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What Berkeley Needs is a Non-Violent Containment Squad

Reflections from a civil rights veteran

As an alumnus of the 1964 Free Speech Movement and a veteran of the civil rights movement, I was appalled to read about the recent violent confrontations in Berkeley.

Those reports took me back to the 1960s when I was doing voter registration for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and marching against segregation in Birmingham and Mississippi.

Then, we were the equivalent of the “fascists” that Antifa and the black bloc are beating up in Berkeley. They called us Communists, not fascists, but like Antifa they believed we were invaders who held them and their values in contempt. The local whites whose towns we marched in burned us with their hateful stares, blistered our ears with their curses, threw bottles and firecrackers at us, drove cars into our march lines, and sometimes used fists and bats. Guns were visible. Occasionally someone was shot.

Sometimes law enforcement stood between us and our detractors, their faces and rifles always pointed at us, and sometimes they took a vacation, leaving us to the will of the crowd.

Sound familiar?

What we learn from these comparisons is that when a group or a person significantly dissents from deeply held community-wide views, it will be attacked when it publicly challenges those views, and the attackers will feel justified without any concern for “free speech” as a more important value.

That is dangerous. As UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Carol Christ put it: “Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.”

The University demonstrated the truth of that in its own evolving policies. In the 1930s, UC President Gordon Sproul limited who could speak on campus to persons approved by the administration in order to avoid “exploitation” of the university’s prestige. Although aimed at Communists, over time the speaker ban expanded to anyone deemed controversial, including Malcolm X, Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, and socialist members of the British Parliament. Candidates for public office, including Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon, stood in city streets to address students gathered on campus.

In 1963, President Clark Kerr and Governor Pat Brown finally persuaded the Regents to abolish the restrictive rules. At that time, state schools in the South would not have permitted anyone to speak on campus in favor of integration. Indeed, at that time Southern whites thought Communism and integration were one and the same. Professors and public school teachers who didn’t stand up for segregation were fired.

After the UC speaker ban was abolished, the student organization SLATE sponsored a series of controversial speakers, including a couple Communists, Malcolm X, and an officer of the American Nazi Party. While there was some picketing, there was no violence. Students responded to statements that they did not like with silence, punctuated by laughter.

That was the right response.

Now people with unpopular views can’t even get a hearing, let alone laughter.

What to do?

Working in the civil rights movement taught me the power of non-violence. It’s time to revive that approach. Imagine that when the few dozen Antifa members put on their masks and grab their weapons and start pushing people around, that they are surrounded by even more people, trained in non-violence, who link arms and repeatedly tell them to stop. Mass repudiation is a very powerful way to contain potential violence.

Joining a non-violent containment squad requires training. You have to be prepared to withstand verbal, and maybe some physical, abuse, all the while keeping your voice down and your hands down. And you have to outnumber those you are trying to contain. To succeed, non-violence requires patience and discipline — things the black bloc doesn’t seem to have.

Establishing a non-violent containment squad can’t be done by a state agency, such as the University or the police. Too many legal complications. But it could be done by the churches, or by an independent group committed to non-violence. That’s how it started in the South. Long before the sit-ins hit the airwaves, students and young people were being trained in non-violence. Some of the people who did that training are still alive, as are many who practiced it.

They should train others in how to do confrontation the right way — nonviolently.

Jo Freeman

  • Sentient AI From The Future

    Hot Take, especially insofar as in all the protests ive seen, the police guns have been trained on antifa rather than the white supremacists. I’m not saying use of force is justified, but when the white supremacists show up wearing actual body armor and carrying truncheons and fucking firearms, and the cops decide that the unarmed counter demonstrators wearing black are the problem…it doesn’t track all that closely with your preferred narrative.

    • Scott

      I understand how it appears that the police are operating according to a double-standard regarding how the police act towards anti-fa and how they act towards the white supremacists. When the police anticipate a group will act violently, as anti-fa is known to do, this shifts the focus of the police towards this group. It isn’t fair or just, but it demonstrates one of the strengths of committing to non-violence: the police lack any easy justification for using force (at least in the short-term). It also makes them look bad, and it makes the white supremacists look even worse than they already do, when they act violently first.

      Non-violent protest is then not just a normative commitment, it is by and large a much more effective strategy for many reasons. See Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict By Erica Chenoweth for empirical evidence from throughout history and all around the world.

      • Sentient AI From The Future

        so, the body armor, shields, polearms-poorly-disguised-as-flagpoles, and FUCKING LONG GUNS dont make no nevermind, let’s focus on anti-fa because they are “known” to be violent?

        when was the last time someone got killed by black clothing and bandanas?

  • Michael Corey

    Violence is a problem, and I would hope that your suggestion would work. I’m afraid it won’t. There are far too many people who believe now that the ends justify the means, including violent and destructive means. I know how difficult it was to be part of the Civil Rights and Free Speech Movements. Most statistics cited show that the numbers of Neo-Fascists and White Supremisists are relatively small; and the targets of the group’s that violently oppose them are much broader in nature. Ironically, the violent actions actually turn more people away. The violence is counterproductive.

  • Ruth KM

    This is exactly right. We have to be able to stand “strong and peaceful”, so that the bulk of Americans cannot easily and blithely say – “oh, they’re all alike, those protesters.” Which is part of what Trump was trying to convince voters of, once he had to concede that white supremacists were problematic.

    When people think back on the civil rights movement, they remember principled non-violence. It was successful in a way that was not the case in the late 60’s, when non-violence was often scorned, and violence practiced and defended. Yes, I know, the other side doesn’t play by the same rules. But that’s the point.

  • laslanian

    This is interesting. I could not agree more about censorship and free speech. The moment you censor someone else’s speech is the moment you have asked to have your own mouth gagged. There is no other way it can work. Instead of focusing on someone’s (or a group’s) right to speak, focus on what they say— and have a tactic (here you mention silence and laughter as tactical responses). Need it be said the the media is really and truly part of the problem, on both sides? I have been to many rallies and when I watch their coverage I go into distress. I was there and there was joy and singing and dancing. There was enough non-violent creative protest to sink a ship. But what gets covered? From one rally, the coverage focused on a very tense confrontation between young people, who formed a line, and chanted to the police repeatedly, “why you wearing riot gear, we don’t see no riot here.” It was tense but not violent. And at another one one antifa kid (he looked like a kid to me) is arrested for punching a Nazi after being bated. That was covered ad nauseam after that rally. I could go on and on but I will instead look for a church (I live in a religious patch of the earth) that teaches non-violence.

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