Violence vs. Nonviolence: Beyond Polarization

For Occupy (Decolonize) Oakland: Why meet in separate groups?
October 12, 2011
Making Friends With Illness
January 4, 2012

May the precious and sublime awakened mind,
Arise where it has not arisen;
And where it has arisen,
May it not decay,
But grow ever more and more.

-Anam Thubten

Hey folks, I wanted to share this with you, as it pertains to many social change movements beyond the Occupy Movement. Enjoy.


Dear OO Communities:

I am proud to live in Oakland, home of Occupy/Decolonize Oakland.
I have been taking in so many sights, sounds and words of people taking to the streets with passion and love, meditating

and marching,

GA-ing and healing, and loving one another. It is dizzying, inspiring, overwhelming, so much so that it has been hard for me to gather my thoughts, much less to write anything.

But I have something I really need to say.

I am thrilled by the Occupy/Decolonize movements, and especially touched and thrilled by Occupy Oakland—one of the most diverse [on so many levels!] Occupy camps in the USA. And like so many others, I wonder what will come next.

This weekend the Oakland Police issued eviction notices to Occupy Oakland [for the second time a police raid seems imminent], and I fear for the safety of everyone there. And in the midst of this suspense, I keep hearing about and reading of the violence vs. nonviolence debate unfolding at OO. I have been reading dozens of posts and emails with increasing concern and dismay.

I am not an organizer, so I say this with humility, but it seems to me that violence as a deliberate strategy often ends up with the most marginalized folks getting hit with an even more violent backlash from the state. I feel a wise direction might lie in the terrain that lies between the two articles pasted at the end of this letter. Or perhaps those people who are committed to avoiding violent tactics at all cost, and those who are open to using violence as one of a range of tactics form two explicitly separate affinity groups. Since I am not an organizer or an activist, I will stop there.

But I am a healer, and I can speak to this issue as a healer:

As a trauma healer I have been taught to “blend with” and support and deeply respect people’s survival strategies [which arise from reptilian brain survival wisdom and include fight, flight, freeze, appease, dissociate etc] first before I nudge them to try out new, non-reactive, creative-power strategies. The traumatized body will not let go of an old strategy until it feels there is a safe, supportive, reliable alternative.

I believe this is true on a collective level as well. For communities that have faced/continue to face such unrelenting social trauma of racism, poverty, police violence, etc.,

sometimes the fight response has been the only way to survive and maintain heart, dignity and sanity. As long as we collectively allow the corporations and banks to steal people’s jobs and homes; as long as we allow the state to brutalize people for standing up against basic injustice, then we have NOT yet created the conditions for people’s reptilian brains to retire. The 99%–especially the most disenfranchised portion of the 99%–are not safe right now. Not even close.

By the same token, sometimes the appease/placate response (to the powers that be) is essential to survival. Depending on the situation and the resources at hand, there is wisdom in both fighting and appeasing.

So the paradox is, as collective-trauma healers, if we want to de-escalate the knee-jerk trauma response of fight, flight, freeze, etc., we need to say “yes” to it. “Yes, reptilian brain, I see you are trying to protect me/us. Thank you. Good job.” We cannot skip this step. That means allowing swift reactive “fight” impulses to exist, as well as swift reactive appease impulses to exist. And taking time to appreciate what they are trying to do for us.

Then we can say, to our bodies and lizard brains: “Right now in this moment, I/we are safe, and you can relax and take a break. I’ve got this.” And encourage our bodies to really take in and shore up these moments of safety, or a supportive atmosphere, however brief. Practicing feeling safe begins to reshape our brains so that they can sustain relaxed, resilient states, even in a crisis. This enables us to reflect before we take our next steps.

Because our survival impulses are urgent and automatic, the challenge is to slow down and be aware of them and see where they are taking us.

I have found that opposing the “fight” impulse [or any lizard brain response] just riles up the reptilian brain more. I suspect this is true on a group/community/movement level as well. If it is true, then how might we invite those who see violence as a potential tactic* to engage in the kind of strategy that Starhawk describes (in the article below)? Not by “opposing” violence. Instead we need to respect and make space for the survival strategy of “fight” by appreciating the intention behind it. [And appreciating the ancestors who helped us be here today by fighting.] In the context of structural violence and scarce resources, fighting is an intelligent and life-affirming response!

And if we perceive nonviolence-only stances as appeasing* the state (or at the very least, oblivious to the extremely violent conditions that marginalized communities endure daily), how can we invite nonviolent direct action proponents to incorporate the perspectives of homeless people and poor and working class communities of color into their strategies? Not by denouncing them. Instead we need to respect and make space for the survival strategy of “appease” by appreciating the intention behind it [and appreciating how many communities have used “appease” to survive and regroup and gradually build power]. In a context of scarce options and resources, appeasing can be intelligent and life-affirming.

*At this point I want to apologize for generalizing or misrepresenting anyone here. I am responding to the posts I have read, many of which are polarized. I realize that activist views and behaviors include more nuances and shades of grey than I describe above. For example, I am aware that nonviolent direct action as a comprehensive approach to change is NOT grounded in reactivity, but in resilient creativity. And I am aware that the South African anti-apartheid movement won the struggle by using a savvy, timely, creative mix of both nonviolent and violent strategies. However, I need to speak up when I witness many goodhearted people speaking, writing and acting from their lizard brains, and mutually triggering one other’s escalating sense of urgency and threat.

We CAN choose to appreciate the love and care inherent in each survival strategy. [We all are coming from caring about fairness and kindness.] Basic body wisdom and trauma-healing wisdom tells us that when we as individual bodies and we as groups of bodies receive respect and appreciation, when we feel safe and held and seen in our totality, when we feel others have our back, THEN the reptilian brain can relax and other creative, more reflective, collaborative responses and parts of our brains can move in. Then we can listen, dialogue, be receptive, co-create.

If the violence vs. nonviolence discussion ends up being governed by our lizard brains, then it will become a polarized, reactive debate that makes all of us vulnerable to breakdowns, divisions, splintering, in-fighting, intrigue, foggy thinking, bad decisions, etc.

An alternative is to listen deeply to one another, appreciating the biological wisdom of ALL of our survival strategies: fighting to survive, appeasing the powers that be to survive, freezing and becoming invisible to survive, avoiding or running away to survive, and “checking out” to survive.

We all have soft animal bodies that get scared. We can treat our animal bodies with tenderness and respect. We can find a way to create contexts where everyone’s reptilian brains feel safe enough to soften our stances long enough to build mutual trust and consensus strategy.

I know I am asking alot: I know it is ambitious to try to create space for radical non-duality in a crisis. It will take enormous strength and determination. We will need all the experienced meditators, and mediators that we can get in on this project! [and I know a few if you need some names; and I myself am willing and available to help train people to work skillfully with their reactive reptilan brains]. But I feel this path is essential for a sustainable movement or movements.

thanks for listening,



Here are two very different pieces that touch on strategy; I feel are both important to this dialogue:

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