Guest Commentary

Without nonviolent protest, our democracy will suffocate

The officer was gentle when he handcuffed me.

With more than 200 others, I broke the law on March 16 by kneeling and standing in prayer in front of the White House. Thousands of Christians had marched four miles in the dark from the National Cathedral to Lafayette Park to protest the Iraq war as its fifth year began. Bundled against the icy weather, carrying electric candles, we sang as we marched. I saw an infant wrapped against his mother's chest and an old couple holding hands to steady their gait. There were veterans young enough to be from this war and others old enough to be of Vietnam.

The young officer escorted me across Pennsylvania Avenue. I got the sense we were both new at this.

"So, what do you think of the war?" I asked as we walked. His gesture said he would not answer me. "If you were off duty," I tried, "what would you tell me?"

"I was there twice," he said, as if that answer were enough.

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm OK now," he said, adding with a laugh, "My friends say I'm OK."

I nodded and watched his eyes. "My son was there," I told him. "Thank God he's back."

"How is he doing?" His eyes met mine more deeply.

"He's just real nervous," I said.

"He'll be OK," he said in a tone more soldier than cop. He laughed and said again, "My friends say I am."

I believe our conversation surprised him, and we experienced the truth: Peace breeds peace.

It's not that I never doubt the power of nonviolence. A few days before the march, I lost heart. I heard a Palestinian farmer speak at a forum about nonviolent demonstrations against the wall Israel is building through his village, separating farmers from their fields and livelihood. A video revealed Israeli solders shooting rubber-covered metal bullets and tear gas at Palestinian, Israeli and international demonstrators who have protested peacefully every week for nearly two years. Someone in the audience asked if the protest had stopped the wall. When the farmer answered no, my heart sank.

A friend later reminded me of a parable the farmer told about men who hid inside a tank on the back of a truck so they could go to Kuwait for work. When the driver arrived and opened the tank, several men had suffocated. "Why didn't you bang on the sides of the tank?" the driver asked. The survivors said they were afraid they would be heard.

So, the farmer told us, even as the wall continued to be built, the demonstrators got inside tanks and banged and banged and banged. And I went to Washington to add my small voice of opposition to a disastrous war machine.

My 5-year-old grandson was incredulous when he heard I'd been arrested. "But Nani's a 'good guy,'" he said. Unlike too many adults, his understanding of morality is becoming more complex than "good guys" and "bad guys," "Western freedom" and "axis of evil."

I want my grandchildren strong and wise enough to be warriors using culture-defying nonviolence. Think of Martin Luther King Jr., whom I had the privilege of knowing. Never have I encountered a person who fought more boldly for justice and peace. King, Gandhi, Jesus and now Rachel Corrie and nameless Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent protestors have shown us that demonstrations and civil disobedience can be lethal. Nonviolence is not for the fickle or weak.

If it can be deadly, why would I choose nonviolence for my grandchildren? Because it is a less deadly path than the alternative. The mutually self-destructive violence between the Israeli government and Palestinian suicide bombers declares: Violence breeds more violence.

I have less belief in the power of demonstrations than I had in my 20s, but the stakes are higher now than they were in the '60s. This president is more intransigent, and I don't know what else to do.

Of course, democracy is more than marches. Yet participating in political campaigns, donating money, educating, advocating and even voting can feel as futile as beating on the inside of an oil drum. But we must do it, or democracy will suffocate.

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