Violence and Protest (Re: Guilt, Shame and Coercion

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Wed Oct 21 19:35:39 PDT 1998

-----Original Message----- From: K <d-m-c at> To: LBO <lbo-talk at>

>I've wrestled over it
>before and I'll say that I tend toward your views
>on some level--at times --when I feel like it.

And I tend toward your views a lot of the time. Hell, when I was younger and a union organizer in Las Vegas, my boss complained that I was too nice. One of the key workers was going in for biospies for cancer and I actually accepted that as an excuse for missing union meetings. Just couldn't generate enough shame or guilt, only sympathy. What a wuss was I.

More seriously, I generally do believe that a positive message, revolutionary love as you will, and education really are the best tools. I just also accept that struggle happens at a pace we don't control and the shortcuts of shame and even violence occasionally are needed.

>Do you think then that coercion through violence
>is acceptable and if so when?

Most of the time not, although with the level of violence directed by the state and employers against so many people, it's hard for me to really argue that position on philosophical grounds. It's more at the practical level that when the other side has the guns and the monopoly on legitimate violence, it's usually suicidal to open our side up to violent conflict that we ultimately can't win. And violence tends to empower those on our side who enjoy the combat for its own sake rather than the goals of love and justice. And the history of violent struggles and revolutions is that those with the guns rarely hand back power to the broader democratic forces of the movement.

Most useful violence on our side is used in forms of self-defense, sometimes as threat on a picket line or other space, sometimes in extremity when provacateurs are trying to disrupt nonviolent protest. During the affirmative action fight at UC-Berkeley, the undergrads were having a quite large rally (around 5000 people as it turned out) and a small leftwing nutso group, the Revolutionary Workers League, was planning to disrupt it as they had been working to do all Fall. (On the theory that the bourgois liberal coalition should give way to their radical leadership, and out of the shards of their organization, they could gain some new cult members). Undergrads had already been physically attacked at earlier rallies, shaking these idealist kids up quite a bit.

On the day of the rally, a bunch of area leftists who were most familiar with this kind of disruption got together and trained as a counter-force squad. As it turned out, all we had to do was link hands and physically surround them to keep them away from the stage. One of our people did steal the mike they had for the portable sound system they were planning to use to drown out the speakers. They provoked one fight later in the rally, and during the mass march when the protesters confronted the cops, they did hang out in the second row and try to shove the undergrads into the cops, so the kids could be "radicalized" by getting their heads busted.

Now, most of what we did that day was not very violent, but it was physically coercive to surround and block them, and a bit more physical coercion might have prevented the fight they did provoke and better protected those kids from being used as cannon fodder for the cops.

And in extreme political fights, I am not sure I can really condemn the threat of violence against spies or other people who might betray plans to the cops or less official opponents.

Offensive violence as I said is usually counterproductive but there is a whole range of defensive violence that seems unfortunately necessary in a lot of cases to prevent even worse violence. It's a tough call and I am hardly the person to promote it, but I'm not philosophically a pacifist either when others are threatening harm to innocent people, either. If folks can remain nonviolent in the face of such attacks, it can be a powerful force as Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed. I'm just not sure it works in all cases when folks are under attack.

Definately the hardest call of all.

--Nathan Newman

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