Lately, I’ve been feeling older than ever.
Whatever happened to “nonviolent” protests? Didn’t there used to be nonviolent protests? Or am I having a senior moment?
It seems like nonviolent protests have all turned into merely peaceful protests. There’s a difference, right?
A peaceful protest is one in which we’re marching along shouting our slogans, no weapons showing, with intent not to pick fights with police or counter protesters, but there’s no commitment to refrain from countering violence with violence, which means there are little to no plans in place for de-escalations.
Nonviolent protests are planned. Participants are coached in de-escalation. Nonviolence isn’t a lack of violent intent — it’s a shared strategy.
My first peaceful but far from nonviolent protests were a number of protests against the Vietnam War that I got caught up in back in the 1970s. So I know the move away from nonviolence to merely peaceful isn’t new. But back then with new zest, people seemed well aware that they were turning their backs on the nonviolent strategy. There was an effort to maintain a semblance of nonviolence and it paid off.
A case in point was when a few hundred protesters occupied a UW campus building. The protesters expected the Seattle SWAT team to show up, break their way into the building and then bust heads as necessary to dislodge the occupiers.
[A thought in passing: Is there even a SWAT team anymore? It seems like the whole police department is now one big SWAT team. Just wondering.]
If there was ever a plan in place for the occupation to be a true nonviolent protest, it was hard to tell, what with all the guns the protesters smuggled in. Maybe the organizers of the occupation never intended an armed confrontation — but if they didn’t, the idea wasn’t conveyed to all the participants.
As it happened, the SWAT team did arrive, and stood there waiting for orders to move in while the organizers of the occupation negotiated a safe exit from the building. The protesters were allowed to leave the building without arrests and promptly declared a political victory. I’m sure they were allowed to leave, because they kept the guns out of view and at least maintained the fiction of being nonviolent.
Around about the same time, the famous Seattle freeway march happened.
On May 5, 1970, at least 5,000 war protesters massed on campus and marched along NE 45th Street toward the freeway, including myself. As they crossed the freeway, they “spontaneously” turned south onto the 45th Street on-ramp and poured onto the freeway, stopping traffic and, as one headless mass, prepared to march all the way downtown.
Actually, the mass had a head. The spontaneous swing to the on-ramp was choreographed by some of the same organizers who gave us the aforementioned building occupation. They got out front and cheered the crowd on with bull horns.
Then the Seattle SWAT team showed up again, facing the marchers down at the Boylston-Roanoke I-5 exit. They didn’t rush them, didn’t use tear gas, just blocked the path of the marchers.
Whenever I hear old liberal fogies like me talk about the Seattle freeway march, I feel like I was at a different event than they were. The way my liberal old fogie friends who were there describe it, this standoff was the most important part of the march. It sent a powerful message.
The way I remember it, the successful march grew out of the standoff, when some of the organizers had a nonviolent light go off in their heads and negotiated with the police to be allowed to take the march down Eastlake Avenue rather than continue to block the freeway.
It was the march down Eastlake Avenue that sent a powerful message. As soon as we got down off the freeway, we were marching past houses and apartment buildings, and the residents cheered us on, and many of them came out to join us.
Giving the freeway back to the thousands of motorists who by then were thoroughly enraged at us was the best thing that could have happened. We left the motorists behind to find a whole community of allies we didn’t know we had.
And how was the negotiation to take to Eastlake possible? It was because the organizers of the march could convince the police that they were not just being peaceful, but proactively nonviolent.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at drwes (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more in the Sept. 9-15, 2020 issue.