Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004
Questions for the Movement: Property Damage as a
Tactic in Nonviolent Actions
Dean J. Johnson
[Note: A quote below includes strong profanity.]
The paper that follows explores questions of nonviolence and property damage as they pertain to nonviolent actions aimed at radical social change. In times of great duress, which are not always ripe for revolutionary turn-abouts, the use of property damage must be given several considerations. How one perceives the use of property damage in nonviolent social change is directly related to one’s philosophical outlook.
Two traditions can be readily identified within the Movement. I have called them the Gandhian/Kingian and the Berrigan traditions. The two traditions are not best understood as opposites to one another but rather as related to different kinds of philosophical elements. For the Gandhian/Kingian tradition, non-violence is both a principal guiding action and a goal in itself. For the Berrigan tradition, the use or non-use of property damage in the pursuit of social change is a matter of tactics. Careful attention to the strengths and limits of the two traditions, to recent developments within the Movement and to the context of present day struggle for social change suggest a third approach, which I recommend.
There is a long standing debate among peace and justice advocates over the use of property damage as a tactic. The opinions over the use of property damage fall on a spectrum ranging from those who are completely opposed to the use of property damage to those who find its use not only appropriate, but necessary. Some of the distance between the two ends of the spectrum may be attributed to philosophical outlook. Those who absolutely oppose the use of property damage have made a commitment to a type of nonviolent lifestyle. On the other hand, those who find property damage necessary see it primarily as a tactic and not as a way of life.
An example of the different perspectives can be seen in Sarah Ferguson’s article, "Activists Weigh the Cost of Confrontation: First Tear Gas, Now Bullets":
"Carolyn Bninski, of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, watched from a hotel room as riot police advanced on a crowd gathered round a bond fire in the middle of a downtown Quebec City thoroughfare. "I’m fully committed to overturning the FTAA and the economic oppression that lies behind it, but I want to do it nonviolently," said Bninksi, as skirmishes broke out below. "To me, nonviolence is not a strategy or a tactic; it’s a philosophy. It’s about being willing to take on the suffering so that people will be won over to the righteousness of your cause."
"At the word suffering, Blackstar, an 18-year-old anarchist from Denver, grimaced. "People between 16 and 22 years old are pissed off as hell because in 15 to 20 years, the planet is going to be a fucking wasteland," he said. "So we don’t want to be passive anymore. Those are old tactics for old timers." 1
As one can see in the above quote, Bninski and Blackstar are not starting from a common place. Bninski’s perspective reflects classic Gandhian and Kingian philosophical outlooks while Blackstar is approaching things from a tactical perspective underlined with anarchism. Blackstar, identified as an anarchist in the article, does not understand Bninski’s perspective as a holistic, lifestyle, but instead as a tactic.
The Gandhian/Kingian Tradition
Those working from Gandhian and Kingian models see property damage as contrary to the teachings of Gandhi and King. Gandhi wrote:
"Impure means result in an impure end. Hence the prince and the peasant will not be equaled by cutting off the prince’s head nor can the process of cutting off equalize the employer and the employed. One cannot reach truth by untruthfulness. Truthful conduct alone can reach truth . . . . Harbor impurity of mind or body and you have untruth and violence in you.2
Ideas about impurity of spirit and conduct can also be seen in Kingian nonviolence. David Jehnsen and Bernard Lafayette in their book, A Structured Guide and Introduction to Kingian Nonviolence, identify six principles of nonviolence, two of which could be used to argue against property damage. According to Jehnsen and Bernard:
"Principle One: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice, and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation . . . . Principle Five: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. The nonviolent attitude permeates all aspects of the campaign. It provides a mirror type reflection of the reality of the condition to one’s opponent and the community at large. Specific activities must be designed to help maintain a high level of spirit and morale during a nonviolent campaign.3
For King and Gandhi, the spirit in which the nonviolence campaign was taking place was just as important as the act of physical nonviolence. If one was participating in nonviolent actions or civil disobedience out of a sense of vengeance then he or she was committing an act of violence. According to Barbara Deming, "Vengeance is not the point, change is.4
It is not uncommon to participate in protests or civil disobedient actions at which the organizers ask for a personal commitment to nonviolence during the action that includes no damage to property. An example of this can be seen at the protest organized by the School of the Americas Watch in Fort Benning, Georgia.
The School of the Americas Watch has been organizing against a terrorist training school housed and ran by the United States Army at Fort Benning.5 At a 1998 protest, like several before it and since, a mass display of civil disobedience was organized. Those taking part in the mock funeral procession, which "crossed the line" onto Fort Benning property and thus committed trespassing, were asked to commit themselves to nonviolence which included not damaging property. "As participants today, we will reflect upon and abide by these commitments: . . . We will not damage property."6
The spirit of the protests at Fort Benning is not unlike that of the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. During the Tennessee lunch counter sit-ins of 1958 James Lawson, who studied in India during Gandhi’s Indian independence campaign, trained many students in nonviolence. In an interview, Lawson stated he only wanted people who were committed to nonviolence with every fiber of their being to participate in the lunch counter protests.7 His reason for this serious commitment was based on the fact he did not want the young people to retaliate or to exchange harsh words with the police and the other people who may attack them.
Critiques of the Gandhian/Kingian Tradition
One of the critiques of nonviolence, as seen in Blackstar’s quote above, is that it is passive. A nonviolence that is not willing to take a bold or aggressive stance is seen as passive. In her classic work, On Revolution and Equilibrium, Deming makes this very point, "At this point in our history, nonviolent action had better be taken boldly or one need hardly bother to take it at all, for one will be taking it alone."8 She later writes, "The challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough. Nonviolence has far too long been connected in men’s [sic] minds with the notion of passivity."9 The notion of nonviolence as passive is a classic misunderstanding that goes all the way back to the beginning of nonviolence as practice. In the tradition of Gandhi, Gene Sharp, in defense of nonviolent action, writes:
"Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war. It involves the matching of forces and the waging of ‘battle,’ requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its ‘soldiers’ courage, discipline, and sacrifice.
"This view of nonviolent action as a technique of active combat is diametrically opposed to the popular assumption that, at its strongest, nonviolent action relies on rational persuasion of the opponent, and more commonly it consists simply of passive submission.
"Nonviolent action is just what it says: action which is nonviolent, not inaction. This technique consists, not simply of words, but of active protest, noncooperation, and intervention.
"Overwhelmingly it is a group or mass action." 10
One of the points Deming and Sharp are trying to make, which often gets overlooked by some nonviolentists, is the revolutionary side of nonviolent action. The popular misconception of nonviolence is that it is in-action because one does not strike back. However, nonviolence implies action. It is taking a stand against the oppressor. Passivity implies cowardice, which runs counter to nonviolence as a philosophy and discipline.
Another critique of nonviolence, and one likely leveled against those who refuse property damage as a tactic, is that it is too moralistic. Persons who hold completely to the non-use of violence may do so in judgment of others who have not yet seen another way or who cannot see another way. It becomes easy for those who are not a part of the everyday violence to reject the revolutionary causes of those in a daily life and death struggle. According to a 1970 book by Dave Dellinger:
"This temptation is particularly seductive for those of us who advocate nonviolent methods of struggle but who do not experience in our own daily lives the unremitting violence of existing police and property relationships. Rather than face up to our failure to have taken the lead with a truly revolutionary nonviolence that is engaged in combat here and now, we are tempted to dissociate ourselves from the rebels and to end up, albeit reluctantly, on the side of those who invoke ‘law and order,’ ‘the democratic process,’ and the protection of the innocent as justification for the suppressive violence of the police and troops. Yet one of the factors that induces serious revolutionaries and discouraged ghetto-dwellers to conclude that nonviolence is incapable of being developed into a method adequate to their needs is this very tendency of pacifists to line up, in moments of conflict, with the status quo. Thus a vicious circle is set up in which the advocates of nonviolence stand aloof from—or even repudiate—the only live revolutions in the making (Cuba, Vietnam, the Black American communities), and determined revolutionaries cause of those who champion it." 11
By default if one decides not to take sides with a revolutionary cause due to its nature, then he or she automatically sides with the oppressor. It is possible for the nonviolentists to make nonviolent suggestions, but one must be careful in how they critique the violent actions.
According to Dellinger,
"One can call for alternative, nonviolent methods of liberation and point out the dangers and shortcomings of the current form of rebellion, but it is contrary to the spirit of nonviolence to call for the punishment of those who have resorted to violence in their desperate search for a method of breaking out of the present intolerable situation."12