Ben: Pastor Josh and I met at the precipice of violence. It was the night of Thursday, April 19, a time familiar to many of us. That night, more than 500 Yalies and New Haveners led by Black women from both communities occupied the streets for seven hours, protesting the police assault on Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon. As a group we had marched down M.LK. Jr. Boulevard with the intent of occupying the highway. As we approached M.L.K., state troopers informed us that the buck stopped there. If we crossed into the highway, they would use whatever force necessary against us.
Ben: It was at this moment that Pastor Josh ran up to me, then holding the bullhorn, imploring me to address the crowd before we made the decision to cross the police barricade. In an impassioned mix of prayer and homily, Pastor Josh pleaded with marchers and officers alike to resist violence.
Pastor Josh: Nothing felt violent until we hit that barricade. Without warning, the police decided a certain line — MLK Boulevard, of all the roads, was too far to cross. Police surveilling from a distance transitioned to angry shouts and stationed cop cars with flashing lights. Congregants of the church I pastor started privately expressing their worries to me — not for themselves, but for the entire crowd. Our joyful singing and dancing hadn’t prepared us for this showdown.
Pastor Josh: The tension in the air was thick. Another activist from New Haven publicly wondered why the NHPD hadn’t sicced dogs on this mix of town and gown like they had a few weeks ago at a march led by him and other New Haven area activists. Would the cops continue to hold back if this crowd littered with Yale students continued to resist? Without thinking, I found myself approaching this activist asking for the mic wanting to pray for a peace that would bring deescalation in the moment and maybe something else in the long term. That’s when I met Ben.
In the two years since that fragile moment, both of us have realized something critical for movements of social change. We can do more than passively hope that our protests do not grow violent while we’re crying out for justice. We do not have to spend energy justifying why our violence is lesser and someone else’s violence is greater. There is a way of nonviolence that has already been established for us. This way has already achieved massive victories on multiple continents, throughout various decades, with diverse expressions of leadership.
To understand this way, we need to realize that non-violence is not the same as nonviolence. Non-violence only means the absence of physical violence and destruction. It is the disposition most associated with so-called “peaceful” protest. On one hand, we are told that as long as we don’t break windows or throw things at cops and instead walk orderly in the street singing Kumbaya that we are being “peaceful” when in reality this is mere non-violence. On the other hand, people with confederate flags, nooses and vile signs can claim to be part of a “peaceful” non-violent protest simply because their leader declares it so.
Calling these behaviors nonviolence is like calling any coordinated — or uncoordinated —movements of the body ballet just because they happen to strike a pirouette from time to time. Such movements might be another form of dance, they might be entertaining, and they might even be beautiful, but they do not necessarily constitute ballet. Ballet is a specific artform with defined moves; it requires certain discipline and certain commitments. The same is true of nonviolence. Non-violent behavior during political action might be useful, but it should not be conflated with the philosophy of and commitment to nonviolence.
At the core of nonviolence is a dogged discipline to creative defiance that names wrongdoing, bolsters dignity of the one offended and provides an opportunity for the offender to change. Non-violence aims for a mere report of no violence occurring. Meanwhile, nonviolence aims to, wherever possible, make your enemy into your friend or, at least, someone willing to negotiate with you to achieve positive change. For this seemingly far off goal, it is willing to endure violence for the sake of peace. Sometimes, this endurance looks like the injuries John Lewis and so many others suffered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. However, it also looks like a movement that protects one another — even aggressively stepping in when someone else is being physically hurt to protect that person with their own. This is intense and sacrificial work, and it requires a foundation far stronger than a few extra miles and hours on a Thursday night in April.
The foundation of nonviolence is a spiritual and ethical commitment to reject violence and harm in a world characterized by both. Nonviolence is not just reactionary. It constructs a positive vision of the world through the six principles that Dr. King laid out right before he was assassinated: courage, community, restoration, struggle, love and justice.
This vision compels practitioners of nonviolence to fight negative peace. Negative peace is deceptive — it’s an atmosphere that seems innocuous but is an incubator of injustice. It’s the calm that people lament for instead of the actual lives lost or bodies harmed. When people are upset they can’t go shopping at Target after a man has a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s the essence of negative peace. Closer to home, a Black neighborhood with a historic distrust of police living under a triple occupation of the Hamden, New Haven and Yale police departments with no functional civilian review board is a ripe place for negative peace to fester. Without intervention, that negative peace always erupts. Nonviolence prevents this explosion through negotiation, demonstration, and resistance. All through a commitment towards a Beloved community with no permanent, irreconcilable enemies.
It’s important to remember that the Christian turn of phrase goes “blessed are the peacemakers” not “blessed are the peacekeepers.” The nonviolent journey is about making positive peace, not keeping negative peace. The journey of nonviolent peacemaking is admittedly hard and costly, but our alternatives are quite literally killing us. The more violence we put into the world, the more violence we’ll get out of it. What if instead we committed to embodying nonviolence everywhere from our physical bodies to our body politic? Is the barricade between violence and nonviolence one we’re willing to cross?
BEN DORMUS is a senior at Benjamin Franklin College. PASTOR JOSH WILLIAMS is a pastor for Elm City Vineyard Church, Morse ‘08 + Div ‘11. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.