I have long argued that nonviolence works best when it deals not with mere symbols but with real things that have symbolic power. Gandhi’s Salt March was an outstanding example; another is the ongoing actions of Palestinian farmers, oftentimes organized and supported by the Palestine Solidarity Project, to plant and replant olive trees that are uprooted, poisoned, and otherwise destroyed by Israeli settlers or the military.
There is something primordial, and even beautiful about a direct confrontation of something real and true — and especially a living thing — with the destructive power of human delusions. The olive tree is both a symbol and an actual source of Palestinian well-being, and hence of Palestinian hopes and dignity. To uproot them, which is contrary to Jewish law, is to enact one’s own violence in a way that even the perpetrator is forced to understand the evil that person is perpetrating.
This “forcing reason to be free,” as Gandhi called it, is an important part of nonviolent dynamics. Not long ago, a courageous woman who ran a shelter for destitute mothers with children in Delhi was told by city authorities that she would have to pay taxes that up until then had been waived. She explained that they were a shoestring operation and if the taxes were imposed at least three of her women would have to be turned out on the street. “We can’t help that,” said the men. “All right,” she replied, but then took them through the door to the large dorm where her charges were housed, and said, “You choose which ones to turn out.” The men left and the tax waiver remained in place.
In the important film Bringing Down a Dictator that chronicles the 2000 Otpor (‘Resist!’) uprising, which in one dramatic day turned Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic out of office (after eleven weeks of NATO bombings that only consolidated his hold on power), student leader Srdja Popovic explained, “we won because we were on the side of life.”
This symbolic valence might be said to be missing from the present occupation movement. Fun, music, and face paint may say “life” to some people more than business suits and portfolios, but they don’t quite evoke the reality and urgency that enabled the oppressed Serbian population to rise up against harsh police brutality and is enabling the Palestinians and their international supporters to face even fatal resistance in Beit Omar, Surif, and other West Bank villages. Proudly declaring that “their weapons don’t scare us,” the message of the Palestinian Solidarity Project, which is coordinating not only the olive-tree planting but roadblock removal, and apartheid wall demonstrations, is quite accurate:
Peace and security are rights not just for some of us, but for all the people of the world. Controlling another person’s life, possessions, future, and thoughts is a crime and a humiliation. We have dreams and hopes of freedom, so we are inviting all the people of the world to stand with us and share in our struggle for freedom.
For any such struggle to succeed — be it that of the Palestinians or of Occupy Wall Street or even a larger movement for peace — it must be able to counter the power of the Apocalyptic myths that have driven the post-9/11 wars and brought the U.S. to a point of near ruin financially and morally. These prevailing narratives of militarism revolve around the powerful archetype of good and evil, order vs. chaos; but they can be overcome by an even more powerful myth, if you will (I taught mythology for many years at U.C. Berkeley), which is the struggle for life itself against death.
The answer is to take back not just our incomes and some civic spaces, but the “spaces” in our minds and our public discourse. In practice, this would mean making common cause with the Palestinian struggle and looking for other ways to show, patiently but insistently, that in opposing greed and militarism we are on the side of life — which would have the added advantage of being true.
As K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, joyful, powerful movements draw more people in and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.
Uganda’s COVID-19 experience underscores the seemingly universal opportunism of authoritarians amidst crisis, as well as opportunities for resistance.