I have been reading Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, trying to understand better the concept of non-violence. The struggle to liberate India from British rule, the civil rights movement in the United States, the fight by women to gain the vote, the need for gays and lesbians to attain their rights, seem to me to be very clear cut examples of justice denied to a certain group of citizens.
I was experiencing a more difficult time seeing a clear example of justice denied when it came to the Occupy movement. Not that I didn’t think there were immense and horrible problems facing us: jobs draining away, increasing wealth inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class, blatant bribery of lawmakers by the wealthy. Ho hum. Yawn. This is new? Isn’t this the way the world works?
I was standing on the sidewalk by Denver’s Civic Center Park last Saturday evening, as night was falling, facing a line of cops buffed up with waffled chest protectors, shin and arm guards, massive gloves and helmets with plastic face shields. And yard-long batons. Scribbling in my notebook, feeling excited, but not afraid. I’m a middle-class suburban grandmother, cops are my friends.
Off to my left, three tank-sized SUV’s careen around the corner, squeal to a stop in front of me. Hanging on the sides are storm-troopers – cops in full riot gear – and they bound off and rush into the park. There’s a rent in the fabric of space-time, and for a second I’m not in Denver, but in Berlin. Or maybe it’s occupied Paris, or might be Nanjing. Scenes from all the films I have ever seen about repressive regimes or brutal wars, crash together in my brain.
The universe rights itself but the dissonance remains - and I burst into tears. Not of fear – I’m still stupid enough to not be afraid – but of disappointment, chagrin, despair. I want to let out a long wail of anguish for what my country and my city have become. Or perhaps for what they have always been but I could not see. Sending armed riot police to kick over tents and food tables? The use of overwhelming force is the message: question the status quo and this is what we do to you.
Gandhi’s experience as a very young lawyer in South Africa occurs against a backdrop of British imperial colonialism. The White overclass, consolidating power after being victorious in the Boer War, gradually introduces measures that repress the colored underclass, not only the indigenous African population but also the immigrant Indian merchants and traders. Most of the Indians grumble, but go along with the new laws. Somehow Gandhi, doesn’t see himself as “colored”. He has, after all, a law degree from London’s Inner Temple and speaks impeccable English. He refuses to comply. And he persuades thousands of other Indians not to comply.
The compliance of the repressed population is necessary if the power structure is to retain control. Violence is not necessary to insure compliance. The overlords need only to convince the repressed population that they are inferior and unworthy, and provide them enough material goods to keep them from starvation. And give them just enough free rein to convince them that they actually have some power over their lives and over the direction of their political system.
Conventions insure compliance. There is no law, that I know of, preventing men from wearing skirts. Yet few men have the nerve to do so in public.
And laws insure compliance. Laws that circumscribe the use of public space. You think it’s just coincidence that U.S. cities don’t have the large public plazas that grace city centers in other countries? And are the sites of regular public protests.
But, as Gandhi did when he burned his registration card (required only of Indians), non-compliance elicits a violent reaction from the rulers. They realize that their carefully constructed fantasies are wearing thin, that the repressed population is starting to see the inconsistencies and lies in the fabric. They must make an attempt to beat the population back into submission.
Women lived for thousands of years believing that they were inferior to men. Gay people were convinced that their attraction to members of their own sex was perverted. We have believed that our Planet was large enough to sustain unrelenting abuse in the form of pollution and unchecked population growth. We have believed for centuries that people in control of land or factories had the absolute right to give their workers as little sustenance as possible and to require the maximum number of hours of work. We are now supposed to believe that a corporation, a legal entity created by a bunch of lawyers, has the same rights as a human and that money equals free speech.
Gandhi didn’t magically wake up one morning, hop out of bed and shout, “By gum, I’m going to liberate India from British rule.”
No, he started in a small way. By writing a letter to the editor when he was ejected from a courtroom by the magistrate because he wore the customary turban of his people. He could have complied in this small convention and removed his turban. But he went on to greater and greater acts of non-compliance, disobeying laws, encouraging others to disobey laws, and finally, driving the British from India, not with weapons but with the purity and clarity and justice of his beliefs.
Justice denied. Right now, I think I am happy to recognize small injustices. To recognize them, to point them out, to choose non-compliance. To listen to others who have recognized different injustices. To encourage non-compliance. To recognize that not all laws, not every municipal ordinance, not every federal statute serves the cause of justice for all.
Gandhi, as a young lawyer in South Africa, probably had no idea that his refusal to comply with a convention that required a bare head for males in a court of law would lead to the British leaving India – 50 years later.
Gandhi chose the term “satyagraha“, meaning “truth force” or “firmness in truth” to describe his tactic. Lelyveld writes: “To stand for truth was to stand for justice, and to do so nonviolently, offering a form of resistance that would eventually move even the oppressor to see that his position depended on the opposite, on untruth and force.”
The ripples are spreading outwards from the violent police raids on Occupy sites at Oakland, and Portland and New York City. They’re intersecting and merging with the ripples from the repressions at Austin and Berkeley and Denver. We can’t tell who they are reaching, what eyes they are causing to open, what minds they are touching. But if we stand firm , peacefully, for truth and justice, then our oppressors, buttressed by untruth and violence, must eventually give way.