Let’s talk about the word “peaceful” because I’m getting fuckin tired of hearing about “peaceful protest.” | D. Firestein
Protest, by its very nature cannot be peaceful. It is an attempt to upset the order of things (sometimes a weak attempt, sometimes a masturbatory symbolic attempt with no actual potential to change anything, but always an attempt). To upset the order of things is violence. To change the status quo is violence. Redistribution of power and assaults on the systems of domination is violence.
What certain organizers and the media and the politicians mean when they say “peaceful protest” or “nonviolent protesters” is people who aren’t destroying property or defending themselves against the police or in some cases, using strong language.
So why don’t they just say that?
1) Well, for one reason, that would take up too much space on a poster.
2) Peaceful sounds nice. It makes a good soundbite. When later, someone is playing for the press and trying to win the meaningless approval of readers of the NY Times, it sounds great to say “Police attacked peaceful protesters.” Those readers nod their heads along and think “I bet their pants aren’t even sagging.”
3) It does a great job of eschewing discussions about property damage or defending oneself or one’s community from the police or the use of strong language. Much like the word “terrorist” shut down opposition to nationalist propaganda because people were afraid to be associated with that word, the word “peaceful” is hard to argue against. After all, most people think of themselves as peaceful, and most people generally like the idea of a peaceful life, unmolested by strangers or enemies.
And I want to be really clear. I think there absolutely are reasons to have actions that are explicitly not about property damage or mixing it up with the pigs or cursing. People have probation statuses and immigration statuses to think of, people have small children to worry about (in a scene that, let’s face it, could be better about childcare), people have other liabilities ranging from PTSD or physical disabilities or social anxiety or whatever. Diversity of tactics doesn’t mean breaking windows, it means a diversity of tactics. Time and place.
But that word “peaceful” (or sometimes “nonviolent”) has real implications.
1) Using “peaceful” as shorthand on a poster may save space but it also leaves a vacuum of meaning. Everyone has some idea what it means, but that doesn’t mean they know what it means to everyone else. Maybe it means we’re going to all sit around silently and pray. Maybe it means we’re not going to talk about systems of oppression or systemic violence or even specific violence. Maybe it just means we won’t break any windows. I’m not saying tactics should be clear on a poster because obviously that would be silly and counterproductive, but most often, the discussion of what peaceful means never goes any further than that. Even when it does, it’s usually presented as a top down decision (This is our action, we make the rules) without discussion.
2) It sets up an immediate good protester/bad protester dichotomy. Looking specifically at the protests this evening about Ferguson, to insist that these protests should be peaceful is to basically wag a finger at anyone in Ferguson who is defending their lives and their homes. More than just the symbolic shittiness of that finger wag, that dichotomy has material impact. It empowers politicians and pigs to crack down harder on “bad protesters” and use images of the “good protesters” to show what should be done. When the President and the Governor and the Mayor and the pigs and the MSM and the church leaders and the nonprofits are all agreeing with how you’re doing things, you’re probably not doing much good. You’re certainly not attacking all those institutions that are agreeing with you. So while it might make a good soundbite for when you’re talking about yourself, it also makes powerful ammunition for the people you’re theoretically in solidarity with. While it might be nice to have Rachel Maddow commend you, understand that that commendation either tacitly or explicitly condemns the “bad element” that is using any other tactics than yours. It is further endangering the lives of people using tactics other than yours.
3) We SHOULD be having conversations about property damage and self-defense and tone policing. I’m not saying smashing windows is right for every situation or even for any situation. It’s not my fuckin place to say whether it’s right for your neighborhood and your community and your action. I have an opinion about it, but my opinion on it is far less important than yours. But when you slap that word peaceful on an action, you silence those discussions. Frankly, I don’t give a fuck about windows. In the grand scheme of things, they’re neither the thing that will topple capitalism nor the thing that will make the movement lose legitimacy (blegh, gross). I do give a fuck about defending ourselves against the police, though. And if you’ve said “this a peaceful protest” or “this is a nonviolent action” and the pigs are firing tear gas or hitting people with batons or arresting people, I’d say that you’re a liar. I’d further suggest that if you haven’t prepared people involved for those possibilities (inevitabilities), that you’ve neglected your responsibilities as an organizer. I don’t want to ever again have to watch comrades get dragged down Broadway by their hair or get piled on by five pigs while everyone around them is being peaceful. That’s not peaceful. That’s betrayal. Fuck your moral high ground, there are material injuries.
Two final notes.
First, moments of silence are really powerful. I’ve been in a few where all of us were sobbing. I’ve been in a few where all of us were seething. I’ve been in a lot more where most of us were bored. The assumption that a moment of silence is always what’s called for is a poor assumption. If you want to call this a day of rage, let people rage. Don’t try to control what emotions they have, let em turn that shit loose. If what they need is a moment of silence, let them have it. If what they need is a moment of screaming, let them have it.
And if what they need is to march down the street setting pigmobiles on fire, well, you know how that shit goes.