Can the Nonviolent Cities Project really work?

Nonviolent Morro Bay has shown that constant dedication and widespread buy-in from city officials and the community is critical to reducing violence.
(Unsplash/Luke Dahlgren)

John Dear calls it “an idea whose time has come,” but has it? Are we deceiving ourselves in thinking that a group could form in every city and town and be more effective in curbing violence or is different from what social service agencies, police, religious, and humanitarian organizations are already doing? These are the questions that came to my mind as I thought about forming a “Nonviolent Morro Bay” three years ago. Was it worth a try?

It began in Carbondale, Illinois, a city of approximately 26,000 people, with concerned citizens who developed a vision that their city could one day become a nonviolent city. They desired to use a holistic approach in regards to the issues and problems of their town and to develop a long-term vision leading to peace and a true culture of nonviolence. To do so they formed a committee to support activities that foster nonviolent compassionate interactions in their community and they named it “Nonviolent Carbondale.”

One thing was certain: I could not do this alone and I could not do it without involvement from my mayor, city council, city manager, and police department.

This is the idea taken on by cities and towns that joined the project. Most concentrated on holding a variety of humanitarian and nonviolence events in their communities during the week surrounding International Peace Day. It was felt that these public actions would alert the community to the issues of violence and hopefully spark some intent to delve more closely into the reasons violence was occurring and seek solutions. Many of the cities held upwards of 10 events, some held only one public event, and others held small peace vigils at involved churches. In some areas, pursuing a solution to violence has been going on for many years.

As I signed up to join the Nonviolent Cities Project I was aware of just how difficult it might be to obtain cooperation from the city and dedication from individuals I asked to join me. One thing was certain: I could not do this alone and I could not do it without involvement from my mayor, city council, city manager, and police department. Just utilizing existing humanitarian organizations or public agencies already swamped with projects was not going to work, although their input and involvement was needed. 

I had learned during the turbulent 1960s, while engaged in civil rights work, that often there is no result without some catastrophic incident taking place. Unfortunately, this meant violence and sometimes death. When I say result, I mean obtaining not only public outrage, but the creation of laws from our public representatives.

It seemed unless some horrific event took place that made headlines across the country, there was no progress. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged that until physical violence occurred with the movement, not much changed. However, violence is not what I desired in order to gain cooperation to work against violence. Still, this is exactly what opened the door for Nonviolent Morro Bay.

A murder-suicide that was so revolting — not only to the community, but also to the police officers who had to deal with it — gave my small steering committee the impetus to launch a major request from our city fathers for dedication to the principles of nonviolence and a peace resolution to be in effect in perpetuity. That dedication and resolution occurred on the auspicious date of September 11, 2018 at our city council meeting. 

It is just not enough in our minds to do something only once a year, no matter how many events are held at that time nor how successful they might be. For us, the Nonviolent Cities Project means day-to-day involvement.

A city-funded, staffed resource office to aid people in trouble, whether financially or otherwise, was put at our disposal. City-owned space was also made available for monthly meetings that involve 15 to 20 individuals representing a number of organizations, service clubs and social service agencies, a dedicated city council member and police officer, who address all the issues of injustice that allow violence to become a choice for people.

From these meetings, and with one-on-one conversations with our police force, we worked to establish a Citizen’s Advisory Committee to aid in responses to inappropriate police action and to format education for the community regarding police actions. That in itself led to the creation of the Citizen’s Police Academy, a nine-week, three-hour course now offered yearly, on why and how a police department operates. The creation of these two functions have contributed to better communication between the police and the community and better handling of arrests. 

What was less important to us was the once-a-year public action surrounding International Peace Day, although we held events in 2017, 2018, and 2019, some locally and several in adjacent towns. It is not that we feel this is unimportant, it is just not enough in our minds to do something only once a year, no matter how many events are held at that time nor how successful they might be. For us, the Nonviolent Cities Project means day-to-day involvement.

Physical violence is not the only type of violence that is of concern, nor is it the only subject for a criteria of success. Not forgotten are the more insidious types of violence that permeate the societal structure of the community, such as comments on social media sites; attitudes in our community regarding racial, gender and ethnic injustice; poverty; homelessness, and economic injustice; hate speech; police violence; domestic violence; and gun violence.

A big part of our desire for Nonviolent Morro Bay is a shift in consciousness for our community. It’s for this reason that we feel monthly educational or informational meetings on nonviolence need to be offered and we do so utilizing the Pace e Bene/Campaign Nonviolence “Exploring Nonviolence” workbook. We also hold informal discussion groups in the spirit of the Circle of Trust, allowing participants the opportunity to unburden their hearts and minds as they grapple with society’s ills without receiving criticism or unwarranted advice.

Success is difficult to chart for some of these issues, however, statistical information is available and shows some degree of favorable results. In Morro Bay, arrests for certain violations are down, domestic violence is down, and no incidents of hate speech or racial issues have been catalogued for two years. These numbers are gathered and kept by our city police department and county social services. It is our opinion that cities in the Nonviolent Cities Project that are not accessing this statistical information are leaving themselves at a disadvantage in forming new actions to counterattack all forms of violence.

The Nonviolent Cities Project can work. However, it involves constant dedication, cooperation with city fathers and county agencies, and a desire on the part of the community to work for and address the issues that lead to violence. We believe that only grassroots projects like this can assure us of creating societal changes that will alter the course of humanity towards a nonviolent world. For us this only works from the bottom up, not the top down. While there is much more work to be done to truly achieve Nonviolent Morro Bay, we believe it is, as John Dear says, an idea whose time has come.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.