response to andy

by dean spade

first, i want to apologize for the bad layout job i did on the page that includes andy's response and chris' response to andy. i wanted them to be together so that readers could look at both at once, but i'm really still figuring out this whole html thing. that aside, let me thank andy and chris for their great responses. i'm glad that "decoding non-violent rhetoric" is generating some conversation. i hope that posting the dialogue will invite others to join in.

for myself, reading andy's piece brought up a few things i wanted to mention. first, i think that andy skips over the primary thing i was trying to problematize in "decoding non-violent rhetoric." andy assumes that the question before us is "violence or nonviolence, which tactic?" the obvious answer to this question would always be nonviolence (right?) since most people, myself included, are afraid of violence. however, my original point is that, for the western activist, this is a false dichotomy. violence can't be avoided by not picking up a weapon. we, particularly we in the US, are already engaged in violence. we are already living on land stolen by means of genocide. we are already eating, wearing, using products that are made with slave labor and with materials and processes that poison people. we are already part of an economy that leaves most people without the basic necessities of life so that a few can have extravagant comforts (which are then not considered extravagant by the comfortable). its too easy to pretend that i can wake up and choose non-violence when the very basis of my existence is severe system violence. andy's 'either, or' ignores this reality, and the urgency that it entails. if we realize we are already particpating in severe violence, doesn't our obligation to act immediately and by whatever means are necessary increase? andy asks "how do we transform society?" we are already creating/complying with "society" and all of its violence. an absence of violence is not an option--the question is rather, given this complex context, and our own complicity in violence, are we willing to say no to any strategies that might offer relief?

the second point that struck me in andy's response was his call to empower and raise the conciousness of the oppressed rather than acting violently toward the elite. i get this response to my position a lot. at a discussion on this topic at the brecht forum a few months ago, a pacifist activist responded to my presentation by suggesting that what we really need is to talk to our neighbors and "turn people on" to the truth. one of the things that is disturbing to me about this approach, although i agree that public education work is great, is that it often assumes a paternalism--that the real problem is that most people don't know they are being oppressed. in my view, the large majority of the world's people are being totally screwed in service of a very small group, and they know it. people know they have inadequate housing, they know their landlord refuses to fix the heat, they know they are being paid less than they need to live, they know they have an preventable occupational illness, they know their land is occupied by armed people who took it away from them. there definitely isn't agreement about what to do about these circumstances, but i think that the idea that the reason that revolutionary change isn't happening is because people have been blinded to their own circumstances is way too simplistic. it also denies that, even though people are very aware of their circumstances and who is fucking them over and for what ends, the forces of evil are so effective that their voices are often effectively squelched. again, i think that given the level to which people all over the world have been denied the ability to self-determine their circumstances, the question is raised: would i deny any strategy for change that might alleviate this suffering? would i judge anyone's choice to defend themselves against the murderous and genocidal forces currently at play with rocks, guns, or any other tool?

the final point in andy's response that i want to address is #4 about movement-building and the popularity of pacifism as an approach. i think this is a very false test for public opinion about strategies for social change. first, how can we ignore the role of corporate media, governmental propaganda, and miseducation in the school system in shaping this "choice." popular discussions about and media-generated panics about any confrontational anti-imperialist, anti-racist movements are designed to teach everyone that anyone opposing US policies of violence and genocide is crazy, dangerous, murderous, criminal, etc. this propaganda (like images of "those crazy palestinians" bravely throwing rocks at israeli soldiers) thwarts our understandings of what any resistance besides voting means. because anti-US agitation is cast as "terrorism" and "violence" while US war-making is cast as strategic, logical and sensible (unavoidable, even), people's conceptions of what constitutes violence or nonviolence, or what constitutes protest and self defense versus terrorism, is totally skewed. i'd bet that most americans wouldn't be opposed to the violence that was used to oust the british from the colonial US. similarly, many would probably support the use of violence to defend one's own life or the life of a loved one. given the extreme controversy around terms of violent and nonviolent action, and the coding of these terms to mean "pro-US" or "anti-US" in most political conversations, I don't think that andy's point about how most people would rather join a nonviolent movement is very meaningful. nonviolence as an abstract concept will always be more attractive than violence for obvious reasons, but this does not get to the issue of what tactics people might choose in a struggle against the massively murderous global economy.

thanks again, to andy and chris, for joining this dialogue. i hope we can continue supporting each others' work with thoughtful challenges and comments that yeild productive conversations like this one. i'm really enjoying it.


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