Nonviolent Direct Action in the Age of Trump
by K.C. Whiteley

When I decided a month ago to dedicate this column to the topic of nonviolence, I never could have imagined the shocking events that would take place in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, August 10, 2017, and the president's now infamous Trump Tower press conference five days later, where, for the second time, he assigned "blame on both sides" and showed his true allegiance by refusing to condemn the violent attacks by white supremacists.

Where does all this leave us citizens in a small, mostly white state? What are our beliefs and values around violence and nonviolence, and how do those beliefs determine our choices and actions? What does it mean to be a climate justice activist, social justice activist, racial justice activist? What is the way forward for us?

I asked three climate justice activists I admire to share their beliefs about nonviolence and how that impacts their activism. I want to thank Jan Waterman, Jesse Scarlato, and Keri Ellis for their stories, written before the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville.

Jan's Story

Jan Waterman is a longtime member of the Plainfield Conservation Commission, an active member of Central Vermont Climate Action, who deeply values strong communities. A former Montessori teacher, she continues to live by Montessori's three basic lessons: take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of your environment.

I was raised in a household in which the Christian values of compassion and kindness were practiced. I came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when domestic social change movements (the anti–Vietnam War demonstrations, civil rights struggles, the rise of the women's movement and feminism) brought a lot of attention to the power of nonviolent strategies and made a big impression on young idealists like me.

It was also powerful to see how a movement broke down when nonviolence faltered. At that point in our history, some people attempted to disrupt peaceful demonstrations by infiltrating groups and events to purposely create violence. As soon as even one rock was thrown by someone within the ranks of a peaceful protest, or one protester responded to violence with violence, the "authorities" claimed justification for demolishing the demonstration by unleashing much greater violence—in the name of public safety. Such violence not only demoralized the protesters, it provided abundant opportunities for the mainstream media to demonize the protesters and question the goals of the movement. Violence repelled not only the greater public's curiosity and sympathy, it discouraged possible allies from joining the struggle. This is one reason it's critical for a social change movement to remain nonviolent.

Learning about other successful nonviolent social change campaigns (such as women's suffrage and the movement to end apartheid in South Africa) illustrated to me that a strategy of nonviolence is a very effective tool not only for creating big changes but also for replacing an old dysfunctional culture by building a new culture and finding different ways to live daily life. For me, it's a practical approach as well as a spiritual and moral value.

We are all in this together—and unless the needs of all are met, there's no satisfactory outcome. My deeper appreciation of this approach grew out of seeing the best of feminist values in action and recognizing the connection between a foundation in matriarchal values—living cooperatively, honoring life, respecting, protecting and revering our mother, the Earth—and the critical necessity for huge changes in our social and economic systems in order to survive the cataclysmic climate disruptions we're creating.

With the rise of the Tea Party, the extreme right, and the current federal administration, it's more critical than ever to figure out how to make nonviolence work. We need to go deeper than simply carrying out surface actions. We need to clarify our underlying assumptions and values and understand how they drive us to employ power over others instead of truly caring about the needs of others. We must all work together toward mutual understanding and solutions that satisfy everyone's needs.

I've recently been involved in a small group studying the theory and basics of nonviolent communication (NVC). It's like learning a foreign culture, in that the world of NVC is very different from the reality I'm used to. It requires rewiring my brain, transforming patterns of thought and my automatic responses to conflict, and becoming fluent in a whole different a language. Studying NVC has led me to look more deeply at the mechanisms at play in my usual approaches to conflict resolution. If nonviolence or nonviolent language is employed as a tactic to "win," that's a failure of my values.

And here's another reason I want to hold to nonviolence: The end doesn't justify the means—the end is determined by the means. The means must be nonviolent, inclusive, demonstrating sincere caring about others' needs, and working towards understanding and meeting those needs along with our own, or we will wind up with a society that's just as violent and repressive and life-threatening as the one we're trying to change, no matter who "wins". Working to hear and understand and feel the needs of the other side, to risk exposing our own vulnerability, and to dismantle the perception that those others are our enemies is critical. The more we can do this, the easier it is to deescalate because basically we all have the same universal needs. This is grassroots work.

I think that people who hold lots of power and lots of fear are not usually motivated to be vulnerable. So I don't know that nonviolent communications and compassionate, cooperative actions can affect those who are cocooned in the higher levels of the power structure. I think that nonviolent movements play an absolutely vital role in creating social change. I also think these are not the only tools that may be necessary to effect social change on the scale we need and that we're in for a rough ride, whatever we do.

But if a critical mass of people practice the belief that we can all get our needs met by listening to each other with open hearts and working to meet everyone's needs, perhaps we'll be strong enough as a whole to bring about change despite political, economic and social upheavals, and survive the extreme disruptions climate change will bring. I am, in my unsteady way, trying to be part of the change I want to see happen all around the world.

Jesse's Story

Jesse Scarlato, Montpelier resident, is a longtime climate justice activist and a core member of Central Vermont Climate Action.

I am by no means a pacifist, but I do believe that when we work to make change in the world, we are acting to create the world anew. Our actions are most powerful when we not only work to challenge oppression but to create the beginnings of a better world within our movements and in our everyday lives. In the ways that we organize, communicate, and take action, we must be actively building an alternative to the systems of patriarchy and capitalism that cause so much suffering in the world and are bringing our planet to the brink of destruction.

I come from a family of Quakers and antiwar activists. When I look back on the lives of my ancestors, I am both inspired by their work and left asking myself: What does it take? I was a teenager at the beginning of the Iraq War, not old enough to vote but old enough to be immersed in what was happening—and I felt powerless to do anything to stop it. For all the millions of people protesting not only in our country but throughout the world, it seemed to make no difference.

Since then, I've engaged in actions that felt futile and actions that filled me with renewed hope and determination. I've studied movements, and I continue to do so—trying to better understand what works, what doesn't, and why.

The way I look at it, people who are in power derive their power from us—through our labor, our participation, our consent. When we work together to take action, we are bringing that power back into our own hands. I believe this is why we need movements of the many that are open and inclusive, and I think a strategy of effective nonviolent direct action can create that kind of movement.

Lastly, with any issue we are working on as activists, I think the key to our success is in strategy and long-term planning—thinking critically about what action will be most effective, having a plan for what the next step will be, knowing how to escalate, grow, and build a better world within our movements.

Keri's Story

Keri Ellis lives in Winooski and is currently a climate activist with 350Burlington, centering on issues related to climate justice. She is inspired by the example of Nelson Mandela and the reconciliation work that has taken place in post-apartheid South Africa.

My approach to the choice to embrace and practice nonviolence is primarily pragmatic. I'm interested in spending my time and energy toward sustained positivity, and in my experience, violence doesn't produce lasting positive effects. So for me, the choice is pretty straightforward.

That said, I find that practicing nonviolence is a constant effort not to give in to what seem to me to be very human tendencies. I think that most, if not all, human beings are capable of violence, and many people tend strongly toward it when under stress. Violence—which I loosely define as a conscious or unconscious act that harms someone or something else—takes many forms, not just the physical variety. Physical violence in my experience is typically preceded by verbal, emotional, and societal violence.

So often the reaction to violence is primal—fight or flight. Neither of those options moves toward resolution much beyond the immediate situation. Nonviolence offers a way to engage without having to resort to one of those extremes. For me, engaging is tough in the moment, but that process makes things easier and more positive once the moment has passed. It opens doors to understanding and forgiveness that would otherwise remain firmly shut.

I see social interactions not as "one and done" kinds of events but as cumulative. A large part of who a person is comes from the sum total of that person's experiences. When people spend most of their lives living with violence, it seems to me that they will adapt to those circumstances. It will change them in a way that cannot quickly be undone. I think it is helpful to use the concepts of critical mass or a tipping point when thinking about social interactions. Once you reach a critical mass of positive or negative experiences, to go in the opposite direction becomes a lot more difficult.

I think it's possible to both build anything and take anything apart, so if it's possible to build a society that is largely violent, it should also be possible to take that apart and build a society that is nonviolent through the accumulation of many interactions, small and large. Each interaction is an opportunity to act for the long term, for the positive. Others may feel differently, but a nonviolent world is the kind of world that I want to live in. I feel I have a responsibility to do everything I can to contribute to building a different way of living with each other. That is why I choose nonviolence.

In my opinion, practicing nonviolence in word and deed is important at this moment in time in our country. Our society is unraveling more and more; civility, basic respect for others, and social cohesion are waning. I am struck almost daily by how ready we are to take offense and to be offensive. It's important to say provocative things at times, but so often now it seems that people do so just to get a reaction. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that what we say doesn't end when the words leave our mouths, and we don't spend a lot of time thinking about what long-term effect we want our words and actions to have.

I find it telling that people seem more surprised when others behave kindly or considerately than when they are rude or inconsiderate. To me, that shows a shift in our expectations of our society and ourselves. Not too long ago, the opposite was true. The shock jocks of the 1980s and 1990s got their names because they said and did things that people then did not typically consider acceptable. Saying the same things today seems almost normal. In many other countries that I've visited, the social grease of kindness and respect is prevalent, whereas more and more in this country you have to look to find it. There seems to be a real disintegration of civility and a tendency toward viciousness in our daily interactions with others.

I think that partly stems from our increased mobility. There aren't many lifelong relationships any more, or even relationships that last long enough to make it necessary to think about long-term consequences. Social media has added significant fuel to that transition. Now it's not a matter of working out differences, of agreeing to disagree—just unfriend and pretend other points of view don't exist.

In my experience, for most Americans, it's easier to behave badly because it doesn't require self-awareness and self-control. Nonviolence and consideration for others, by contrast, require constant attention to both of those things. It's hard work, especially if you have come from situations where you haven't had a lot of opportunity to practice being that way.

A lot of people in this country for a variety of reasons are way beyond a critical mass of negative experiences. We have so many examples of negativity to learn from and so few models of nonviolence and positivity to follow. Standing Rock was a notable exception, but we have a long way to go to make exceptions like that the rule.

This is also an important time in our history as a nation because the myths we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are about are actively unraveling. How we are seen around the world is not how we think of ourselves, and more and more we are faced with evidence that we can't maintain longstanding beliefs about what America is about and what it is to be an American. It's not unusual for people to act irrationally and violently when they face a reality that conflicts with their beliefs. What I see in the upswing of that behavior here and now is a society desperate to cling to a myth when what we need to do is start dealing with reality on a societal and individual level and write a different story, one we can actually be proud of in years to come.

For all of those reasons, I think it is particularly important for our society to move toward a constant practice of nonviolence as individuals, communities, and societies. The sooner we start the initially difficult work of building up those experiences, the sooner we will have a critical mass of positivity and a strong, supportive society.




K.C. Whiteley is a member of the 350VT advisory board. 350VT organizes, educates, and supports people in Vermont to work together for climate justice—resisting fossil fuels, building momentum for alternatives, and transforming our communities toward justice and resilience.