Talking About Violence is Not a Distraction: The Berkeley Protests for Ferguson

I marched again last night in Berkeley with my protest partner Sharon Fennema and over 1000 other committed, passionate, and almost entirely nonviolent people. It was astounding to see that there were more people gathered on December 7, 2014 than there had been the night before when protesters were violently attacked by police. As can happen, but doesn’t always, in response to state-sponsored attacks, a movement galvanized and grew; it did not weaken.

Protesters’ commitment to nonviolence and peaceful protest grew stronger as well. The first skirmish broke out among protesters while we were gathered in an intersection in downtown Berkeley. The argument was between white men — some of whom wanted to foment violence, some of whom wanted to hold the commitment to peaceful protest.

Protestors gathered to hear testimonies.
Protestors gathered to hear testimonies.

As soon as the skirmish began, the mass of protesters turned and faced the men and chanted over and over “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!” Until the shouts of the argument subsided, and an organizer with a bullhorn called us to start moving again. Movement forward, I have learned these past couple nights, is a nonviolent action that cultivates nonviolent response.

Oh, not coincidentally, as soon as the skirmish began, television camera lights came on and hungrily descended on the fighting white men. The bloodlust of television entertainment news is insatiable.

Other isolated incidents of violence broke out at various times before I departed the protest around 11:00 last night. Windows were smashed at another Radio Shack in Berkeley. Again, protesters shouted “Peaceful protest!” while other courageous protesters placed their bodies in harm’s way to protect the business. One looter threw items out the store window. Other protesters picked them up and tossed them back inside.

The mass of protesters didn’t stop marching when the violence began, but wave after wave of protesters continued the chant as they passed by and kept the energy moving forward. We were evacuating the power of the crowd from the violence of a few.

As the white men who had perpetrated the violence caught back up through the crowd, I heard one of them shouting in rage. “How can you shout “No justice! No peace! And then shout peaceful protest! It makes no sense!” (There were a few other words in there as well, which helped to convey his anger.)

The question was genuine, I could tell. And the response I thought of is — it depends on your definition of peace. Over a thousand protesters walking randomly and unpredictably through city streets and into freeways does not make for a peaceful night. Causing enough disturbance to require multiple police helicopters to light our path for us across a nine-mile hike does not make for a peaceful night. Protesters chanting “Out of your houses! Into the Streets!” up at the curious onlookers who stand backlit in the warmth of their homes does not make for a peaceful night.

Night after night of these disturbances, night after night in city after city–from Anchorage, AK to Berkeley, CA to Boise, ID to Portland, ME to New York City, NY to Philadelphia, PA to Ferguson, MO, to Miami, FL does not make for a peaceful country. This is holy disruption!

IMG_1473In my tweets last night (@momentofbeing), I tried to report on the peaceful and restorative actions of protesters as much as possible. I engaged @berkeleyside (an excellent grassroots local news site) when they reported that a dozen protesters had destroyed two police cars. Because I was also standing very close to those police cars when the first window was smashed, I tweeted back, “Just remember over 1000 protesters NOT destroying police cars.” They responded, “Yes, there are lots of peaceful people but they are overshadowed by those who are not. Basic fact.”

The violence and destruction got much worse in Berkeley last night after I had gone home. And Berkeleyside was right. The news entertainment stories are pretty much entirely about that violence. And those of us, let me be clear, those 1000+ of us who were nonviolent are expressing frustration that the focus on violence has made it The Story, because it is only a distraction from The Message.

But here is the distinction we have to make. Violence has always been The Story in American history. Violence is at the very heart of our narratives of origin. Violence is celebrated in our country’s telling of its own story. Violence is glamorized and uncritically embraced. Violence is the key organizing point around how history is taught in our classrooms from K-12 and beyond. Our children are weaned from breast to violence. Violence is how our country continues to try to solve its problems. When we feel ourselves threatened or when we are in/directly attacked, the war cry goes up.

Our country meets violence with escalated violence.

Even more destructive than that, violence is the the story left untold: the violence of displacement and genocide of the indigenous people who once inhabited this land; the violence of the middle passage, slave auctions, and disgusting dehumanization of slavery; the violence of rape and the destruction of black families separated and sold into slavery when the middle passage was shut down; the violence of lynching performed on Sundays afternoons for the good white church folk who had their picnics around the strange fruit hanging from the trees; the violence of welfare reform and underfunded schools and decimated social services; the violence of bailed out banks and sold out poor people with predatory loans across their backs; the violence that kills gay, lesbian, and transgendered people; the violence of the new Jim Crow.

Violence is not a distraction from the story. It is The Story we crave like a fiend craves heroin.

The fact that some protesters can find no other way to embody resistance other than through violent means is not their failing alone. It is also ours.

The distraction comes in when we tell the story of violence without accompanying it with the intentional telling of the rest of the story:

This is a movement of hundreds of thousands of protesters across the United States that both calls for and embodies peaceful protest rooted in love. These peaceful protesters are continuing to engage in holy disruption even when it means they need to take into consideration that they may come home severely injured because of the actions of others. These peaceful protesters bring water to share with one another; link arms with strangers as they shut down freeways; arrange for volunteer medics with supplies to counteract teargas and bandage wounds; walk for miles and miles and miles because the Spirit compels us to; lie down in the streets because others have been killed and left for hours there.

Violence is not a distraction from the story. Nor is it The Story. Let’s please take the time to talk about complex things in the manner they deserve.

 

Dr. Jennifer Davidson’s detailed account of Saturday evening’s protest can be found here. She is Associate Professor of Worship & Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Follow her on Twitter: @momentofbeing.

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One thought on “Talking About Violence is Not a Distraction: The Berkeley Protests for Ferguson

  1. “Yes, there are lots of peaceful people but they are overshadowed by those who are not. Basic fact.”

    It’s sad that the person who said this (and, really, any member of the media who says this, of which there are many) doesn’t understand the basic foundational irony that THEY ARE THE MEDIA THAT IS REPORTING ONLY ON THE VIOLENT ELEMENTS OF THE PROTESTS. Peaceful protesters are overshadowed by violent ones by THEIR OWN ACTIONS and the actions of the media as a whole. THEY are the problem.

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