Once, late at night, shortly before he died, Cesar Chavez tired to explain nonviolence to me.
“Active nonviolence requires taking to the streets,” he said adamantly. “That’s where it happens. That’s how it’s practiced.”
“Tell everyone from now on, if they want to practice nonviolence, they have to take public action, public action, public action!”
Each time he said the words, “public action,” he slapped the back of his right hand on the palm of his left hand, to emphasize his message.
I got the point.
Active nonviolence is not passivity. It’s not sitting around at conferences or listening to the bad news or spending our time on Facebook. It’s organized public action in the streets for justice, disarmament, and creation.
This year, as the madness of violence deepens, and the culture of violence threatens creation itself, the only antidote is active, nonviolent public action for social and global transformation.
In my experience, Cesar was right, it’s the number one task before us, but it’s devilishly hard to organize and animate.
In the wake of the horrific Parkland, Florida school shootings, some students and parents are showing us how to do it. They’ve taken to the streets, spoken out for gun control and given us hope by taking nonviolent public action. They model for us the need to take to the streets if we want positive social change. We don’t know how such organized nonviolent action can catch fire, grow organically, and become contagious, but that’s the goal and it will only occur when we organize people to stand up publicly, actively for justice, disarmament and creation.
Nonviolent public action has to become the new normal for us all so that it becomes an ordinary part of our regular lives, until our vision of a new culture of nonviolence becomes contagious, a transformation of power occurs, and justice and disarmament start to occur.
Jim Lawson, the Civil Rights leader, teaches that active nonviolence is a methodology for protest and social transformation. We claim our power, wield it in the streets, and force the issue into the news so that the leaders, in the end, follow us ordinary people to meet our demands for justice and disarmament and a shift in power occurs. That’s the hope of the New Poor People’s Campaign and its culminating events in Washington, D.C. this June.
In September, from the 15th to the 23rd, Campaign Nonviolence will organize our fifth national week of nonviolence, with over 2000 marches and demonstrations across the USA in every step connecting the dots against war, racism, nuclear weapons, poverty and environmental destruction, and for a new culture of nonviolence and justice.
We’re also calling for a national march on Saturday morning, September 22nd, from the Dr. King statue in Washington, D.C., in a spirit of silent prayer and Kingian nonviolence to the White House for a rally, demonstration and nonviolent direct action. See: www.campaignnonviolence.org
Gandhi said that every nonviolence movement also needs a “constructive program” for a new culture of nonviolence, so we’ve organized our “Nonviolent Cities” project where activists and church people begin to envision their local city in the future as a community of nonviolence, and ask what we can do now to help make that vision of our community as a more nonviolent city come true. Some fifty cities, from St. Paul to Cincinnati, are pursuing this strategy, and I hope this idea will spread and catch fire, too.
This week, I leave on a three-month, fifty city national speaking tour talking about Dr. King’s vision of active nonviolence, and my new book, They Will Inherit the Earth: Peace and Nonviolence in a Time of Climate Change, and how our practice of nonviolence, and our organic and organized movements of nonviolence will lead us toward a new solidarity with suffering humanity and Mother Earth, and if we want it, a new culture of nonviolence.
We never know what will be the spark, the tipping point, the key moment in our grassroots movements of nonviolence that will become contagious, but every one of us can be Rosa Parks, or like the Black Lives Matter activists or the Florida students who have taken to the streets, the ones who make the difference.
Everyone can make a difference, and we need not wait until the next catastrophe to get involved or up the level of our organizing for justice, disarmament and creation.
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s killing and the Poor People’s Campaign, I hope we can deepen our active nonviolence, make this our “year of living nonviolently,” and organize and take new public action for justice and peace.
We may discover how much power we already have, and what kind of dramatic transformation is possible, but we’ll never know unless we take to the streets in public, nonviolent, transformative action.