from Howard Zinn's Declarations of Independence

It should be stressed that where protesters, rebels, and radicals have gone outside the law, they have been, for the most part nonviolent. Where they have been guilty of "violence," it is usually violence to property and not to human beings.

The issue came up in a I985 trial in Missouri of a group of people who had gone into a nuclear missile silo and did some minor damage to (as the judge described it) "the concrete, the handle of the access hatch, the antenna and transmission boxes." This exchange took place between Judge Hunter and defendant Martin Holladay:

JUDGE: I don't agree with your definition of nonviolence. Violence includes injury to propeny.

HOLLADAY: The question also is - can a nuclear weapon be considered the same kind of propeny as a desk, or a stove? As long as this country sees nuclear weapons as property to defend and protect, more sacred than the lives they will destroy - what is proper property? The gas ovens in Germany?

Holladay was sentenced to eight years in prison for doing "violence" to the most atrocious instruments of violence ever developed. It is a pan of the dominant ideology of our culture to treat damage to property - especially certain kinds of propeny - as terrible crimes of violence, because they have been committed illegally by private citizens protesting government policy, while accepting large - scale murder because it is legal and official.

In I974 I was asked to write an article on violence for Scribner's Dictionary of American History. In my six - page article, I began by defining violence as "that which inflicts injury or death on human beings." I said that damage to property "is excluded here as less worthy of concern among people who claim to put supreme value on human life and health." I also said that violence by individuals and groups in American history had received much attention, but that "the greatest amount of violence by far has been done by government itself, through armies and police force, while expanding across the continent, extending national power overseas, and suppressing rebellion and protest at home and abroad."

The editors left all that in, despite my unonhodox point of view, but there was one paragraph in my article that they omitted completely:

It should be kept in mind that our definition omits an enormous amount of damage - physical and mental - caused by industrial and highway accidents, by economic exploitation, racial humiliation, and imprisonment, and by those conditions of poor housing, health and sanitation which cause infant mortality, malnutrition, sickness, and early death. For instance, "black lung" disease among miners, and the inhalation of deadly fibers among asbestos workers, have caused untold death and suffering. Thus, any moral assessment of the violence caused by race and class rebellion must weigh that against the wrongs of everyday life for millions of people - conditions which injury and kill but are not usually defined as violence.

I had already stretched the editors' tolerance to its limits, I realized. That paragraph was going too far.

The movement against the Vietnam War reveals the double standard of government, treating the burning of pieces of paper (draft cards and draft records) as violent acts, while dropping 7 million tons of bombs on Southeast Asia (twice as many as were dropped in all theaters of operation in World War II).

It was a remarkably nonviolent movement. There was one instance, so rare that it must be noted, where antiwar protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, planted a bomb in a military research building, timed to go off in the middle of the night, when no one would be in the building. But one man was working there, and he was killed.

The movement, while sometimes involving illegal acts of civil disobeience, mostly consisted of extralegal actions, that is, actions done outside the regular channels of government, aimed directly at informing. and arousing the public. Here is short list that suggests the variety of actions.

Continue to Thoreau, Jefferson, Tolstoy
Go Back to Resistance