I am Not a Nonviolent Man

police rock throwingI deeply resonate with the words of César Chávez who said, “I am not a nonviolent man. I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.” As I observe the violence on the streets of Baltimore, and hear the pleas for peace mainly by those in power who are more interested in maintaining the unjust status quo, I am left wondering if the oppressed are approaching the day where trying to be nonviolent is counterproductive. Don’t get me wrong, even though I am a violent man – I am tryingprotestor rock throwing to be a pacifist, I am trying to be nonviolent; nevertheless, I am wrestling with the emerging consciousness that those who keep calling for nonviolence have their eyes on the protestors and not the major purveyor of violence. When President Obama condemned the “criminals and thugs who tore up” the city of Baltimore, he was referring to the protestors when he should have been referring to the thugs carrying badges. Baltimore’s shattered windows are not the results of a few opportunists with crowbars; they are the result of decades of abuses at the hands of police, the latest appearing to be six officers shattering the spinal cord of a poor black man.

I am not a nonviolent man.

Violence cannot be reduced to citizens throwing rocks at the enforcers of the law while ignoring the decades of police brutality. The true violence to consider arises from challenges to the dominant culture’s grip on power. Such violence can be immediate or drawn out, as in the case of institutional violence, such as the economic forces that foster ghettos – where from the margins, tax money of black neighborhoods is extracted for the benefit of the center, where those privileged by race and class get to enjoy the Inner Harbor. Governments act violently when they maintain social structures that inflict prolonged harm or injury upon a segment of the population usually disenfranchised due to race or economic standing.

I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.

The choice we face is whether to participate in the use of violence or to advocate nonviolent resistance to oppressive structures. We must distinguish between the unjust institutional violence of the oppressors, (who employs a police force charged in maintaining a distance between the despicable social structures that causes marginalization from the safe spaces of those who they are charged to serve and protect) from the just violence of the oppressed (who are left with no other recourse but to engage in it to raise consciousness in the hopes of being heard). Violence cannot be acceptable when the custodians of the privileged engaged in it to suppress human dignity but wrong when the disenfranchised engages in violence to achieve the human dignity denied.

I am not a nonviolent man.

True, some of the protestors rage is misdirected, and true, maybe more productive ways of protest (other than looting) could have been employed; but the actions of protestors pales in comparison when faced with a history of economic exploitation of Baltimore’s Blacks by the government and a history of physical exploitation by the police. The continuous violence of smashed black and brown faces is a greater ignominy than smashed windows. The looting of the city by Wells Fargo is more grievous then the looting done by some protestors. The continuous violence of overturned lives due to economic deprivation is a greater sin than overturned police cruisers. And the “rough ride”  is more criminal than anything any protestor has done thus far. Probably the best formula to end the violence in Baltimore, or the next city sitting on a power keg with just one “colored” body away from erupting into chaos is for white America to be as indignant about rampant unchecked police brutality and sanctioned murder of dark bodies as they are about looting. When white America is as incensed about a minimum wage that comes nowhere close to providing a living wage, trapping so many (including poor whites) into hopeless despair.  When white America expresses as much ire over the destruction of human life where brown and black bodies pile-up as the consequences of law and order than they are about the destruction of private property.

I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.

We can no longer go to the police department to request a permit from the police department to protest the police brutality of the police department. Riot is the language of the hopeless who have come to the realization that democracy is a façade that gives the illusion of choice when in reality it simply presents two candidates, regardless of their race, gender or ethnicity, who sell themselves to the highest corporate bidder; where capitalism is an economic system rigged so that the many can offer up their lives to save and provide abundant life for the shrinking few; where more is spent on militarizing the police to maintain an unsustainable status quo that perpetuates an institutional violence that cuts short brown and black lives than in revitalizing the neighborhoods they patrol with educational opportunities.

I am not a nonviolent man.

To remain silent or to do nothing in the face of violence is to participate in it through complicity. At times, in the face of the violence being committed upon the marginalized, some purposely remain silent or speak their disapproval in muted voices, lest they jeopardize their privileged space. How then should the disenfranchised react to the constant institutional violence faced by the least among us? When asked if counter-violence is ever an option we must remember that violence already exists in the hands of those in power, and through their agents, the police. Thus, the question is not if the oppressed should utilize violence; but rather, do they have a right to defend themselves from the already existing violence.

I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.

Denouncing unjust social structures is simply not enough, for those accustomed to power and privilege will never willingly abdicate what they consider to be a birthright. I recall a conversation I once had in Mexico with a Zapatista rebel who told me that when he went to the government’s bureaucracy to protest injustice he was told “go away you smelly Indian;” but when he showed up the next day with a bandana covering his face carrying a rifle, they took the time to listen to his complaints. Violence (or the threat of it), when employed by the marginalized to overcome their own oppression, is in reality self-defense and can never be confused with the continuing violence employed by those in power. Those protesting in the streets of Baltimore (and the next cities that are poised to erupt) are faced with deciding in which violence they will participate. Will they remain quiet and do nothing, thus become complicit with the violence of a dominant culture protecting “by any means possible” the privileged spaces of Disney, Koch Industries, or Wal-Mart; or with nothing to lose, stand in solidarity with the oppressed, fighting against the powers and principalities of this world that brings disenfranchisement, dispossession, and death into their communities.

I am not a nonviolent man. I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.

Almost two-hundred and fifty years ago, a group of white rioters, wearing Indian make-up, fought the local militia, boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and destroyed private property because they felt oppressed by the ruling authorities. We call them patriots. But when people of color destroy property fighting against oppressive structures, we call them hoodlums, animals, criminals and thugs. Today, both sides are contributing to the violence. Police are throwing rocks at protestors and protestors are throwing rocks at the police. The question for those of us who claim to be Christians is if it is possible that upon these rocks, we can build a church? Can we build a church able to redirect the rage toward reconciliation based on justice-based praxis? The old 60s slogan is still relevant – no justice, no peace.

Miguel A. De La Torre

One thought on “I am Not a Nonviolent Man

  1. Pingback: Baltimore, Victomology, Empowerment & Wesley - Juicy Ecumenism

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