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Imagining the nonviolent state

What if nonviolence wasn’t an inhuman standard demanded of the powerless, but an ethic upon which we reimagined the state?

Anti-police brutality demonstrators lie on the pavement near the White House with the names of people killed by police written on their shirts on June 6.
Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

Officers of the state conduct a public lynching. Cities erupt in protest, then in riots. And then the state demands of its critics what it refuses to ask of itself — nonviolence. This serves a dual purpose: It sets a bar for legitimate protest that few human beings can clear. And it discredits the revolutionary teachings of nonviolence by coating them in hypocrisy and cynicism.

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls that the school year “could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.” But the stories rang hollow, because the teachings were hollow. “How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned?” he asks.

Lodged within that question is the seed of a better world. What if our society did not scorn those values? What if nonviolence wasn’t an inhuman standard demanded of the powerless, but an ethic upon which we reimagined the state?

To conceive of that world requires a fuller appreciation of nonviolence than most of us have been given. Nonviolence is not simply the absence of violence. It is not a preference for order or lawfulness. It is, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, a bid to “develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

This is the often neglected heart of nonviolence: It is a strategic confrontation with other human beings. It takes as self-evident that we must continue to live in fellowship with one another. As such, it puts changing each other’s hearts at the center of political action, and then asks what kind of action is likeliest to bring about that transformation. That its answers are radical and demanding does not make them untrue.

“King thinks human beings are sacred,” says Brandon Terry, a Harvard sociologist and co-author of a volume on King’s political philosophy. “We need, above all else, to avoid preventing them from changing for the better. That’s what the whole ethos is about: trying to see in other people what we see in ourselves — the capacity for growth, self-correction, and change.”

Nonviolence was, in King’s time, and in Gandhi’s time, a weapon deployed against the state. That anyone, anywhere, was willing to offer their broken body as the crucible for their oppressor’s change of heart borders on the mythic. It is easy to speak of nonviolence. It is annihilating to imagine it, to absorb what it asks of its practitioners, what it inflicts upon those they cherish.

There is a passage in King’s memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, in which he recalls that his father “had reached the point where he could scarcely mention the protest without tears.” His mother “had taken to bed under doctor’s orders, and she was often ill after.” King goes on to write, in a passage that cuts deeper as you sit with it longer, that “no one can understand my conflict who has not looked into the eyes of those he loves, knowing that he has no alternative but to take a dangerous stand that leaves them tormented.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holding his son Martin III as his daughter Yolanda and wife Coretta greet him at the airport upon his release from Georgia state prison after incarceration for leading boycotts in 1960.
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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. escorted by police officers as he is taken into a hearing on a charge of probation violation following his arrest for assisting a student sit-in demonstration in 1960.
Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

That is what nonviolence demands. That you torment not just yourself but those you love, in the hope that your antagonists will rediscover their humanity within your suffering. That in order to change them, you risk yourself, your future, your family. Nothing in modern life, with the possible exception of parenthood, is built atop such self-annihilating logic. It is the truest radicalism, destabilizing to societies built on transaction and domination because it inverts their workings, lays bare their weaknesses, dissolves their core ethic.

In response, the state has done to nonviolence what it does to all dangerous ideologies: domesticated it. Nonviolence has been sanitized, shrunken to fit children’s books and national holidays. Worse than that, it has been booby-trapped. It is a demand the powerful make of the powerless, a taunt oppressors fling at the oppressed.

“The people who are called on to be nonviolent are the people with the ability to do the least amount of damage,” Coates told me, “whereas, we don’t call upon those who have the most power and actually can do the most damage.”

Perhaps we should. We are living amid a profound failure of governance. America accounts for about 5 percent of global population but 25 percent of the global imprisoned population. We cage more of our own than any other nation on earth. But mass incarceration has not brought security. There are more than 120 civilian-owned guns for every 100 American residents — guns we keep, in many cases, because we fear our government, our neighbors, or both. A 2010 study found that Americans were seven times likelier than residents of other high-income countries to be murdered, and 25 times likelier to be killed in a shooting. Black communities face the heaviest toll from violent crime, yet the police are often seen as contributors to violence, disorder, and oppression: An ABC/Ipsos poll found 57 percent of black Americans supported the movement to defund the police.

“Gandhi and King believed the state’s use of violence would be self-defeating,” says Columbia University political scientist Karuna Mantena, who is writing a book on Gandhi and the politics of nonviolence. “All it does is demoralize a population and lose support. If you have a state with large numbers of people in jail, that has to constantly resort to violence, that isn’t a functional state or society.”

Mohandas K. Gandhi walks with several pilgrims in 1930.
Bradley Smith/Corbis via Getty Images

We are taught to think of King and Gandhi as carrying lessons for those protesting the state. But the most profound — and usable — lessons of their philosophy are for those controlling the state.

A monopoly on violence

In Politics as a Vocation, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote that the definitional feature of the state is its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” — often shorthanded to schoolchildren, including me, as the monopoly on violence. It is profound to put violence at the core of the successful state. Institutions built on the control and use of violence will, themselves, be violent. They will rely on their monopoly. And so the American government does. So state governments do.

Violence is not, to be clear, the only thing the government does. The US spends more on health care and education, at both the national and state levels, than on the military and police. But the enforcement of law and the imposition of order are the bedrock of the state. They predate the other functions and create the conditions for their emergence. The federal income tax, for instance, was first levied to pay the costs of the Civil War.

We speak of the state as a singular entity, but it is not a singular experience. Some Americans deal routinely with the clenched fist of the state. Others experience the state’s kinetic powers as an abstraction, or a protection. Being a young black man living in Queens during the stop-and-frisk years bore functionally no relationship to being a young white man living in Laguna Beach during the same period. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes argues in his book A Colony in a Nation, American policing is built atop “two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” He goes on to write:

If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

In the Nation, there is law; in the Colony, there is only a concern with order. In the Nation, you have rights; in the Colony, you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty. Police officers tasked with keeping these two realms separate intuitively grasp of the contours of this divide: as one Baltimore police sergeant instructed his officers, “Do not treat criminals like citizens.”

The idea behind the state’s monopoly on legitimate force is that it keeps citizens safe: If the state uses legitimate force to suppress illegitimate violence, the result, in theory, is security and order. The clarity of this theory often dissolves amid the racism, rage, and terrors that have shaped aspects of the state across much of America’s history. Too often, legitimate force is whatever the state says it is, even when any child could recognize it as illegitimate violence. Eric Garner was choked to death for the crime of selling loose cigarettes, extinguished while his killers were surrounded by cameras, and a grand jury chose not to charge the officer responsible.

An analysis by the ACLU of New York revealed that at the height of stop-and-frisk in 2011, under the Bloomberg administration, more than 685,000 people were stopped. Nearly 9 in 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers — mostly black and Latinx — were innocent.
Orlando Camargo/Third Eye Corporation/Getty Images

But the argument of nonviolent theorists goes further than condemning the most horrific acts of brutality: To them, the state’s reliance on force is built upon a mistake; its banal and even compassionate application is often a tragic error. You cannot change the hearts of human beings through violence or imprisonment, you can only subdue or cage their bodies, incurring a bill of shame and resentment that will come due later. It is a view worth taking seriously. And it is a challenge to representatives of a violent state who invoke King’s words against protesters.

“Most of [the people rioting] are young, and I just wonder who were their parents?” asked Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). “What did they teach them? How did they get educated to believe this an appropriate response? Contrast that to what Martin Luther King Jr. did.”

Even putting aside debates over whether violence and rioting is a legitimate political tactic in the face of state oppression, King’s actual views indict state officials like Massie. We are all educated by the state and society in which we live, which is itself suffused with violence, where the strong dominate the weak and name their dominance order. The government teaches lessons, and those lessons are learned. As King put it:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.

That violence begets violence is more than a dorm room slogan: It is a much-replicated research finding. A study by the US Justice Department of 11- to 17-year-olds, for instance, found that being the victim of violence was an extraordinarily powerful predictor of subsequently being the perpetrator of violence. “Violent victimization,” they concluded, “is an important risk factor for subsequent violent offending.”

There is much the state does that is meant to protect citizens from violence, including policing, which really does work to reduce crime. But there’s also much the state does that inflicts violence — and that is nowhere more true than in the state’s cramped, self-defeating definition of justice. As Danielle Sered writes in Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, decades of studies find four key predictors of violence in individuals: “shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and a diminished ability to meet one’s economic needs.” Those are also, as it happens, the definitional features of prison. “As a nation, we have developed a response to violence that is characterized by precisely what we know to be the main drivers of violence,” she writes. “We should not be surprised, then, when the system produces exactly the results we would expect.”

Most studies show higher rates of recidivism among those sent to prison — prison, in this telling, is “criminogenic.” There is debate over whether these studies truly control for all variables, and a continuous hope for randomized experiments that would settle the question more conclusively, but even in the most conservative read of the evidence, there is simply no reason to believe prison reduces the likelihood of committing future crimes when compared to more compassionate, rehabilitative alternatives.

But there is all the reason in the world to believe prison does terrible harm to those who are imprisoned, as well as to their families. Reams of research show parental incarceration is an independent risk factor for children, leading to higher rates of poverty, homelessness, psychological problems, and criminal activity. Mass incarceration represents an extraordinary, unnecessary, and deeply harmful level of violence that the state inflicts on its own citizens, and their families and communities. And America relies more heavily upon imprisonment than any other country on earth.

America has a particularly violent state, and it has a particularly violent society. The one is often used to justify the other: The state must be violent — the police armed, the prison sentences long — because the society is violent. But the nonviolent perspective would say the reverse: The society is violent partly because the state is violent.

State troopers attack civil rights protesters with tear gas when the protesters set up camp at an elementary school after city officials denied them the right to use the school grounds.
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Police fire tear gas outside the White House at peaceful anti-racism protesters to accommodate a photo op for President Trump on June 1.
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If Massie reveres King so deeply, he should read his words more closely: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.” Why shouldn’t that role fall to the state, with its superior resources, organization, training, and capacity to absorb harm?

It is not, however, as easy as saying that if the state simply receded, leaving a vacuum where law enforcement currently sits, that society would become less violent in turn. Nonviolence demands more than that.

Nonviolence is not simply the absence of violence

Nonviolence is a strange word: It describes itself as the absence of its opposite. It thus presents as a void where violence should be, a narcotized forgiveness that is fine for saints to practice but irresponsible for policymakers to attempt. It is too easy to imagine disorder, crime, and anarchy stepping into that void. That is what we are taught to imagine.

“Nonviolence is very often associated with passivity and failing to respond in an effective way to aggression or violence,” says Judith Butler, the Berkeley social theorist and author of The Force of Nonviolence. “It’s understood in the popular imagination to be a place of internal equanimity or harmony.”

But that is not what nonviolence is, nor what its theorists and practitioners teach. Gandhi was startlingly clear on this, in passages that defy our flattened excerpts of his teachings. He loathed passivity and thought violence preferable. “If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow” nonviolence, he wrote, “retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best, though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence.”

In the face of injustice, the absence of violence is not preferable to violence. It is only nonviolence that is preferable to violence. And it is only preferable because it is likelier to work. But like anything worth doing, it is hard — arguably much harder than violence.

A group of demonstrators lie across a parking entrance of a federal building in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
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Demonstrators lie on the pavement in Washington, DC, on June 6.
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The soldier and the police officer accept a measure of daily risk — the threat of being wounded, killed, or captured — but face it with the tools of violence: guns, batons, bombs, combat training. Those tools work to subdue bodies, but they harden hearts. The cry of police abolition is testament to that: it is a statement from the very people the police are meant to serve that they refuse to go on in community with the police as an institution.

Nonviolence accepts the same risks — being beaten, killed, or captured — but deploys different tools in response: suffering, forgiveness, boycotts, dialogue, social services, spectacles that embarrass the violent by clarifying their cruelty. It is, like violence, a path of confrontation and engagement, not passivity. But unlike violence, its goal is community, not submission. “One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves,” King said. “We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

Both King and Gandhi believed the proper application of nonviolence required vast levels of trainings and self-discipline. It is an incredibly demanding strategy, and one made harder if you add in the demands of politics, where voters often want to see those they loathe punished, those they fear dominated, those who’ve harmed them paid back double. Nonviolence requires a restraint few individuals can muster and few societies have demonstrated. And yet we have examples all around us. This is frequently the path we walk with our children, with our parents, with our friends, even with our coworkers. And we do so because, in those relationships, we know we must keep walking the path together. We do so because, in those relationships, we aim to change hearts and transform lives.

“For King, the fundamental question of politics is how you go on in community with each other,” says Harvard’s Terry. “Destroying your enemy makes it impossible to go on in community together. But so does fear. You need forms of politics that allow you to avoid the emotions that make it impossible to go on together.”

The state puts tremendous resources and effort into developing the technologies of violence and training its agents in their use. It puts tremendous resources — both legal and political — into reducing the risk of violence to its own agents, even as it increases the risk of violence to those they meet. The tragic shooting of Rayshard Brooks is testament to the costs of this strategy: If the agents of the state who’d been called to respond to a man sleeping in a Wendy’s drive-through hadn’t been carrying tasers and guns, Brooks would be alive today.

The question nonviolence asks is what if the state put, at the least, equal energy and effort into developing tools of nonviolence and training agents in their use? What if it was more willing to absorb harm to itself than to inflict harm on others, precisely because that strategy would lead to more security, safety, and harmony for all? And what if it replaced its emphasis on punishment and reprisal with a courageous pursuit of forgiveness and change?

This question does not need to start with the hardest cases — say, when the police are called to intervene in a live shootout. The vast majority of police calls are to nonviolent incidents. What if the agents who responded to those calls were, themselves, trained in the tools of nonviolence: mediators, crisis counselors, accident report writers, or even police without guns, batons, or tear gas? We have successful pilots, like the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon, and other cities are beginning to follow suit. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, for instance, has announced a police reform road map in which police will no longer respond to non-criminal complaints.

And even in the cases where violence is ongoing, there may be space for nonviolent approaches. What if cities convened respected elders in the community who were prepared to answers calls for intervention — is it possible that deploying a beloved local priest, or teacher, might calm a violent situation that badges, guns, and shouted demands for compliance would escalate?

Patrick Skinner, a police officer in Savannah, Georgia, told me that he always asks trainees: “If you didn’t have a badge and a gun, how would you handle that situation? Because I guarantee you, if you walk into that situation with your gun and badge out, you’ll use them.”

Livia Rose Johnson, an organizer with Warriors in the Garden, leads a protest in New York City on June 14.
Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

I am enough of a pessimist to believe there will always be some instances where armed agents of the state are needed to deploy force. But we are nowhere near discovering that final boundary. Today, there is a vast field where nonviolent approaches could replace violent ones, and do so more effectively.

This approach could carry after the arrest, or conviction, too. Our legal system is focused on punishment, mostly applied through incarceration. What if, following the remarkable and potent work done in the restorative justice community, it was focused on the repair of harm?

In restorative justice, the focus is not on what perpetrators have done but on what victims need. In some cases, that is imprisonment. But far more often, it is answers, amends, the kind of visible transformation in a perpetrator that leads to a continued feeling of safety. Sered, who directs the remarkable nonprofit Common Justice, tells the story of a man robbed at gunpoint. Asked if he preferred imprisonment or a restorative justice program, he asked whether the perpetrator could get life without parole for the crime. Told that he couldn’t, the man chose restorative justice. “If he can’t be gone forever, then I’d rather he be changed,” he said.

A meta-analysis of 84 evaluations of restorative justice programs focused on juveniles found better outcomes for both offenders and victims. Another analysis of 22 studies examining particularly rigorous restorative justice programs concluded, “restorative justice programs are a more effective method of improving victim and/or offender satisfaction, increasing offender compliance with restitution, and decreasing the recidivism of offenders when compared to more traditional criminal justice responses.”

The moral crisis neither begins nor ends within the criminal legal system. King always saw crime and violence as intertwined with poverty and economic despair. “In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income,” he wrote. “You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society.” And that violence is inflicted daily, and broadly.

Many of the communities targeted by “law and order” policies are the communities that have borne the brunt of America’s history of economic violence, too. The history of housing discrimination and credit availability — still ongoing today — speak to this reality. As does our sparse social safety net.

Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, who died just a few weeks ago, was a central figure in the study of political economy, and one of his key findings was that America lacked a European-style social safety net because racism had rendered the politics of building one toxic. In a paper co-authored with Ed Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, Alesina concluded that “racial animosity in the US makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters.” America is the richest nation in the world but has some of the highest poverty and inequality rates among rich nations. That is a policy choice, made for the cruelest of reasons.

America’s approach to economic support has been unusually intent on separating the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor,” and the category of undeserving poor has been deeply racialized. And so top political leaders, even today, worry that social services will become “a hammock,” as if being poor is ever easy, and theorize new and more baroque ways to test whether food stamps are used for the right foods, and make applying for benefits brutally difficult under the guise of rooting out fraud. It was revealing, as the coronavirus began to shutter the economy, that so many had so much trouble accessing unemployment insurance. That reflected those systems working as designed, but as soon as those working began to imperil the livelihoods of a broader swath of Americans, state governments rushed to repair them.

King understood this as both a form of violence unto itself and a spur to violence for those who are crushed beneath it. And he was right. We know, for instance, that Medicaid expansion leads to significant reductions in crime. We know that SNAP benefits reduce crime. We know that education reduces crime. There is evidence that restricting welfare benefits increased crime. A more compassionate state will create a less violent society. There is a reason King saw the struggle for racial equity as intimately intertwined with the struggle for economic equity. A state that sought to help its citizens flourish, to forgive and uplift them when they faltered, would build structures of economic support that were kindest to those who needed the most help, rather than treating them with suspicion, anger, and contempt, and looking for reasons to abandon them to hopelessness.

I will not pretend, in this piece, to be able to fully imagine the workings of a state that truly seeks to follow the ethos of nonviolence wherever it can. A state that practices forgiveness, that seeks change, that pursues the harmony of community rather than the false peace of incarceration. It is easy, of course, to imagine the difficulties and dangers of that path. But let us not sugarcoat the harms of the path we have chosen instead: We are a violent society surrounded by a violent state, a country that locks up more of its own than any country on earth, in which agents of the government slowly choke citizens to death while bystanders beg them to stop, leading to riots that the state then uses as an excuse to deploy yet more violence in the name of order. It is time to ask a different question, find different answers, pursue better goals.

Thousands of mourners follow a decorated truck carrying the body of Mohandas Gandhi during the funeral procession after his assassination.
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The mahogany casket bearing the body of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is interred in a marble tomb in South View Cemetery in Atlanta on April 9, 1968.

King, Gandhi, and others in their lineage are often seen as something between dreamers and martyrs. Perhaps those descriptions are apt, but they were more than that, too: They were realists. They were clear about their ends, and the methods they embraced followed from the world they sought to build. A world we should still seek to build.

“The end is redemption and reconciliation,” King wrote. “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

It is time for the lesson they taught to be learned. Not by protesters, furious at the violence inflicted upon their own by the state, but by the state itself, which should aspire to more than controlling the violence that can be inflicted upon its citizens.


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