Many years ago, I was tempted once to pick up a gun and fight for what I believed in. It was 1936, and I was on my way to Oxford University on a fellowship to get my doctorate. During the sea voyage – there were no trans-Atlantic fights then – the ship’s radio announced that Francisco Franco had launched a military attack on the Popular Front, which had come to power the previous February.
Before enrolling in Oxford, I went to Spain, and discovered that the Front had established, here and there, non-hierarchical communal settlements. In Madrid, I stayed at the People’s University and was much impressed by the people I met. But soon, Franco’s soldiers advanced toward the city. I considered joining the resistance. If my friends were going to die, I was ready, too. Who knew what the outcome would be. Maybe, with the help of the Communists, who had mostly come from other countries to support this people’s republic, we would win!
However, by this time, I also knew that Communists were shooting Trotskyists, both were shooting anarchists, and anarchists had fired at a car in which I’d been riding when it made a wrong turn into their sector of Barcelona. Whoever won in an armed struggle, I realized, it wouldn’t be the people.
Decades later, I visited Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro assumed power, and met both Fidel and his ally Che Guevera. Over the succeeding years, I saw them both many times, always freely expressing my disagreements (and agreements) with whomever I talked. During one conversation, I told Che that some nonviolent activists I knew were beginning to think that we weren’t making enough progress in accomplishing our aims. Thus, they had decided to turn to violence as an alternative, whether by placing bombs in strategic places, or by gathering arms and engaging in direct armed conflict.
Che replied that the US was the most heavily armed nation in the world, and would make mincemeat out of those who resisted with arms. Or, it would capture them, as well as people using other violent methods, and impose heavily exaggerated prison sentences. In the US, he said, the only way to succeed was through nonviolent protests, including civil disobedience.
Some relevant words from Mohandas Gandhi come to mind. "We must be the change which we wish to see," he said. "If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another." He also said: "Violence is the only basis of all State government. The only way is to remove ourselves from all solidarity with the State itself… . We must simply give up the worship of mammon." No wonder he was killed by a Hindu fanatic, upset by his friendship with Muslims and commitment to working with them through nonviolence. With his last breath, Gandhi forgave his assassin.
I’m also reminded of an anti-Vietnam War action in October 1967. After the usual government objections and threats, we stood firm and finally received permission to hold a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, followed by a march to the Pentagon for a second rally in the parking lot. After that, we’d decided that groups committed to civil disobedience in order to "Shut Down the Pentagon" would approach every entrance with bullhorns.
When our group got within sight of the entrance, soldiers came out. Their orders were to attack us. As they approached, we offered friendly messages of solidarity on the bullhorn. As we lay down, technically they obeyed the command. But to our surprise, they delivered gentle love taps instead of heavy blows. It was another sign that soldiers were turning against the war. In the end, over a thousand people were beaten and arrested by sheriffs. They’d come from behind while our attention was concentrated on the soldiers. We hadn’t reached them with our friendly words.
Meanwhile, Daniel Ellsberg was in the office of Robert McNamara, where the two men were drafting plans for a US invasion of North Vietnam with heavy bombing and military units. At several of my later trials, Ellsberg testified that, as he looked down at us, he thought: "Those people are living by their consciences. They are putting their bodies where their hearts and minds are. What would happen if I did that?" Later, he released the Pentagon Papers, secret documents about the war and the impacts of increasing nonviolent actions. Even though it took years, his action helped force the government to end the war. When discussing the decision, Ellsberg frequently gave credit to the people he had seen clubbed and arrested for sparking his own act of conscience.
During the same protests, those who didn’t want to practice civil disobedience went to the main Pentagon entrance and faced the soldiers lined up against them. After a while, a Yippie stepped forward and placed a flower in one bayoneted gun barrel. Others followed this example; before long, the demonstrators were not only sharing flowers but also cigarettes, coffee, and friendly words with the military men.
Soon afterward, two paratroopers came to our office and reported that several of their comrades had gone inside, thrown down their guns, and announced they wouldn’t stand guard any longer. For years, I kept meeting vets who said they were on duty that day and had been affected by our actions.
Today, opposition to our undemocratic capitalist society is as urgent as ever. Although the corporate press typically doesn’t acknowledge the size and depth of the resistance, more and more people are affirming human rights for all and experimenting with deeper, more loving lives. Some work with the poor at home, others participate in Sister Cities and other international solidarity campaigns. In the US alone, 10,000 worker-owned businesses have been formed, with over 10 million members. They share the rewards, and also make sure the producers who supply them pay a living wage to their own workers. Whether they know much about Gandhi, all these people are applying some of the truths he enunciated: We must be the change we wish to see. Don’t worship mammon by trying to get more material goods than others. Make loving power a reality in everything we do, in our groups, our communities, and in foreign affairs.
As an aboriginal African once put it, "If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."