This week’s column: Tears for Greensboro

Here’s my opinions column from this week’s Carolinian (UNCG):

Tears for Greensboro
Have we lost the vision of nonviolent change?

by Matt Hill Comer, Don’t Ask (I’m Telling)

Issue date: 1/16/07 Section: Opinions

“Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”

That is just one of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence. It is an important principle to know and to understand. It is something that cannot be turned on or off like the pressing of an on and off switch of a television. It is a state of mind and a complete state of being.

In my recent involvement with Soulforce, a national organization that confronts both the religious and political oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people through the practice of relentless, nonviolent resistance as taught by King and Gandhi, I have learned quite a bit about civil disobedience and the principles of nonviolence.

Admittedly my knowledge is no where near as complete or full as the knowledge held by past leaders like King, Gandhi and others, but my current knowledge is a culmination of months of study and practice. Hopefully one day my knowledge will encompass years of study and practice. I’m still learning, but I think I’m confident in knowing at least the basics.

Last week, nine people were arrested in downtown Greensboro during a rally against the president’s decision to send more troops to Iraq. The rally started out peacefully and looked like any other anti-war demonstration might look, but something went wrong.

Rally participants began to gather in the middle of the intersection at Elm and Market streets, blocking rush-hour traffic. When asked to leave the street by law enforcement personnel, the participants refused.

One participant, Kristopher Michael Hilbert, 19, of Raleigh, even resisted an officer. He was later charged with resisting, delaying and obstructing a law enforcement officer. He and the others were also charged with impeding traffic. Hilbert was also stunned with a Taser, something that could be argued was wrong on the police officer’s part.

This demonstration in downtown Greensboro was everything that a civil disobedience and non-violent resistance and protest should not be.

Of civil disobedience, Gandhi said, “Disobedience to be civil implies discipline, thought, care, attention,” and “Disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation.”

The actions of the protesters in downtown Greensboro showed neither discipline nor thought, and neither care nor attention. Those who enter into nonviolent, civil disobedience do so, of course, with some risk – sometimes great risk – to themselves, but the actions are also designed to respect life and to keep away from any sort of reckless and dangerous behavior that could harm others.

The rally in the intersection of Elm and Market was, without a doubt, an act that in its very nature provoked retaliation. Unfortunately, it was, in my opinion, the wrong decision made at the wrong time, without thought and without attention or care as to what effect the action could have on both rally participants and its onlookers.

Nonviolent, civil disobedience is comprised of love and compassion, not anger or malice. The love and compassion must be seen in all things, both physically and spiritually (mentally); all thoughts, words and actions must be rooted in this principle of love and nonviolence in order for any nonviolent, civil disobedience to be successful in making its message or point.

Violence comes in many forms and one can make a statement with violence, for sure, but how does that help anything? What does that change? Nonviolent, civil disobedience is just as much about changing and reconciling with others as it is about changing and reconciling with yourself.

Surely, King and Gandhi would be ashamed. Surely, the visionaries and dreamers who led Greensboro in nonviolence 40 years ago would be ashamed.

I cry for Greensboro. Have we lost the vision of nonviolence? If so, how can we get it back? What must we do to stop reckless and dangerous behavior, and replace it with a movement that will truly change hearts and minds while making progress?

Getting angry and pissed off is easy. Showing love, compassion and entering into a movement of pure nonviolence is not, but it is this type of movement that truly shows the real possibility of change, reconciliation and peace.

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