by Michael N. Nagler
George Floyd is becoming the Emmett Till of the 21st Century. The ongoing, passionate, widespread, and no longer violent demonstrations that have come in the wake of his brutal death have given us an opportunity like that of Till’s horrible death for the Civil Rights movement 70 years earlier. If we seize it in the correct spirit it will be an opportunity not only to reopen and significantly advance the conversation around race in America but to bring us through this time of crisis to a place where we can actually see our distant goal — a world without hate, racism and injustice.
I can see several ways this can happen, based on my lifelong dedication to, and study of, nonviolence.
When the Indian National Congress moved a resolution calling for a complete boycott of British goods in 1919, Gandhi was actually against it. Look at yourself, he urged his fellow Congress leaders; not one of you isn’t wearing at least one item of British cloth. To boycott it all at once would be hopelessly unrealistic. First let’s make our own cloth, he sensibly argued, then boycott British goods; and he doggedly set about making that famous “constructive programme” happen. Let’s apply this logic to, for example, the cry to ‘defund the police.’ How could we realistically go about it?
The first step, and the biggest, would be to address the high level of crime in our society. Generally speaking, we have that problem because of two things: the degree of economic inequality that has worsened to obscene proportions, and the acceptance if not glorification of violence in our culture, primarily conveyed by the mass media.
Economic inequality, gross as it is, can be rectified. Right now, and most immediately relevant, would be the scheme recommended by journalist David Brooks, to do reparations not by doling out cash to individuals but by making generous investments in rebuilding of neglected neighborhoods.
But we want longer term changes to the economy as a whole. Part of that job would be political, of course: electing people who resist lobbyists and vote in reasonable tax structures, etc.
Part, though, would be more up to us: expanding the new economic experiments like cooperatives, worker ownership, benefit corporations, barter systems and local currency. Another part would be reducing our own consumerism, to the great benefit of the planet and our own mental and physical health.
Media literacy, in the full sense of the term, would begin with giving students — and all of us, really — enough self-knowledge that we feel for ourselves that underneath whatever “excitement” we get from watching violence is a disturbing feeling of disconnectedness, of alienation. The most profound way to do this, I think, would be to appropriate, in our own terms, the perennial wisdom embedded in almost all human traditions that teaches that we are really all parts of one another. Modern science fully supports this vision, and it’s doubly unfortunate to withhold the wisdom or the science from students and the general public.
When we’ve taken these long-term changes in hand — and we don’t need to wait for their impact to be felt very widely — there are simple enough things we can address right now. The most important areas seem to me to be these three:
· Greatly expand the groups around the country that use nonviolent methods to defuse conflict — neighborhood efforts like the Violence Interrupters in Chicago and nationwide organizations like the Shanti Sena (“Peace Army”) Network.
· Greatly expand restorative justice in schools and throughout the criminal justice system. The prevailing approach of retributive justice has been called by forensic psychiatrist James Gilligan “the most powerful stimulant of violence yet discovered.” Restorative justice, by contrast, uplifts and reconciles.
· Begin to transition the police force to a nonviolent peacekeeping mechanism, which I daresay most police officers would welcome.
All three of these steps, especially the first two, involve practices that are already going on and that can boast terrific track records, even though the chances are you’re unfamiliar with them. Taken together, and added to others that could certainly be mentioned, they will harness the rage and the pain that we’re rightly feeling right now to build together the world we really want.
Michael N. Nagler writes for PeaceVoice, is Professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and is author of The Nonviolence Handbook and The Search for a Nonviolent Future.