It’s the end of July. The community of Anaheim is outraged. In separate incidents over the past few days, two unarmed men of color have been murdered by the police. A round of public protests and police suppression of protests have followed. I have just returned to Southern California in the middle of this turmoil. I make plans to meet with my affinity group and head to a rally at the Anaheim police station.
As someone who grew up in an activist household, protests are nothing new to me. Some of my earliest memories involve attending peace marches with my parents in Oakland and San Francisco. As I grew older, I became increasingly involved in Bay Area anti-war groups, student organizations, and the Quaker community. But over the past few years, I have noticed a disturbing trend – the police response to public protest is becoming more and more militarized.
Arriving in Anaheim, we are greeted by lines of horse-mounted police who channel the crowd through choke points. A burly white officer stands at one choke point, handing out flyers to inform us that force will be used if we protest in ways that the authorities deem unacceptable. As we walk down the street to the main rally, we notice a squad of men in military-style camouflage on the police station’s roof. They have their binoculars trained on us, and one of them appears to be holding a rifle.
We join a group of perhaps 200 unarmed protestors in front of the station, with a similar number of heavily armed men stationed around the block. Peeking over a concrete wall reveals a large SWAT truck, later identified as a heavily armored vehicle designed to withstand 50-calliber machine gun rounds. We get an odd feeling that the police have no intention of allowing this protest to proceed peacefully.
The next few hours confirm our fears. After a speak-out and roving picket, the crowd begins marching toward Disneyland. When we arrive at the road that divides the tourist sector of Anaheim from the city center, we are met by scores of troops clad in full body armor wielding shotguns and grenade launchers who ordered us to turn around. We decide to march toward a vigil that’s being held on the street where Manuel Diaz, a young man of color, was recently murdered by the police. Horse-mounted cops force us onto the sidewalk and block us from proceeding. A uniformed SWAT team rushes into the crowd, grabs the man directing the march, and pulls him into an unmarked SUV. We push through the horse-mounted officers and immediately face another line of officers, who rush in to arrest two people who had loudly challenged an officer’s authority to block the sidewalk. When we finally arrive at the vigil, we find that the community has erected their own security perimeter and excluded the police. A woman there explains to me that after the police murdered a member of their community, then shot rubber bullets at them for expressing their rage, then set a dog on two of them – a woman with a child – after all this, the police could no longer be trusted.
While Friends often discuss military occupation, repression, genocide, and state violence abroad, I have rarely heard in-depth discussions about these problems at home. Many Quakers seem content with the “freedoms” promised by the Bill of Rights. But activists have discovered first hand and often painfully that our “rights” to free speech, free assembly, and protest are illusory. They are granted when the time, place, and content of the protest are deemed appropriate by the State, and are ignored when protest is not convenient. I have come to understand the United States as a land under military occupation, where community is criminalized and the people are forced at gunpoint to choose between wage slavery and exclusion.
There are (at least) two lenses with which to view the State: The mainstream perspective is the view of the liberal apologist, who sees the State as a well-intended institution failing to function as it should. The alternative that I have come to accept is that the State exists to facilitate the enslavement and exploitation of the planet and its inhabitants for the benefit of a privileged elite. The behavior of the State and its armed enforcement divisions can only be rationalized when the State is viewed as a separate entity from the people, rather than as a representative of our will. Take the common and blatant example of police shootings of innocent, unarmed men of color in low-income communities: judges have ruled over and over that a badge grants an officer the right to kill with little or no consequence, so long as the victim is relatively low on the capitalist social hierarchy. We all know what would happen if the situation were to be reversed. To me, this proves that the State and the present government do not act in the interests of the people nor with their consent. This means that we need to shift away from strategies of appealing to the existing power systems and to focus on strategies of strengthening, defining, and exercising the power of people in opposition to the militarized force of the State.
This is where I believe Quakers can play an important role. Quakers often brag about our legacy of civil disobedience, but I have rarely seen Quakers participating in direct action. To describe this by example, while I have often seen Quakers willingly risk arrest to block the entrance to a Federal Building or some other State institution, with the goal of raising awareness around an issue or pressuring a politician, I have yet to encounter Quakers actively protecting families from being forced out of their homes by sheriffs in league with banksters. I believe that as a privileged community, Quakers have a responsibility to be at the forefront of these struggles, opposing injustice by intentionally putting ourselves on the line alongside those who are most oppressed in our society.
I look back on my Quaker upbringing and I see the seeds of a community of resistance. I see people thirsting for justice and open to the truth, despite its inconveniences. I also see privilege – lots of it. I believe this is a mixed blessing, as it provides many of us with the resources to act, but also tends to remove the immediate sense of urgency that drives action.
It is hard for privileged individuals to comprehend the decision of a family to invite friends from the activist community into their home and barricade everybody in to defend themselves against wrongful home foreclosure. But it is this kind of initiative that builds the struggle, giving birth to new tactics and new campaigns toward a just society. There is no such thing as neutrality. We are either actively resisting, or we are perpetuating the status quo through complicity. I believe that resistance is something we must practice every day, because our daily routines either reinforce or tear down the structures that lead to systemic inequality.
We cannot expect nor should we strive toward homogeneity in these movements. A diversity of opinions, lifestyles, tactics, and beliefs are the building blocks of strong communities of resistance. I believe that we must practice radical solidarity. The love and compassion I experienced growing up in Quaker communities should extend to those who do not share Quaker ideologies but who are struggling under the same oppressors.
The violence/nonviolence false dichotomy is a major limitation on Quaker activism, stemming from a tendency to focus on divisions rather than seek common ground. Rather than insisting that we only work with people who adhere to a strictly defined code of nonviolence, we should stand in solidarity with oppressed people regardless of their ideological convictions. If Quaker practice is to be respected and understood by others, Quaker activists must be willing to stand alongside people with whom they disagree, offer Quaker testimonies as contributions to be freely accepted or rejected, and affirm everyone’s right to make up their own minds. I am not arguing for Quakers to renounce nonviolence, only that Quakers should not demand that others adhere to the same beliefs as a prerequisite for solidarity and support. We need to see nonviolence as a contribution to the greater milieu in which we struggle, rather than allowing it to become a barrier to action.
I have yet to hear anyone within radical circles argue that we have any chance of taking on the State by force of violence. Rather, constructive and disruptive direct action is widely accepted as an effective strategy toward building a new world, helping to build powerful communities that can defend their own interests.
A legacy of nonviolent activism does not grant Quakers the moral authority to declare the actions of others right or wrong. It does place us in a position to offer creative solutions grounded in Quaker activist history for the consideration of our communities, with the expectation and understanding that these ideas will be heard, just as we are expected and understood to hear the beliefs of others. I believe that many Quakers would be surprised at the degree to which many activist communities utilize consensus process and believe deeply in recognizing that each of us brings an equal contribution to the group. While the corporate media portrays radical activists and anarchists as dangerous and violent, I have found these communities to be living according to principles and values that resonate strongly with my Quaker upbringing. I urge the Quaker community to remember that our rulers want us divided. They want tactical squabbles over property destruction to overshadow the unity provided by living in a culture of resistance to a common oppressor. There is no neutral ground or easy way out. The imperialist corporate State has engineered a sham democracy specifically to channel our thirst for justice into useless bureaucratic tangles. The only option left to us is to unite as oppressed people regardless of our differences in pursuit of total revolution. ♦
Marc Lichterman is an activist from Oakland, California. He is now building and participating in radical communities in Los Angeles County while studying at Pitzer College. He participated in the JYM program at Pacific Yearly Meeting and College Park Quarterly Meeting.