In the aftermath of the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol this month, many political and spiritual leaders are calling for peace and unity. The GOP pressured Donald Trump to release a second statement urging his supporters to be peaceful. Ahead of armed rallies planned at all 50 U.S. State Capitols last weekend, some local Republicans and Democrats echoed calls for peace. And some religious leaders across the country are also amplifying the same message: violence is bad, we need peace. President Joe Biden has repeatedly emphasized the need for unity.
We understand why calling for peace after an act of violence might seem like a good idea — after all, violence is scary and peace isn’t, right? — but the truth is, peace is not the opposite of violence. Nor is peace the absence of conflict. Rather, nonviolence is what opposes violence and the truth is, it is impossible to completely eradicate conflict in society.
Strategic revolutionary nonviolence is not inherently peaceful, as it seeks to directly engage in conflict and confront injustice head on.
What’s important is how we engage in conflict — through violence or nonviolence. Only by constantly engaging in and drawing out conflict through nonviolent means can we ever transform society into a more healed, just place. Hollow calls for peace without calls for social, racial and economic justice are essentially a form of conflict avoidance, and give white supremacists more ground to continue organizing.
Not all nonviolence is created equally. There is a mainstream perception that nonviolence is turning the other cheek. That is not what we advocate for at War Resisters League. Instead, over the past decades, our organizers and members (including Bayard Rustin and Barbara Deming) have worked to advance the work of strategic revolutionary nonviolent direct action, the main strategy of the civil rights movement.
Strategic revolutionary nonviolence is not inherently peaceful, as it seeks to directly engage in conflict and confront injustice head on. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he writes: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
In other words, strategic revolutionary nonviolence seeks to organize communities to stand together to expose and resist injustice and violence without perpetuating it, like the Freedom Rides when Blacks and whites challenged segregation when they rode together on buses in the South and water protectors standing up against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King Jr said, “The United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” When we look around today at the violence the United States uses against people domestically through police brutality, migrant detention, mass incarceration — and internationally through drone strikes, CIA torture black sites and endless wars — we see how this remains true.
We are far from being a “a post-racial society,” yet the gains we’ve made clearly threaten white supremacy.
The visibilization of armed white supremacists organizing to retain power was a serious wake up call. While white supremacists continue to terrorize Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, on Jan. 6 we saw them terrorize white people who stood in their way. Now more people are paying attention. To get at the root of white supremacy, we need to re-examine the identity of the United States and challenge the myths that “this is not who we are.”
As the “greatest purveyors of violence,” we must recognize that this nation was built on the backs of Black people, and we continue to depend on Black and brown people to be frontline workers at the bottom of the pay scale. These are clear vestiges of the U.S. slavery system. Our policing institutions are descended from slave catching patrols and have a long history of both brutalizing and evading justice for the murder of Black and brown people to this day. Our housing policies have always been discriminatory and remain so today. There is a perception that segregated schools are a thing of the past, however, many public school systems remain segregated.
We are far from being a “a post-racial society,” yet the gains we’ve made clearly threaten white supremacy. Working for justice creates conflict but we have seen that through the use of strategic nonviolence, we can move towards equality.
So what are strategic responses to address the roots of white supremacy? One is to look at where armed white supremacists recruit and focus on counter-recruiting in those institutions. As it’s been pointed out repeatedly, many armed white supremacists are connected to the police and military. War Resisters League has counter recruitment resources that people can use to talk with others who are thinking of joining the police, military or border patrol.
Another strategy against the roots of white supremacy: resist paying your taxes. Nearly half of the federal income budget goes to paying for war and institutions of war like the FBI and CIA. War tax resistance is a movement that draws attention to this fact and compels people to take a stand by refusing to pay up.
And last, if we wish to break the cycles of violence we must commit to strategies of revolutionary nonviolence in our long-term work campaigning against white supremacy. It won’t be easy, but it’s the only way to reach an “end” to this war.
War Resisters is a joint page shared by War Resisters International and War Resisters League highlighting pressing antiwar topics of today. WRI is an internationalist network of antiwar groups struggling to end the root causes of war around the world. War Resisters League is an independent organization based in New York and a proud member of War Resisters International.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.