“Defense” has hidden traps and ties to classism and patriarchy. Allies would be wise to respect a community’s intuitive survival knowledge.
A white ally marching with the striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968. (Flickr)
A favorite tactic of the extremist right is to attack oppressed communities in order to discourage them from standing up for themselves. Milo Yiannopolous and Ann Coulter stand out as two celebrities who have done this verbally, while new groups like the Proud Boys and old groups like the Ku Klux Klan do it physically.
When those who aren’t the ones being targeted show solidarity in some way, progressive movements have a better chance to grow. In the early 1970s gay men suffered a wave of physical attacks outside bars in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood because we’d gained publicity while campaigning for our rights. I led nonviolent workshops for the Gay Activist Alliance on how to respond to the bashers. I remember how moved I was when heterosexuals turned up at the workshops as well.
In the proud history of LGBTQ progress, heterosexuals played an ally role even when it put them in jeopardy in one way or another. They were following the path of white people who’d risked by joining civil rights actions even though they were sometimes more severely beaten than their black comrades because whites were regarded as “race-traitors.” An example is portrayed in the Danny Glover film “Freedom Song,” the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s entrance into Mississippi Klan territory.
Avoiding the ‘white savior syndrome’
Starting in the early 1980s liberals and progressives in the United States developed a culture that prioritized defense. When the economic elite initiated its fierce pushback, symbolized by President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of the air traffic controllers in order to break their union, most of the major progressive movements of the 1960s and ‘70s became reactive. They decided to focus on retaining previously-won gains.
A brave exception was the LGBTQ movement, which remained on the offensive and continued to win victories. The rest — labor, civil rights, women, school reformers — found their gains eroding, which is what happens when people go on the defensive.
Being on the defense means coming from an inherent place of weakness.
The progressives’ new defense-oriented culture means that antifa’s claim to defend vulnerable communities is appealing. For example, if you’re a middle-class activist already trying to defend previously-achieved gains, it will only seem natural to apply that approach to your newfound embrace of identity politics. After all, if your collective identity includes privilege, shouldn’t you leap to defend a group that is more oppressed? Isn’t that just “common sense”?
Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this new progressive mode of thinking: being on the defense means coming from an inherent place of weakness. But that’s not the only problem of being on the defense — it also raises the always-tricky relationship of allies to an oppressed group.
As is so often the case in trying to untangle the discourse on oppression, we find both classism and patriarchy have edged their way into the discussion. The very phrase “vulnerable communities” is a signal; the words suggest that I, the privileged ally, believe others — as communities — are weaker and need protection.
It’s much more straightforward to respond to individuals being threatened. I’ve shared stories of intervention in situations where someone was being attacked or threatened. Luckily, my fellow teacher George Willoughby was nearby to step in nonviolently when I was being threatened with a knife by an outraged student.
We intervene in those situations not because we’re privileged but because we’re able to be useful.
What’s not helpful is the abstract assignment of “vulnerability” to a collective identity. The Collins Dictionary defines the word vulnerable as “weakness.” The very act of describing oppressed groups as needing help from me, “the stronger one,” fits all too neatly into classist, racist and other oppressive conditioning.
The reality is that most of the wins for justice despite opposition by the economic elite have been gained mainly by the oppressed, not by the privileged. Based on results, the more vulnerable have been the stronger ones.
Some men assisted in the woman suffrage movements, but most of the heavy lifting was done by “the weaker sex.” In the U.S. case, it was women picketing the White House who were beaten up, not men, and their willingness to respond nonviolently changed the politics of a nation at war.
Learning to trust ‘mother wit’
I learned this phrase from a black student when I was teaching at the Martin Luther King School of Social Change. Because oppressed people have experienced so much mistreatment and survived, many of them have a finely-tuned intuition about how to handle their oppressors.
I entrusted my life to that intuition, when — in 1989 — I joined the first Peace Brigades International, or PBI, team in Sri Lanka. Our job was to act as unarmed bodyguards for lawyers who were threatened with assassination because they were standing up for activists’ human rights.
Each of us followed the directions of whichever lawyer we were assigned to. In one case I was told to live with the lawyer’s family and answer the doorbell at night after curfew, on the chance it was the hit squad there to kill the lawyer. Whatever delaying tactics I used, enhanced by my American white skin privilege, might give him the margin of safety he needed. He readily agreed to PBI’s policy that he needed to lock up his gun, believing that nonviolent intervention gave him a better chance than a shoot-out.
After I moved into his house he took me on a “social call” to drink tea with the family of a colleague. On the way home he told me that the colleague was acquainted with the controller of the hit squad. “By tonight,” he said, “the controller will know all about PBI and possible repercussions if he kills me. He’ll think twice about dispatching the next hit squad.”
The lawyer’s immediate tactical move once again reminded me of one reason why oppressed people have so often taken leadership in nonviolent breakthroughs. Their subordinate situation incentivizes them to look for subtle dynamics that provide openings, ways to move forward and still stay safe.
I could relate. When the epidemic of gay-bashing broke out in my town, would I have wanted heterosexual allies to come into the Gayborhood with weapons to protect us, the “vulnerable community”? No way!
As a gay man struggling in the ‘70s, the last thing I wanted was well-meaning allies to pack a gun to protect me. I had gay friends who’d been bashed and I knew of lesbians and gay men who’d been killed. Our movement chose nonviolent tactics because, in our judgment, more of us were likely to get badly hurt or killed if violence was used for “protection.”
That’s like the Jewish congregations of today who, after the Squirrel Hill massacre in Pittsburgh, are refusing to use armed guards partly because they believe it’s safer to rely on the community of nonviolent allies than to risk the possibility of violent escalation with violent anti-Jewish forces.
The Sri Lankan lawyer and other human rights defenders’ intuitive choice to rely on nonviolent intervention for survival has been borne out empirically. For decades now PBI and other unarmed civilian peacekeepers have been operating in violent situations, keeping people alive.
Violence is a hatchet when a surgeon’s knife is needed
The intention of well-meaning allies to assist threatened communities is made more difficult with violence. As shown by the examples above, allies to oppressed people will do better by letting go of the “father knows best” syndrome and respecting the intuitive survival knowledge of those in that community who can see the subtleties and therefore can appreciate the value of creative nonviolent intervention.
Violence is anything but subtle; in fact, it is such a gross tool that it often spins a situation out of control. Cornell West was relieved when armed anti-fascists came to the rescue in Charlottesville, Virginia when he and other pastors were surrounded by menacing white supremacists. However, because counter-violence usually amps up a confrontation, the pastors could instead have been hurt or killed by random cross-fire.
In fact, in the growing chaos other anti-racists were injured and killed in Charlottesville. Hopefully the next time professor West enters a chancy situation he’ll make sure that those doing the intervention know their nonviolent tactics and know how to de-escalate instead of bringing a higher degree of chaos.
As the civil rights movement learned brilliantly in multiple situations of violent threat by white supremacists, tactics of disruption can be effective when we’re in charge. That means, for one thing, doing our nonviolent direct action as part of a strategic campaign, as in Birmingham, Selma, and Mississippi. Chaos, on the other hand, is not our friend. Even the weapon-carrying experiment by the Deacons of Defense, composed of other black people, was problematic.
And what about winning?
In the LGBTQ community we want more than relief from the bullying and life-threatening violence we have endured. We also wanted to win equality. Those in any oppressed community ready to struggle know there are risks, would like to minimize them, and still want to choose a strategy that maximizes their chance of winning.
Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan found in their sample of 323 cases of mass struggle that the opponent responded with violent repression 88 percent of the time – in both violent and nonviolent struggles. The opponent’s power and privilege was, after all, threatened whether the movement used violence or nonviolent action. However, nonviolent campaigns that responded to the repression with nonviolent tactics increased their chance of winning by about 22 percent.
In other words, if your goals are substantial enough, expect suffering no matter which means you use. Choosing to respond nonviolently increases the chance that the suffering will result in more justice for your community. My new book, “How We Win,” aims to maximize your chance of winning, by drawing from a century’s worth of successful campaigns to find lessons especially applicable to today’s political moment.
The civil rights movement, running ahead of the political scientists, believed that nonviolent discipline would increase their probability of success when facing terroristic violence. The overwhelming majority of black participants in the Deep South relied on nonviolent discipline instead of violent self-defense. The movement won its greatest victories in the part of the United States where the violence against it was the worst.
This wisdom about how we win is very much alive today. On November 22, 2015, five members of Black Lives Matter were shot by white supremacists during a late-night demonstration at a police precinct station in Minneapolis.
Instead of the movement asking the mostly-white members of Standing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, to bring armed protection for continued demonstrations, Black Lives Matter raised its level of nonviolent confrontation. They led a mass march from the precinct to City Hall. Instead of relying on masks (which signal fear), the organizers began the march by circling the precinct, urging the demonstrators to “let them see our faces, let them know who is here.”
The white supremacists backed off instead of continuing to attack the campaign’s actions. Expecting bullets to intimidate black people into stopping their campaign just wasn’t working, and white allies worked in tandem with that.
It’s only one story of many in which oppressed communities lead the way, innovating nonviolent responses to attack that not only reduced further injury but also pushed the campaign assertively forward. Antifa, and all of us, need to learn from those innovations.