Op-Ed: There are nonviolent ways to defend against racism

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots…I must say that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968

Michael Brown was 18 when he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9.  Abraham Rodriguez was 19 when Hartford cop Anthony Lombardi gunned him down on April 1, 1970.

Like Rodriguez, Brown was believed to have his hands up when he was shot.

What happens to Wilson remains to be seen, but Hartford officer Lombardi was fired from the police force after the coroner found him criminally responsible for Rodriguez’s death.  Lombardi was the first cop in the state to be arrested for misuse of a firearm. A sit-in at City Hall and a week’s worth of disturbances followed the killing.  At least 500 Hartford people were arrested during that week.

It’s hard to watch what is happening in Ferguson today without feeling dismay and frustration: “The killing of Brown is outrageous, but riots obscure the real issue, police violence.  There has to be a better way to react.”

As a kid, when I read about disturbances in Watts in 1965 and Hartford in 1967-1970, they were described as “riots.”  In other words, mindless mob violence.  I came to understand that in fact they were, and are, rebellions: the active resistance to authority.  But changing the description does not necessarily mean that we are any closer to mounting an effective challenge to racism.

Isn’t there more we can do besides wring our hands and have arguments at the dinner table about the issues raised during the last week?  Based on the history of civil and human rights struggles, the answer is yes.

There are nonviolent tactics that can be part of a larger strategy to defend our communities from racist violence.

Nonviolent direct action is not passivity or inaction in the face of injustice.  It is designed, as Dr. King wrote,  to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension” that the authorities are “forced to confront the issue.”  Here are four such tactics:

Monitor the police

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Demand that community folks be allowed to assign themselves to nightly police patrols.  Young African American men especially should be recruited for the “ride alongs.”  Be careful that, as happened with “embedded” news reporters in the Iraq War, our people aren’t seduced by the police. These actions can best take place in the context of some existing organization, like a church, or the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, the Quaker action arm) to collect and publicize the volunteers’ observations.

If the cops refuse, follow them in clearly designated vehicles.  In addition, raise enough money to purchase 1,000 video cameras and distribute them to neighborhood people. Collect and post relevant behavior to prevent or interrupt bad behavior.

Involve the “Accompaniment” movement

Since 2002, the longtime peace group Fellowship for Reconciliation (FOR) has had a presence in Colombia, protecting the indigenous peace activists and peasants  from deadly paramilitary groups.  They accompany, observe, and document the activity of endangered individuals and delegations who travel to government meetings or gatherings of like-minded activists.

If a community puts out a call to international accompaniment groups, what does that say about the local police and U.S. authorities in general?  It says that African Americans are no more safe in the United States than Central American peasant farmers are in their own countries.

Occupy the police

If the 2011 Wall Street phenomenon reminded us of anything, it is the historical power of direct action, from the 1936 Flint, Michigan auto workers’ factory occupation to the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins.

So, why not occupy the local police headquarters?

Plan it well, with fall back alternatives (certainly the police will not allow a takeover of “their” property; determine which bordering streets become the points of resistance.)  Force the authorities to undertake meaningful change that your community wants to see.

Reforms by themselves are not enough, though. The victories that we leverage from such actions will meet with strong resistance, and that provides fertile ground for more organizing.

Organize mass actions

Rallies and marches are old, old, old.  But they are still the best way to allow sympathetic people– especially first-timers– to join the cause.
These actions physically demonstrate that in fact there is a majority out there who oppose the killing of young black men like Mike Brown.  Think of the 1965 event on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where 600 voting rights marchers were beaten by police.  The march was organized in response to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a voter registration activist.

Two weeks after the police riot,  8,000 people from around the country crossed over the bridge into Montgomery, Ala., to finish the march.

These suggestions have certain common elements: They depend on widespread, meaningful participation by the entire community; they allow for practical support from across the U.S. and beyond; they are specifically nonviolent in nature.  Together, they begin to build the kind of social justice movement we now lack.

The alternative is to keep reading more Ferguson horror stories on Twitter.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.

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