Earlier this fall, the South Chicago Neighborhood Network held a virtual symposium focusing on racial trauma. Over the course of the week, leaders of local organizations networked, learned, and meditated together. I was particularly struck by Thursday’s session.
That morning, Henry Cervantes of the Peace Exchange shared a list of “198 methods of nonviolent action” folks can take for social action. This list was created by Gene Sharp in the 70s yet manages to capture the categories of social media, the blogosphere, and other more recent methods of action despite being ridiculously nitty-gritty. (The list includes six sections on strikes, each with detailed subcategories!)
Cognizant of keeping us involved despite the screens that distanced us, Henry organized us into breakout groups to discuss next steps for social action around racism and to share what we were doing already. Coming from a violent, “macho” background, Henry emphasized peace in our choices.
Nonviolence as Resistance
Nonviolence has been a marker of social action for many groups over the centuries, but it doesn’t mean going with the flow.
Sometimes it looks like speaking out, as with the incredible Ida B. Wells and uncompromising W.E.B. Du Bois. Sometimes it looks like embracing your own humanity and sitting down, as with Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks.
Native occupations, transcontinental marches, and campaigns exemplify sustained activism that makes a statement. Even young children can impact their nation — have you heard of Sophie Cruz, who influenced the Pope to speak up on behalf of undocumented immigrants starting at age five?
If you read their biographies, you’ll see that nonviolence is far from being passive. Nonviolent actions can even lead to being arrested, as with now-respected leaders like Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. (Check out MLK’s extensive arrest record!)
You can do the right thing and be solidly in legal bounds yet still be persecuted for it. Just look at Colin Kaepernick.
At the start of September, the Guardian reported that 93% of Black Lives Matter protests were nonviolent. Despite this, “Government authorities were more likely to intervene in Black Lives Matter protests than in other demonstrations, and also more likely to intervene with force, like using teargas, rubber bullets and pepper spray or beating demonstrators with batons, the researchers found.”
The violent response towards peaceful actions for racial justice demonstrates inequity itself. USA Today captures this problem well in this report. Why do hate crimes go unpunished while peaceful cries for justice are attacked?
An Action a Day Keeps Injustice Away
At Intersected, we focus particularly on racial equity and justice, but we know that this intersects with so many other aspects of life, including disability rights, environmentalism, and feminism and womynism.
So here’s a homework assignment for the week: Review the list mentioned above. Choose one action per day for the next week, and then reassess for the next week.
Some of these actions may be more ongoing, like boycotting. Others may be a one-off, like signing a petition or attending a socially distanced stand-in.
You could also “paint as protest,” write for a publication like ours, attend a ZIP Lab (we love their work!), or make a powerful symbolic gesture. You could give money to an organization or cause like this one or pull your funding from one that perpetuates oppression.
You could lobby for just policies in your state or refuse to cooperate until an equitable agreement is reached at work.
Use your imagination as you consider the countless opportunities before you! Make it tangible. As Henry suggested in the colloquium session, retrieve a notebook and draw a picture describing what steps you will take to pursue racial equity moving forward. An action does not have to be public in order to make a difference.
All of these choices require decision making and may involve social risk, but they are nonviolent actions that, when part of a collective effort, can affect social change.The key is to use your talents, time, and position in society to sustain action beyond a one-time symbolic gesture.
Are you in?