By Ken Butigan
I teach a class at DePaul University called “Discover Nonviolent Chicago.” We crisscross America’s third-largest city to learn how community-based organizations are actively creating nonviolent solutions in the midst of teeming violence. Students gain a sharper sense of the violence that grips their city and their society—gun violence and violent crime, but also the systemic violence of poverty, racial segregation, unequal access to quality schools and many other realities that enforce sweltering inequality and that spawn new cycles of violent destructiveness.
This, though, is not all. Many of the students also come away with a new and unexpected awareness of the nonviolent option and how it is being fostered across Chicago. The course expands our awareness of violence—it’s more than what we see on the news—but also our awareness of the power, creativity, and relentless persistence of the nonviolent alternative, as embodied and activated by organizations on the South, West and North sides of the city, including Cure Violence, Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, Peace Corner Youth Center, Perspectives Academy, 8th Day Center for Justice, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
This week the city of Chicago released its chilling video of one of its police officers shooting to death Laquan McDonald, a seventeen-year old African-American man who lived on Chicago’s South Side, in October 2014. Apparently taking note of how the authorities in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland mishandled their response to a similar police shooting, Chicago tried to get ahead of public reaction by charging police officer Jason Van Dyke with first-degree murder in the slaying of McDonald, who was shot sixteen times in the chest, scalp, neck, back, arms, right hand and leg. At the same time, they mustered nearly the entire police force in anticipation of the public’s response to the video. In an edgy press conference, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Police Chief Kevin McCarthy said they expected protest but hoped it would be peaceful.
And, at least on the first night, it was. Though the police made a few arrests as hundreds of people surged through downtown Chicago hours after the video was released late in the afternoon on Tuesday, November 24, the spirit of the march was determined and largely peaceful.
From my perspective, this public response to the abysmal killing of Laquan is a continuation of the work being done daily to foster a more nonviolent city. But drawing this conclusion hinges on one’s understanding of nonviolence.
Nonviolence is an active stand for justice and a method for helping to create it. It pursues this, not with passivity or retaliation, but with the third way of creative engagement and determined resistance. Its aim is to alert, educate, win and mobilize the populace for change. It does this by putting the focus on the issue at hand and not on one’s violent reaction to it. Nonviolence has “two hands” that are in creative tension: noncooperation with injustice and steadfast regard for the opponent as a human being. Over the long haul, it seeks to increasingly build a culture where more and more people are equipped with this creative and dogged power.
One of the reasons we don’t tap nonviolence more often is that we are taught, almost by osmosis, that it is passive, weak, utopian, naïve or simply remaining quiet and peaceful, no matter what. This seems to have been the sense behind the city officials in Baltimore—and President Obama himself—as they called with one voice for protesters to be “nonviolent” in the wake of the killing of Freddie Gray this past April. Here nonviolence seemed to mean “be quiet,” “stay calm,” and even “be polite,” which prompted Ta-Nehisi Coates to write an article in The Atlantic entitled, “Nonviolence as Compliance.” The history of nonviolent struggle—which has accelerated over the past fifty years—demonstrates, instead, that nonviolence is not compliance, deference, or passive acceptance. Instead, it is a force for justice, peace and the well-being of all that is neither passive nor violent. It assiduously sets out to defeat injustice without destroying people, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held.
But this was not likely the perspective of the mayor and the chief of police. For them, being peaceful and nonviolent likely meant “stay quiet” and “don’t make waves.” Nonviolence is the exact opposite. It removes violence from the equation so that that the voice of justice can be heard loud and clear, and so that people-power can unleash powerful waves of peaceful but determined change.
We saw this in action largely on the streets of Chicago on Tuesday night. Now, in concert with the many initiatives for nonviolent change already going on in the city, there is an opportunity for a city-wide (and nationwide) effort to create the conditions for real change in the city, including the establishment of a more effective police accountability structure. (For example, community-based organizations have for years sought the creation of a Civilian Police Accountability Council.)
By doing so, we will take one more important step toward nurturing “Nonviolent Chicago.”