With a rainbow pin on his lapel, signifying–on that day at least–the most recent gun massacre in the United States, Congressman John Lewis made an impassioned cri de coeur before members of Congress and the people of this country: the time for silence is over. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to do something out of the ordinary.” And that’s just what they did: he and other members of his party put their bodies in the way of the daily operations of the Congress, by using a nonviolent tactic known as a sit-in–when you occupy a space in order to dramatize an unmet need; in this case, the need to do something for gun control on behalf of the American people who put them in office to strengthen their common security. While the Speaker of the House had the C-Span cameras turned off, in an effort to censor what was taking place–knowing the power of the media–others whipped out their phones, sent a live-feed to Periscope, and C-Span picked it up anyway. It was “out of the ordinary,” indeed. It was the first time an event of this scale had taken place in the U.S. Congress. Lewis himself, of course, is a legendary Civil Rights-era nonviolent activist. He knows perhaps a little more about nonviolence, from first-hand experience, than just about any of his colleagues, to say the least, if not many of us watching. After 26 hours, the congresspeople end the sit-in, and Congressman Lewis claims it as a victory.
Enter the media. What just happened? And this is the problem. Our media–most of them, at least–can give us the sordid, often insignificant details of a violent event, to the point of having us live and re-live the trauma. But our media does not tell us how to stop such events from happening. In other words, when it comes to understanding nonviolence, its principles and strategic dynamics, our media is sorely lacking.
The way that the mass-media, and even progressives on social media, represent what took place can give us insight into some myths held about nonviolence, and offer a teaching moment to go deeper. Because if nonviolence were better understood, we’d quickly grasp that it makes us safer than guns any day. As father of the Catholic Worker Movement, Peter Maurin said, “we need to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.” Nonviolence, properly understood, even just slightly so, can do just that.
Gandhi coined a term for nonviolent struggle: satyagraha. It means “grasping to reality.” Imagine if our media could help us to that. In this spirit, then, let’s ever so briefly glance at what the media has gotten wrong about this event so we can better understand it and in the process elevate another story about who we are and what makes us safe: