History Learning the Limits of Nonviolence
Trying to reason with someone hell-bent on eradicating your existence is not only futile but also impossible.
“As soon as a movement begins to emerge and shake things up . . . you get, suddenly, those from on high who have never been our friends before who come rushing up to say, ‘You know, some of these people . . . you don’t want to associate with them in the movement. They’re so angry!’ . . . Angry, you know? As though anger against oppression is not a clean-burning fuel.”
—Leslie Feinberg, at Sonoma State University in 2008.
When I was young, I truly believed that we could change the world through education and advocacy, through peaceful protest, through talking to one another and reaching across various aisles to come up with solutions that work for everyone. That’s the story they tell you in school and through the media. They teach you about democracy and compromise and convince you that all the systems—the branches of the government, the two-party system, capitalism, the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, education, even our system of “checks and balances”—work together to create a result that is desirable for all of us. They remind us over and over again that civility works, even in the face of threats to our survival.
Growing up, I got the sense that I wasn’t allowed to see behind the curtain, only the play that was happening in front of it. In my third-grade class, we learned all about the march in Selma on Edmund Pettus Bridge, but when a group of us kids, forever curious to know every last detail, asked what happened to the protesters, my teacher replied that if there was anything else we needed to know, she would’ve told us. At my small elementary and middle school, we celebrated Haitian Flag Day one year, but we never did again after one of the kids in my class told us all about the Haitian Revolution. I watched this happen repeatedly, all the way through high school and well into college. My teachers, my parents, even the little resources I could find on the internet back then all found ways to dodge my questions and the questions of kids as inquisitive as I was. Sometimes, they chastised us for asking. I learned early that when you ask too many questions, you’ll likely be punished for it. If you seek further information, they make it hard for you to find it. It’s easy to believe their stories because what else is there?
Now I dream of something different, and I speak those dreams out loud. I imagine WWE pay-per-view-style matchups against my political enemies. Only in this situation, everything is 100 percent unscripted. I imagine blood splatter and bone crunch. I imagine welts as big as softballs and bruises the color of deep space. I imagine heavy breathing and bulky bodies stumbling around the ring. I imagine my opponents writhing around on the floor in pain. I imagine them begging me to stop. I cannot imagine anything other than winning, so I must imagine a stronger version of myself.
If there is a traditional way to teach fighting, I didn’t learn it. I grew up with brothers. And for all of society’s hand-wringing about gender, no one seems too concerned about how siblings treat each other despite their so-called genetic differences. Boys will be boys and boys will usually not know what to do with all of the anger that lives inside of them, so they turn against one another and the rest of us get caught up in the aftermath of their clashes. The two boys I grew up with were no different. Actually, maybe they were angrier than most: angry because my dad left, angry because we didn’t see him as much as we wanted, angry because they weren’t good students, angry because a lot of skills came hard to them, angry because their mothers took their disappointment out on them, angry because no one showed them how not to be. Most of the time, I wasn’t like them. When we were small, I was rarely angry, and when I was, it was for what felt like manageable reasons: when my parents wouldn’t let me give money to the buskers on the street or when we didn’t make it home from school on time to watch my favorite television shows. Anger didn’t come from the deep core of me like sadness did. And I dealt with my sadness by talking to my friends, reading books, disappearing into my schoolwork, and finding things to do with my body and my hands. It didn’t always help quiet the hurt and the pain, but I learned to pretend it did. This incensed my brothers. They were never at peace, and I always seemed to be. So they tried to find ways to make me become like them.
Our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and our culture too often teach the history of this nation by omission.
The very first lessons I remember learning about the uses of violence were confusing and disorienting. Our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and our culture too often teach the history of this nation by omission. My teachers would devote hours to discussing the reasons for war, the strategies, the weapons, and the effect on the US economy, but they’d never explain the human cost of these supposedly righteous feuds. When time came to tell us the stories of the battles fought in our own country, the ones where marginalized groups had to fight for just a small taste of liberation, they mollified every last detail. We never learned about the handcuffs and the billy clubs and paddy wagons stuffed to brims or rubber bullets blasting through layers of skin and people beaten until crimson. They didn’t tell us the stories of bombs built in basements and guns traded across state lines, of property damage, of not being afraid to destroy something with the hope that something better will be constructed in its place. Instead, we learned about nonviolent protest. It was all anti-war die-ins run by hippies, abolitionists writing their little pamphlets, labor boycotts, suffragettes stripped of their bite, and a sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr. No mention of the uprisings of enslaved people, the Stonewall Riots, the McDuffie Riots, the occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes, the Black Panthers’ self-defense programs, and all the acts of violence against the State that would make us believe it’s possible to overcome the State’s oppression. As if only the people in power have a right to utilize malice and hostility in order to meet some agreeable end for all of us.
In response to what I knew about State violence and my brothers’ actions, I grew more opposed to using physical violence as a response to any situation. At this point, there is no way for me to track down the memory of my brothers tormenting me for the very first time. All of the moments are crammed together, a twisted greatest-hits reel of threatening looks, shoves to the ground, limbs turned in directions they shouldn’t go, and objects thrown directly at my face. Mercifully, we weren’t always together, since my older brother has a different mother, but when we were, the two of them became the kind of annoying, conniving tag team you rarely encounter outside of genre fiction and made-for-TV movies. They would plot and plan and try to figure out ways to get me to crack. For all the hitting and screaming, though, they were never very good at figuring out my emotional weak spots. They’d throw all the typical insults at me: “You’re a piece of shit,” “You’re a fat cow,” “No one likes you,” “Go fuck yourself.” But none of it ever cut to the bone like the remnants of their collective anger on my body. I was embarrassed by the purple-blue bruises and the deep, maroon scratches on my arms. And I was ashamed of what people might think of me or my brothers or—worse—my whole family when they saw them. I learned to lie my way through any questioning from my parents and my friends and my friends’ parents. Making up stories about the origins of my injuries and acting as if I wasn’t hurt came naturally to me because I didn’t want to upset anyone. A people pleaser since early childhood, I always had trouble differentiating between a person being mad at me and being mad at a situation, so I did my best to avoid that kind of conflict altogether. So much so that nonviolence was central to who I was becoming, not just in my own home but also outside of it. It extended into the community-organizing work I started doing as a teenager and informed my general perspective on what we needed to do to fix the society we were working so hard against.
What we consider violent and nonviolent in our society is interesting, isn’t it? We have so many exceptions, so many caveats, so many rules. Nathaniel Bacon and the men he recruited to fight against the colonial army of the thirteen colonies were violent rebels, but the members of the ruling class who presided over the indentured servitude and the enslavement of those men were just doing what needed to be done. Nat Turner and John Brown were certified fanatics, freaks whose violent acts against the State were demonized by every American-history teacher I had before college. The Confederacy wasn’t violent until the Union—which wasn’t that far removed from slavery itself—said it was. Native displacement was necessary because of manifest destiny, and manifest destiny was righteous because some guy told another guy that god said it was cool. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was just a casualty of conducting business because corporations aren’t people who can be held liable for manufactured death. Presidents are neither violent nor are they responsible for the violence their constituents face, even when their decisions lead to complete disaster. Abortion is violent. Gender-affirming healthcare for children is violent. Teaching young people the truth about this country is violent. Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment, the limitation of voting rights for Black people and Indigenous people and women, theocracry in the White House, laws against homosexuality and abortion, redlining and white flight, McCarthyism, the assassination of Malcolm X and Fred Hampton and so many others, the MOVE bombing, economic disparity that can be traced directly back to slavery and slave-owning families—none of these things are talked about as violent or as violences toward entire groups of people. The people impacted are rarely, if ever, called victims. The perpetrators, the architects of these catastrophic acts, and the people still benefiting from them haven’t and can’t be held responsible because the past is the past is the past. The lives lost or destroyed are just a price we had to pay as a country learning how to be itself. Told in this way, the State and our leaders can still be the heroes of our history. This way, our rage in response to their actions becomes unjustifiable and the definition of violence becomes so muddied, it’s impossible for us to call it when we see it.
When I first started organizing in my community and getting involved in my local punk scene as a teenager, I resolved to find ways to change the world without hurting anyone in the process. In making that commitment, I fell into the trap that was set out for me before I was even born: I looked for ways to fight back without fighting. My organizing work was centered on shielding and taking care of people who were victims or potential victims of violence. I helped build large mutual-aid networks to ensure the welfare of some of the most vulnerable people in my community. I gave the people who disagreed with me the benefit of the doubt. I let them play their little hypothetical power games and engaged in “civil” discourse with them. I really believed that by talking, I was educating, and that education could lead to transformation. I wanted so badly to be thought of as a passionate and compassionate person with a level head and a collaborative spirit. I didn’t want to give anyone a reason not to listen to me. Protests, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, voting, rallies, small-scale civil disobedience—I did it all with gumption and pride. And yet, even the changes in my tiny corner of the world were hard-won or rarely won. Nothing worked the way we’re taught to believe it should. All of it was thin layers of gauze over wounds that desperately needed to be cauterized.
I fell into the trap that was set out for me before I was even born: I looked for ways to fight back without fighting.
As the years passed, something began growing inside of me. I could feel it in my chest and my throat and in the layers of my skin, but I couldn’t really name it. It felt too big and too grotesque to fully face. My brothers had taught me how dangerous it was to engage with and embrace anger, so when it began popping up in my body and my thoughts, I did whatever I could to push it away. No one tells you that a certain level of anger is acceptable—especially when that anger is lodged at the forces trying to destroy you—so you often have to seek out these sources for yourself. During my first semester in college, I found the works of writers and thinkers and organizers who were just as angry or angrier than me, and I began reorienting my understanding and my definition of violence. The lesson they taught was that the only way to overcome oppressive, repressive, fatal forces was to use every resource you had to make sure you could strip them of their power before they took everything away from you. But I couldn’t envision myself hurting anyone, even when they were hurting me so much.
The last time my little brother tried to lay his hands on me, we were eighteen and nineteen years old. I was trying to help him take accountability for another poor decision he had made and relaying the consequences of his actions when he swung at me with a closed fist. I ducked out of the way and used my left hand to slam his head into the wall closest to where he was standing. The smack of his head against concrete boomed so loud, I wanted to cover my ears to protect them from the sound. As his body went limp and slid to the ground, he looked at me wide-eyed, as if I had just broken the trust between us, as if he didn’t have it coming after all he had done, as if that one instance of violence wasn’t enough for him to get popped. I felt guilty and fearful of retaliation, but I also felt powerful, like I had finally freed myself of the cycle that they kept me locked in for no reason my whole life. We didn’t talk for several months after that, but when we finally did, he was never outwardly violent toward me again. He never even motioned to try it.
It took another decade or so after that before I fully appreciated the lesson. Begging the person beating you down to free you and let you tend to your wounds will never get you out of their grasp. Trying to reason with someone hell-bent on eradicating your existence is not only futile but also impossible. There’s no amount of convincing, no mastery of language, no ideology that can save us from the terror of those who want to make us bleed. The liberal and neoliberal tactics of nonviolence—of waiting for the right president, the right configurations in the House and the Senate, the right legislation, and the belief in the “power of civil discourse”—are all making our liberation elusive and harder to achieve. And many of us cannot wait much longer. We need to take violence back. We need to use it to build communities that are strong enough to hold ourselves down against the State and take care of each other no matter what. We need to keep rioting. We need to create large networks of people willing to fight back by any means necessary. I know we can’t fight all of our political enemies individually in professional-wrestling matchups on national television, but collectively, we can do the kind of damage that will help us construct a new world.