gypsies, Jews, gays, and others had violently resisted the Holocaust, pacifists would find it convenient to blame that little phenomenon on the absence of an exclusively pacifist opposition as well.

By preaching nonviolence, and abandoning to state repression those who do not listen obediently, white activists who think they are concerned about racism are actually enacting a paternalistic relationship and fulfilling the useful role of pacifying the oppressed. The pacification, through nonviolence, of people of color intersects with the preference of white supremacist power structures to disarm the oppressed. The celebrated civil rights leaders, including King, were instrumental to the government’s “bullet and ballot” strategy in isolating and destroying militant black activists and manipulating the remainder to support a weakened, pro-government agenda centered around voter registration. In fact, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) got paid by the government for their services.[69] (And the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was largely dependent on the donations of wealthy liberal benefactors, which it lost when it adopted a more militant stance, a factor that contributed to its collapse.)[70]

A century earlier, one of the major activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the years following the Civil War was to disarm the entire black population of the South, stealing any weapons they could find from newly “freed” black people, often with the assistance of the police. In fact, the Klan acted largely as a paramilitary force for the state in times of unrest, and both the Klan and modem US police forces have roots in the antebellum slave patrols, which regularly terrorized black people as a form of control, in what might be described as the original policy of racial profiling.[71] Today, with the security of the racial hierarchy assured, the Klan has fallen into the background, the police retain their weapons, and pacifists who think themselves allies urge black people not to re-arm themselves, ostracizing those who do.

A generation after the failure of the civil rights movement, black resistance gave birth to hip-hop, which mainstream cultural forces such as the recording industry, clothing manufacturers, and for-profit media (that is, white-owned businesses) capitalize and purchase. These capitalist cultural forces, which have been protected by the disarming of black people and enriched by their evolving slavery, wax pacifist and decry the prevalence of lyrics about shooting (back at) cops. Hip-hop artists bonded to the major record labels largely abandon the glorification of anti-state violence and replace it with an increase in the more fashionable violence against women. The appearance of nonviolence, in the case of black people not arming themselves or advocating struggle against police, is, in fact, a reflection of the triumph of a previous violence.

The massive interpersonal violence of the Klan created a material shift that is maintained by systematized and less visible police violence. At the same time, the cultural power of white elites, itself gained and preserved through all sorts of economic and government violence, is used to co-opt black culture to foster a celebration of some of the same ideological constructs that justified kidnapping, enslaving, and lynching black people in the first place, while channeling the anger from generations of abuse into cycles of violence within black communities, rather than allowing it to foment violence against the all-too-deserving authorities. In the power dynamic described in this brief historical sketch, and in so many other histories of racial oppression, people who insist on nonviolence among the oppressed, if they are to have any role, end up doing the work of the white supremacist power structure whether they mean to or not.

Robert Williams provided an alternative to this legacy of disarmament. Sadly, his story is left out of the dominant narrative found in state-sanctioned school textbooks, and, if proponents of nonviolence have anything to say about it, is also excluded from the movement’s self-narrative and understanding of its own history. Beginning in 1957, Robert Williams armed the NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, to repel attacks from the Ku Klux Klan and the police. Williams influenced the formation of other armed self-defense groups, including the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which grew to include fifty chapters throughout the South that protected black communities and civil rights workers.[72] It is exactly these stories of empowerment that white pacifists ignore or blot out.

Nonviolence in the hands of white people has been and continues to be a colonial enterprise. White elites instruct the natives in how to run their economies and governments, while white dissidents instruct the natives in how to run their resistance. On April 20, 2006, a co-founder of Food Not Bombs (FNB), the majority-white anti-authoritarian group which serves free food in public places through one hundred chapters (mostly in North America, Australia, and Europe), sent out a call for support for the new FNB chapter in Nigeria.

This March Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry and local Nigerian volunteer Yinka Dada visited the people suffering in the shadow of Nigeria’s oil refineries. While conditions in the region are terrible, bombs are not a good way to improve conditions. The crisis in Nigeria has contributed to oil prices hitting a record $72 a barrel. It’s understandable that people are frustrated that the profits of their resources are enriching foreign companies while their environment is polluted and they live in poverty. Food Not Bombs is offering a nonviolent solution.


The Food Not Bombs call for support condemned the actions of the rebel militia, MEND, which is seeking autonomy for the Ijaw people of the Niger Delta and an end to the destructive oil industry (whereas FNB “welcomed Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s announcement of new jobs in the Delta Region” from oil revenues). MEND had kidnapped several foreign (US and European) oil-company employees to demand an end to government repression and corporate exploitation (the hostages were released unharmed). Curiously, while they condemned the kidnapping, Food Not Bombs failed to mention the bombing, by the Nigerian military under President Obasanjo, of several Ijaw villages believed to support MEND. And while there is no evidence that the “nonviolent solution” they say they are “offering” will do anything to free Nigerians from the exploitation and oppression they suffer, if nonviolence were implemented among Nigerians that would surely avert the government’s “crisis” and bring oil prices back down, which, I suppose, makes things more peaceful in North America.

Faced with the total repression of the white supremacist system, the obvious uselessness of the political process, and the shameless efforts of a dissident elite to exploit and control the rage of the oppressed, it should be no surprise or controversy at all that “the colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence,” to use the words of Frantz Fanon, the doctor from Martinique who authored one of the most important works on the struggle against colonialism.[74] Most white people have enough privilege and latitude that we may mistake these generously long, velvet-padded chains for freedom, so we comfortably agitate within the parameters of democratic society (the borders of which are composed of violently enforced racial, economic, sexual, and governmental structures). Some of us are further mistaken in assuming that all people face these same circumstances, and expect people of color to exercise privileges they don’t actually have. But beyond the strategic necessity of attacking the state with all means available to us, have those of us not faced with daily police intimidation, degradation, and subordination considered the uplifting effect of forcefully fighting back? Frantz Fanon writes, about the psychology of colonialism and of violence in pursuit of liberation, “At the level of individuals, violence [as a part of liberation struggle] is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex...and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self respect.”[75]

But proponents of nonviolence who come from privileged backgrounds, with material and psychological comforts guaranteed and protected by a violent order, do not grow up with an inferiority complex violently pounded into them. The arrogance of pacifists’ assumption that they can dictate which forms of struggle are moral and effective to people who live in far different, far more violent circumstances is astounding. Suburban white people who lecture children of the Jenin refugee camp or the Colombian killing fields on resistance bear a striking similarity to, say, World Bank economists who dictate “good” agricultural practices to Indian farmers who have inherited centuries-old agricultural traditions. And the benign relationship of privileged people to global systems of violence should raise serious questions as to the sincerity of privileged people, in, this case white people, who espouse nonviolence. To quote Darren Parker again, “The appearance, at least, of a nonviolent spirit is much easier to attain when one is not the direct recipient of the injustice and may in fact simply represent psychological distance. After all, it’s much easier to ‘Love thy enemy’ when they are not actually your enemy.”[76]

Yes, people of color, poor people and people from the Global South have advocated nonviolence (though typically such pacifists come from more privileged strata of their communities); however, only through a highly active sense of superiority can white activists judge and condemn oppressed people who do not do so. True, regardless of privilege, we should be able to trust our own analysis, but when that analysis rests on a dubious moral high ground and a conveniently selective interpretation of what constitutes violence, chances are our self-criticism has fallen asleep on the job. When we understand that privileged people derive material benefits from the exploitation of oppressed people, and that this means we benefit from the violence used to keep them down, we cannot sincerely condemn them for violently rebelling against the structural violence that privileges us. (Those who have ever condemned the violent resistance of people who have grown up in more oppressive circumstances than themselves should think about this the next time they eat a banana or drink a cup of coffee.)

I hope it is well understood that the government uses more violent forms of repression against people of color in resistance than against white people. When Oglala traditionals and the American Indian Movement stood up on Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s to assert a little independence and to organize against the endemic bullying of the imposed “tribal government,” the Pentagon, FBI, US Marshals, and Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted a full-fledged counterinsurgency program that resulted in daily violence and dozens of deaths. According to Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, “The principle of armed self-defense had, for the dissidents, become a necessity of survival.”[77]

The only proponents of nonviolence I have ever heard reject even the legitimacy of self-defense have been white, and though they may hold up their Oscar Romeros, they and their families have not personally had their survival threatened as a result of their activism.[78] I have a hard time believing that their aversion to violence has as much to do with principles as with privilege and ignorance. And beyond mere self-defense, whether individuals have faced the possibility of having to fight back to survive or to improve their lives depends largely on the color of their skin and their place in various national and global hierarchies of oppression. It is these experiences that nonviolence ignores by treating violence as a moral issue or a chosen thing.

The culturally sensitive alternative within pacifism is that privileged activists allow, or even support, militant resistance in the Global South, and possibly in the internal colonies of the Euro/American states, and only advocate nonviolence to people with a similarly privileged background. This formulation presents a new racism, suggesting that the fighting and dying be carried out by people of color in the more overtly oppressive states of the Global South, while privileged citizens of the imperial centers may be contented with more contextually appropriate forms of resistance such as protest rallies and sit-ins.

An anti-racist analysis, on the other hand, requires white people to recognize that the violence against which people of color must defend themselves originates in the white “First World.” Thus, appropriate resistance to a regime that wages war against colonized people across the globe is to bring the war home; to build an anti-authoritarian, cooperative, and anti-racist culture among white people; to attack institutions of imperialism; and to extend support to oppressed people in resistance without undermining the sovereignty of their struggle. However, non-absolutist pacifists who allow for a little cultural relativism are typically less likely to support armed revolution when the fighting gets close to home. The thinking is that Palestinians, for example, may engage in militant struggle because they live under a violent regime, but for the brutalized residents of the nearest urban ghetto to form guerrilla units would be “inappropriate” or “irresponsible.” This is the “not in my backyard” tendency, which is fueled by the recognition that a revolution there would be exciting, but a revolution here would deprive privileged activists of our comfort. Also present is the latent fear of racial uprising, which is assuaged only when it is subordinated to a nonviolent ethic. Black people marching is photogenic. Black people with guns evokes the violent crime reports on the nightly news. American Indians holding a press conference is laudable. American Indians ready, willing, and able to take their land back is a trifle disturbing. Thus, white peoples’ support for, and familiarity with, revolutionaries of color on the home front is limited to inert martyrs — the dead and the imprisoned.

The contradiction in ostensibly revolutionary pacifism is that revolution is never safe, but to the vast majority of its practitioners and advocates, pacifism is about staying safe, not getting hurt, not alienating anyone, not giving anyone a bitter pill to swallow. In making the connection between pacifism and the self-preservation of privileged activists, Ward Churchill quotes a pacifist organizer during the Vietnam era who denounced the revolutionary tactics of the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground because those tactics were “a really dangerous thing for all of us...they run the very real risk of bringing the same sort of violent repression [as seen in the police assassination of Fred Hampton] down on all of us.”[79] Or, to quote David Gilbert, who is serving an effective life sentence for his actions as a member of the Weather Underground who went on to support the Black Liberation Army, “Whites had something to protect. It was comfortable to be at the peak of a morally prestigious movement for change while Black people were taking the main casualties for the struggle.”[80]

The pacifist desire for safety continues today. In 2003, a nonviolent activist reassured a Seattle newspaper about the character of planned protests. “I’m not saying that we would not support civil disobedience,” Woldt said. “That has been part of the peace movement that church people have engaged in, but we are not into property damage or anything that creates negative consequences for us.”[81]

And on a listserv for a radical environmental campaign in 2004, a law student and activist, after inviting an open discussion of tactics, advocated an end to the mention of non-pacifist tactics and demanded a strict adherence to nonviolence on the grounds that non-pacifist groups “get annihilated.”[82] Another activist (and, incidentally, one of the other law students on the list) agreed, adding, “I think that having a discussion about violent tactics on this list is playing with fire, and it is putting everyone at risk.” She was also concerned that “two of us will be facing the star chamber of the ethics committee of the Bar Association sometime in the near future.”[83]

Of course, proponents of militancy must understand that there is a great need for caution when we discuss tactics, especially via e-mail, and that we face the hurdle of building support for actions that are more likely to get us harassed or imprisoned, even if all we do is discuss them. However, in this example, the two law students were not saying that the group should discuss only legal tactics or hypothetical tactics, they were saying that the group should discuss only nonviolent tactics. Since it had been billed as a discussion to help the group create ideological common ground, this was a manipulative way of using threats of government repression to prevent the group from even considering anything other than an explicitly nonviolent philosophy.
Because of the weighty self-interest of white people in preventing revolutionary uprisings in their own backyard, there has been a long history of betrayal by white pacifists who have condemned and abandoned revolutionary groups to state violence. Rather than “putting themselves in harm’s way” to protect members of the black, brown, and red liberation movements (a protection their privilege might have adequately conferred because of how costly it would have been for the government to murder affluent white people in the midst of all the dissension spurred by heavy losses in Vietnam), conscientious pacifists ignored the brutalization, imprisonment, and assassination of Black Panthers, American Indian Movement activists, and others. Worse still, they encouraged the state repression and claimed that the revolutionaries deserved it by engaging in militant resistance. (Nowadays, they are claiming that the liberationists’ ultimate defeat, which pacifists facilitated, is proof of the ineffectiveness of liberationists’ tactics.) Revered pacifist David Dellinger admits that “one of the factors that induces serious revolutionaries and discouraged ghetto-dwellers to conclude that nonviolence is incapable of being developed into a method adequate to their needs is this very tendency of pacifists to line up, in moments of conflict, with the status quo.”[84] David Gilbert concludes that “failure to develop solidarity with the Black and other liberation struggles within the US (Native American, Chicano/Mexican, Puerto Rican) is one of the several factors that caused our movement to fall apart in the mid-70s.”[85] Mumia Abu-Jamal questions, were white radicals “really ready to embark on a revolution, one that did not prize whiteness?”[86]

At first, nonviolence seems like a clear moral position that has little to do with race. This view is based on the simplistic assumption that violence is first and foremost something that we choose. But which people in this world have the privilege to choose violence, and which people live in violent circumstances whether they want to or not? Generally, nonviolence is a privileged practice, one that comes out of the experiences of white people, and it does not always make sense for people without white privilege or for white people attempting to destroy the system of privilege and oppression.

Many people of color have also used nonviolence, which in certain circumstances has been an effective way to stay safe in the face of violent discrimination, while seeking limited reforms that do not ultimately change the distribution of power in society. The use of nonviolence by people of color has generally been a compromise to a white power structure. Recognizing that the white power structure prefers the oppressed to be nonviolent, some people have chosen to use nonviolent tactics to forestall extreme repression, massacres, or even genocide. Movements of people of color peacefully pursuing revolutionary goals have tended to use a form of nonviolence that is less absolute, and more confrontational and dangerous, than the kind of nonviolence preserved in North America today. And even then, the practice of nonviolence is often subsidized by whites in power,[87] used by white dissidents or government officials to manipulate the movement for their comfort, and usually abandoned by large portions of the grassroots in favor of more militant tactics. The use of nonviolence to preserve white privilege, within the movement or society at large, is still common today.
On inspection, nonviolence proves to be tangled up with dynamics of race and power. Race is essential to our experience of oppression and of resistance. A long standing component of racism has been the assumption that Europeans, or European settlers on other continents, have known what is best for people they considered “less civilized.” People fighting against racism must unmistakably end this tradition and recognize that the imperative for each community to be able to determine its own form of resistance based on its own experiences leaves any priority given to pacifism in the dust. Furthermore, the fact that much of the violence faced by people of color around the world originates in the power structure that privileges white people should lend white people greater urgency in pushing the boundaries for the level of militancy that is considered acceptable in white communities. In other words, for those of us who are white, it becomes our duty to build our own militant culture of resistance, and, contrary to the role of teacher historically self-appointed to white people, we have a great deal to learn from the struggles of people of color. White radicals must educate other white people about why people of color are justified in rebelling violently and why we too should use a diversity of tactics to free ourselves, struggle in solidarity with all who have rejected their place as the lackeys or slaves of the elite, and end these global systems of oppression and exploitation.