A few years ago, I was walking in Minneapolis, just a few miles from where George Floyd was murdered, when a panicked, young Native American man ran by me and into the street. Immediately afterward, a Minneapolis Police squad car pulled next to me. One officer jumped out, tackled the young man in the middle of the street and started pounding his face into the pavement. I approached the officer and told him that he was using excessive force and I had his badge number. His partner quickly escorted me back to the curb while informing me that I would be arrested for interfering with the arrest. I stood, yelling, while the beating continued.
Recently standing at the memorial in front of the Cup Foods where Mr. Floyd was murdered, I recalled my earlier experience. What if I had refused to leave the middle of the street a few years ago? I could have been hurt or arrested, but as a white, cis-heterosexual male, would I have been able to leverage my privilege to stop the beating?
I wondered: What if the people on the curb, when their yelling went unheeded, refused demands to stay away? No blame should be placed on witnesses, and the trauma of being a witness to such brutality should be acknowledged, but imagine: What could have happened if one witness had the training to intervene nonviolently? To step into the street and lay down next to Mr. Floyd? Would such an act of civil disobedience have created enough of a diversion to prompt former Officer Chauvin to remove his knee? What if two people had lain in the street? Or three?
What if more people were trained to directly and nonviolently intervene when they witness police brutality?
It appears unlikely that a ban on chokeholds will pass Congress this year. And local bans on neck restraints have had limited deterrent value.
This dysfunction exemplifies why we cannot wait any longer for reforms and police training. If governments cannot or will not protect their citizens, then civilians have a responsibility to protect. Not as armed vigilantes; such violence will promote more violence, but through strategic nonviolent methods, such as unarmed civilian protection.
For the past 20 years I have helped create Nonviolent Peaceforce, an international nongovernmental organization with Special Consultative Status at the United Nations. Our trained, unarmed protection teams are invited by civil society to areas of violent conflict to protect civilians. They also work with local groups so communities protect themselves and prevent further violence. Our peacekeepers have saved thousands of lives in South Sudan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, among other conflict areas.
In addition to being nonviolent, we work on a nonpartisan basis, which means we protect people from assaults by rebel groups as well as violence perpetrated by the government. We strategically use a series of nonviolent methods that have proven to be effective in very violent situations, including state-based violence.
Several applications of unarmed civilian protection could apply more widely in the United States, but let me focus on one. What if more people were trained to directly and nonviolently intervene when they witness police brutality?
As Congressman John Lewis observed, “Sometimes you have to put yourself in harm’s way. You may stir up some violence but you will not engage in the violence.”
When witnessing police brutality, there are effective steps that one can take to intervene. In such interventions, able-bodied, straight, cis-heterosexual white men will statistically encounter far less risk than people of color or others who are marginalized.
Depending on the severity of the abuse, these steps have to be taken very quickly or even skipped:
People can be trained to take on this responsibility. Granted, they wouldn’t be everywhere, but they could stop some of the violence. It is but one tool in a new approach for real community safety and protection. Interveners risk injury and arrest, but as Congressman John Lewis observed, “Sometimes you have to put yourself in harm’s way. You may stir up some violence but you will not engage in the violence.” And more lives could be saved.
We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.