August 15, 2017
As an anarchist, and a nearly lifelong member of the revolutionary left, I have had a tumultuous and dynamic relationship with pacifism. Before I dig into what I am about to say, let me relate two stories.
About a year ago, my five year old son was at summer camp when an older kid bullied one of his friends about his painted toenails. I’m not sure what the exact insult was, but it made my son’s friend cry. My son responded by punching the older kid in the face. It was an odd lecture that night, as both mom and I were proud of his resolute stance in the face of hatred, but knew that he was way to young too be congratulated for resulting to violence. We praised his strength in rising to defend his friend, but talked about all of the non-violent alternatives he could have chosen.
In the mid 90s, I spent a ton of time tramping and hitchhiking up and down the east coast and through the american south. One night, I was hanging out in a hobo camp near a rail yard, drinking beers with a crew of other travellers. I was a combat vet, and had a few dozen states behind my thumb, so I was both welcome and comfortable there. I know there were eight or nine of us, but the only ones I still recall were my friend Josh, who I originally met in Chattanooga, and whom I had found my way to the camp with, a grizzled angry rail punk named Smitty, and this idealistic young kid who was maybe 19, clean shaven only because he had yet to grow whiskers.
In the long meandering conversation we had that night, Smitty started showboating about all the asswhoopings he had metted out through his years. As any seasoned traveller does at times like that, I let him brag. There is no reason to call into question another man’s claims to be able to fight unless you yourself are looking for one. But this smooth-cheeked idealist of a kid proclaimed he was a pacifist, and tried to explain how violence never solved anything. Smitty let it slide at first, knocking the kid for his blind idealism in a patronizing, yet friendly way. As the drink flowed, the stories progressed, and smitty started in on another story about some fight in the distant past. The kid spoke up.
“Man, violence never solved anything, you should have just walked away.”
I had my doubts about Smitty and his claims of bested battles, but the speed at which he knocked that kid backwards off the stump he was sitting on, landing on his shoulders and punching him in the face let me know that he probably did have a bit of background.
“Solve this without violence!”, Smitty shouted, cuffing the kid in the side of the face. “Come on, ya little faggot, talk your way out of this!” he continued with another punch.
The kid, his arms pinned under Smitty’s knees, couldn’t even raise his hands to cover his face. It was the kind of brutalization that a big brother gives his younger sibling, a lesson hidden somewhere within, but really just an excuse to hit someone weaker than you.
All of us understood what was happening, and we told Smitty to give the kid a break and sit back down. But he continued to challenge the pinned boy, alternating between smacks and drunken old man punches. The kid started to cry.
“Smitty. Stop” I said, standing up.
“Fuck you” was the last thing Smitty said for a few moments.
I swung in hard under his jaw, clipping his head back before toe kicking him in the chest, as the kid scrambled backwards, wiping tears from his face.
“Yeah, fuck me, Smitty. You want to try and jump on my chest? You wanna try your bully-ass bullshit on a man instead of a boy? Lets see whats up, old man.”
Smitty’s face broke open in a wide grin. “See! You get it!” He laughed.
We were right. Pacifism IS a good way to live your life. Conflict in unavoidable, but violence is. But to claim pacifism when you are physically watching violence inflicted upon another person, and you have the power to stop it. . . that is the deepest abyss of cowardice.
In the last two years or so, I have been in maybe a dozen fights. Always in the middle. Talking reason, calming nerves, negotiating and de-escalating. I have two things going for me, the confidence granted by the fact that I have not lost a single fight in nearly three decades, and white privilege. I know that when police arrive, I can eloquently and calmly explain how I tried to calm down a situation and was forced to defend myself when reason failed.
In a violent world, sometimes the only way to peace is through judicious application of counter-violence. As we watch the rise of the American Nazi Party, I encourage all of you to seriously re-consider any non-violent tendencies you may espouse. This is a group that would happily kill any and all of your non-conforming friends. LGBT, people of color, women who say no. Their cheeto-headed “God Emperor of the United States” (Seriously they call Trump that, just Google the term “GEOTUS”) has empowered them that they think they are on the right side of history, it is our job to remind them they are wrong. If you can do it through discourse, I applaud you. If it takes punching Nazi’s, I’m with you.
I am fortunate to live in California, where the Nazis keep quiet at their hot dog stand jobs, travelling to places like Charlottesburg to take off their masks and scream their vile racist hatred. I am also thankful that a small number of locals I know have espoused their true colors, emboldened by the neo nazi uprising, and I don’t even have to leave town to try to non-violently show them the error of their ways.
But if it takes violence to stop the spread of intolerant, white nationalist rhetoric, I’m down with it.
Equality for all. Love conquers hate, but sometimes love needs boots on the ground to defend those we love.
Fight for what you love.