Will Biden honor the nonviolent heroes surrounding him in the Oval Office?

Let's hope the busts of César Chávez, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in the White House symbolize a coming shift away from our nation’s script of violence.

Embed from Getty Images

Amid the flurry of tidbits that cascaded across the Internet in the hours after Joe Biden’s inauguration was this short post from John King at CNN: “President Joe Biden already began updating the decor that will surround him in the Oval Office. A bust of Mexican-American farm labor leader César Chávez is now behind the Resolute desk. Busts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. have also been added to the office.”

Brief as it was, this tweet-length newsflash was intriguing and, perhaps, portentous. What does it mean to put front and center, at the seat of U.S. power, three of the great, paradigmatic figures of social change? Was this a grateful nod to the allies who swung their critical support behind him? Was it a play for a new kind of gravitas, maybe making a not-so-subtle comment on the previous occupant? Or was it something more — a mysterious, perhaps unconscious, acknowledgment that the power which these giants of our history deployed to change this society is qualitatively different from the standard power of violence and injustice?

Chávez, Parks and King worked tirelessly for justice. After four years of an administration that systematically excluded, diminished and dehumanized many people and communities, it is invigorating to see these towering American champions of racial and economic justice given their due in this particular way, at this particular time.

But maybe it means even more.

It was refreshing to hear Biden at least hint that the way forward to grappling with our monumental challenges is not through violence.

These three figures struggled for justice, but they did so by mobilizing the principles and power of creative nonviolence. Maybe, just maybe, these busts found their way into the Oval Office because they symbolize a growing, felt need at this crucial moment for a shift from our nation’s deeply-ingrained script of violence to a new operating system — the nonviolent life that Chávez, Parks and King envisioned for this society.

The nonviolence this troika bet their lives on had nothing to do with the stereotypes endlessly heaped upon it. Their experience taught them that nonviolence is active, courageous, persistent — and effective. Each of these activists is remembered because their nonviolent wager succeeded. They changed the course of our nation without hatred, fear or violence.

Isn’t this what is needed today? And didn’t we hear this need enumerated by the new president in his inaugural address?

It was bracing to see Joe Biden explicitly single out white supremacy, inequality, poverty and the destruction of the planet, as well as the scourge of the pandemic, as the critical challenges of this historical moment. But, even more, it was refreshing to hear him at least hint that the way forward to grappling with these monumental challenges is not through violence. “Every disagreement,” he said, “doesn’t have to be cause of total war.”

This general, maybe even tentative step in the direction of a more nonviolent way comes against the backdrop of the trauma of the insurrectionist violence of Jan. 6, but also the newly reawakened national reckoning with 400 years of the violence of racial injustice. The number of references to both of these intertwined realities that appeared in the speeches on the west steps of the Capitol was noticeable.

We shall see if the new administration truly honors these iconic figures of liberating nonviolence. How? By taking nonviolent action itself over the next four years for real peace and justice.    

In this spirit, what might Chávez, Parks and King urge this new government to do?

No doubt they would urge it to do everything in its power to lift the crushing burdens of hopelessness by removing every obstacle to survival and wholeness.

Who knows what it might mean, having these presiding spirits hovering above the machinery of power?

No doubt they would urge it to take seriously all those who engage in determined, nonviolent struggle for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, from Black Lives Matter to the Poor People’s Campaign, from Hip Hop Caucus to 350.org, from Choose Democracy to the DC Peace Team, and many others.

No doubt they would urge the establishment of every meaningful policy shift for racial justice, including a national “truth and reparations” commission, an economic safety-net for all, universal health care and meeting critical goals for environmental healing.

No doubt they would urge the United States to extend the same concern which it has for its own people to every person on the planet, beginning by making sure everyone everywhere has access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

If we can imagine all of this, maybe we can also imagine Chávez, Parks and King whispering in the president’s ear late at night the greatest secret of all: Accomplishing all of these good things hinges on letting go of the state’s own absolute right to violence.

Not only would letting go of violent power have the concrete effect of making trillions of dollars available to meet our many needs — investing in the well-being of all rather than endlessly pumping money into the largest military system on the planet (including its thousand bases ringing the planet and the nuclear weapon complex poised for an expensive and dangerous renovation), as well as a criminal justice system that confines two million people to prison and condemns the poor to death — it could very likely provoke a decades-long sigh of relief across our land and around the world.

Who knows what it might mean, having these presiding spirits hovering above the machinery of power?

The great goals set out during the 2021 inauguration will require all the vision, principles, methods and tactics of active nonviolence that can be mustered. Maybe this trinity can nudge this new government in this direction.

But not them alone. Inspired by Chávez, Parks and King, all of us can play our part in moving this nonviolent shift forward.

Together we can join the movements needed now more than ever. Together we can study and incorporate the values and strategies of nonviolence. And together we can spread the nonviolent spirit for healing this nation and transforming the world.

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.