If Colin Kaepernick’s nonviolent protest revealed anything about America, it’s that many Americans don’t understand nonviolent protest. Still, America seems to have fetishized “nonviolence” and become infatuated with the idea of “peaceful” protests. Many Americans seem to think that protest can be done without upsetting anyone, polarizing issues, or disrupting the status quo.
However, when pressed to describe what such protests should like, they add up to non-disruptive, non-events happening never and nowhere. What they call nonviolence is tantamount to nonaction! Those who want to create an anti-racist society must get free of these sentimental notions of passivity that serve as counterfeits for peace and nonviolence.
Creating an antiracist society requires a fight. I don’t mean that metaphorically. This anti-black world is not just one big misunderstanding we can educate our way out of. It is, and has always been, a battleground. We live amidst a centuries-old contest for power between racist and anti-racist forces. Nonviolence is the decision to enter that hegemonic contest, but without weapons.
The most celebrated freedom fighters in history understood that contending with antiblackness is an actual fight. For instance, Dr. King spoke of nonviolent action in military language throughout his career.
In the so-called I Have a Dream speech, King refers to the tactics of the Civil Rights movement as “a marvelous new militarism.”
Years later, while speaking at Stanford University in 1967, he would say, “I’m still absolutely convinced that nonviolence, massively organized, powerfully executed, [and] militantly developed, is still the most potent weapon available to the black man in his struggle in the United States of America .” He would be murdered while trying to organize a nationwide “nonviolent army” to build “an effective, militant and nonviolent movement of massive proportions .”
Even if the seekers of racial justice are not looking for a fight, their quest almost always provokes one. Never forget: the powers that be used dogs and fire hoses and batons on unarmed black students, ministers, and church mothers seeking nothing more than to eat a meal, ride the bus, or vote in peace. Never forget that unarmed black civilians are still met with tear gas and rubber bullets when they challenge antiblackness in our current society.
Therefore, it would behoove those who say they contend for an antiracist world to stop being polyannish about the struggle. Nonviolence is warfare. The sooner we accept this, the more fruitful our efforts can be.
How to Fight Well
There are a few ways that our approach to fighting for racial justice would change if we understood it as war without weapons.
Strategy - Even those who have only seen conventional warfare through Dunkirk or Game of Thrones know it would be unthinkable for an army to go picking fights without a battle strategy. We know that soldiers draw up maps of the terrain, learn everything they can about their opponents, and take stock of their capacities, to make informed decisions about the best ways to engage in conflict.
In a similar way, nonviolent action is also best when done strategically. This means taking stock of the all of the factors of the conflict situation to identify where the status quo is vulnerable, to identify the best tactics to implement for struggle.
You have a vision for an antiracist society? Dope. You want to fight for it with without violence? Great! The fight still requires an assessment of the “the terrain in which [their vision for change] must operate: its opponents, allies, potential allies, targets, resources, constraints, opportunities, etc. ” Those committed to nonviolence must enter a fight like Sherlock Holmes (the 2009 Robert Down, Jr. version), using carefully thought out actions to win.
Planning - There’s a saying among nonviolent activists: “There are two types of social movements: spontaneous and successful.” They recite this maxim to challenge the popular notion that social movements spring up spontaneously and spread like wildfire. Practitioners and scholars of nonviolent movements agree that planning is often the decisive factor in movement success.
Think about it: The army that is reacting to an ambush, forced to take the defensive, is less likely to win a battle than the army that is working a well planned, well-informed strategy to take the offensive. Likewise, we can’t expect to win the fight against racism if we’re always being reactive. We have to gain and maintain the initiative.
Training - Soldiers prepare for battle. They go off to bootcamp where they master the use of different weapons, cultivate a soldier’s mindset, and get into the physical shape necessary for armed struggle.
Nonviolent soldiers also need training. Nonviolent activists of the Civil Rights movement didn’t just go spontaneously sitting in at restaurants or marching the streets to abolish Jim Crow. They prepared themselves to endure the challenges of struggle beforehand by training to keep their composure in the face of insults and abuse.
Sacrifice - Wars have casualties. Choosing to be nonviolent doesn’t ensure that the powers that be will respond gently. In fact, nonviolent movements are often repressed violently. Those who understand that nonviolence is warfare also understand that choosing to fight at all could cost one’s life.
It’s time we stopped talking figuratively about fighting racism. It’s time to think strategically, draw up battle plans, train and take the initiative to contend nonviolently, for an antiracist society. This is an actual fight.
King, Martin Luther, and Cornel West. The Radical King. Beacon Press, 2016.
King, Martin Luther. “Statement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. .” Civil Rights Movement Veterans, 0AD, www.crmvet.org/docs/6712_mlk_ppc-anc.pdf.
Smucker, J. M. (2017). Hegemony How-to A Roadmap for Radicals. A K Pr Distribution.
Further Exploration: Consider reading Gene Sharp’s Making the Abolition of War A Realistic Goal