The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense:
A Gandhian Approach
by Robert J Burrowes
(State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-7914-2588-6)
Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp:
A History of Non-violent Resistance 1984-1995
by Beth Junor with illustrations by Katrina Howse
(Working Press, ISBN 1 870736 93 1)
‘Can non-violent defence be an effective strategy against military violence?’ This is the tough question posed at the opening of Robert Burrowes’ important book, which insists that non-violent resistance needn’t just be about protest but can be a valid strategic defence option. He argues persuasively that non-violent defence is the most effective response to violence because it addresses the causes of conflict and seeks for an outcome that will benefit all parties. And he draws upon an impressive array of historical examples which alone would be sufficient reason to read this book.
But there are others, too. Like the brilliant contextualization of aggression and war in terms of élite interests rather than the rhetoric of nationalism and related ideologies that are used to urge people to fight. Or the case for non-violence in the face of a ruthless opponent, where the argument ingeniously combines strategy for self-preservation with forms of resistance.
Above all, this book is concerned with strategy; with the ‘how’ of non-violent defence and, though written as theory, its aim is essentially practical.
He acknowledges the difficulty of non-violent practice – it rests on the participant’s willingness to suffer even to the point of death, just as violence rests on the perpetrator’s willingness to kill. What is amazing is that he makes the case for it compelling, not just morally but also strategically. And he draws a firm line between expedient non-violence which deals with symptoms and social defence that uses non-violence to transform the roots of conflict.
This book is truly an eye-opener. It should be required reading for all politicians. There are a few problems with it – the tediousness of the initial chapters where Burrowes sets up the framework for his arguments, an overly academic self-referentiality and the fact that it does not really deal with the issue of terrorism. But once the chapters on strategy have got rolling, the effort is handsomely repaid.
Reading Beth Junor’s account of 11 years at the Yellow Gate Camp at Greenham Common one realizes the level of commitment that non-violent struggle can command. One or another of the camp’s women gets arrested on almost every page. Even though the cruise missiles are gone the camp is still functioning and this record details some of the courage and sheer persistence of its activists. And their imaginative tactics too – such as the time some women dressed in police uniforms and successfully held up a convoy. Too partisan to be a coherent history and not overtly personal enough to hang together as her own story, the account ends up having something of a scrap-book feel and the amount of detail is probably over-generous for the casual reader. But the book does deliver a sense of the nitty gritty of a movement that became an inspiration for anti-military resistance worldwide. Proceeds from its sale will go to the camp.
by Ani DiFranco
(Cooking Vinyl /Righteous Babe CD 103)
Once upon a time, an 18-year-old woman from Buffalo wanted to make music. But she felt that life was too short to wait around and play coy games with record companies. So she got in her car and travelled the country, playing one-off gigs at any place that would take her. Most did. She formed her own record company, Righteous Babe, to put out her songs, and seven years and eight albums later Ani DiFranco is North America’s biggest self-made star.
DiFranco’s story possesses all the elements of a wish-fulfilment dream. A punky-looking figure with hard-hitting songs, she is in complete control of her enterprise: from song-writing to recording to marketing. She is the latest in a long line of North American women musicians – that includes Holly Near, Michelle Shocked and Indigo Girls – who have struck out on their own, proving that individualism does not necessarily mean mainstream commercial failure. But rarely has this been achieved with such single-minded and rapid determination.
And she’s clearly struck a chord with an audience tired of over-manufactured songwriters. Armed with a guitar – and anything else she can get her hands on – DiFranco’s music has the kind of energy that imparts urgency to whatever subject is at hand. This has included the overtly political areas of abortion, sexuality and racism. Blessed with a salty vocabulary, she has put several f-words – including feminism – back into folk.
Dilate is a concentrated album, focusing on a relationship from several different angles. With Andy Stochansky on drums, the result is one of raw and choppy rhythms coupled with an explosive delivery. Take the opening song, ‘Untouchable Face’ – a compelling, edgy number whose anger is unmistakable. But there’s much more besides: there’s humour and, below a spiny surface, a tenderness. And DiFranco’s a sharp lyricist too – her earthy observations on the minutiae of emotional life are a treat.
The Perez Family
by Mira Nair
With Salaam Bombay, Indian film director Mira Nair made her mark as one of the most original, up-and-coming talents on the world film scene. Her ability to look beyond stereotypes and cultural clichés set her a world apart from Hollywood.
In her follow-up film, Mississippi Masala, she was admittedly getting closer to that dominating tradition. Now with The Perez Family she seems, sadly, to have embraced it. This light-hearted comedy could well leave you thinking that cha cha cha and swinging hips are all that can be said about Hispanic culture. And although based on an actual historical event, the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, the film makes no real reference to the Cuban political and social context.
Marisa Tomei plays the part of Dottie Perez, a young Cuban prostitute who sets off for the US, seduced by the American Dream and hoping to awake from it next to John Wayne. In the same boat is political prisoner Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina) who is heading towards Florida where his wife Carmela (Anjelica Huston) has lived since her escape from Cuba 20 years ago with their daughter Teresa (Trini Alvarado).
A mistake by the US immigration officials leads to recording Juan Raul and Dottie as husband and wife. Not only do they share the same Perez name but so, it seems, does almost everyone else in the American refugee camp – making them, in the most literal sense, ‘one big happy family’.
The Perezes seem to have no difficulty in moving in and out of this rather surreal camp, where officials have a golden heart and do their best to help. The story develops into a romantic melodrama, rather patronizing in its mañana, and replete with exoticism and Carmen Miranda lookalikes.
There are some compensations, though. It’s good to see Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, on screen and the soundtrack by Arturo Sandoval is simply brilliant.
I have often wondered why the farthest position always feels so right to me; why extremes, though difficult and sometimes painful to maintain, are always more comfortable,’ writes Audre Lorde in the opening pages of Zami.
This ‘biomythography’ tells the story of her growing up in Harlem, in a Grenadan-Barbadian immigrant family, and coming of age as a Black, radical, ‘gay-girl’ in McCarthy’s America in the 1950s.
When I first read this book, in the late 1980s, a piece of anti-gay legislation called Clause 28 was being passed in Britain. If applied the law meant, amongst many things, that books like Zami would be banned from public libraries, schools or other local authority-funded institutions on the grounds that they ‘promoted homosexuality’. In effect the law turned out to be a damp squib, unclear and difficult to apply. But it created a climate of insecurity and anger that brought hundreds of thousands of lesbian and gay people out on the streets in a surge of protest.
What struck me about Zami, however, was not so much the intrusive power of homophobia – though considerable – but that of racism. The fact remains that you can, at least some of the time, hide your sexuality. You cannot ever hide the colour of your skin. Audre Lorde brings extraordinary intimacy, immediacy and intelligence to the telling of her story – whether she is describing the experience of grinding West Indian spices in her mother’s kitchen or the gobs of spit that land on their coats when they go out (‘people spitting in the wind,’ says her mother. No mention of racism). And racism is taboo in the family; her parents believe that the best way they can protect their children is to pretend it does not exist. The children are warned not to trust white people but are never told why. Audre gets to learn that by herself.
‘Two weeks after we moved into the new apartment, our landlord hanged himself in the basement. The Daily News reported that the suicide was caused by his despondency over the fact that he had finally had to rent to Negroes. I was the first Black student in St Catherine’s School, and all the white kids in my sixth-grade class knew about the landlord who had hanged himself in the basement because of me and my family. He had been Jewish; I was Black. That made us both fair game for the cruel curiosity of my pre-adolescent classmates.’
Her teens are filled with rebellion, poetry and a passionate friendship with another wild, but suicidal, girl. Audre finally runs away from home – and the awesome power of her mother – and embarks on a life of hazardous poorly-paid jobs, part-time studying, drinking and taking drugs with other rebellious girls and coming to terms with her sexuality. There follow intense engagements with women of all kinds, linked only by pariah status of one kind or another.
‘I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.’ For the young Audre the idea of different parts of her life coming together is too risky to contemplate. ‘Downtown in the gay bars I was a closet student and an invisible Black. Uptown at Hunter [College] I was a closet dyke and general intruder.’
Towards the end of the book Audre, now in her early twenties, gets together with another aware, Black, gay woman – Afrekete. ‘We talked about how Black women had been committed without choice to waging our campaigns in the enemies’ strongholds, too much and too often, and how our psychic landscapes had been plundered and wearied by those repeated battles and campaigns.’
‘It makes you tough though,’ Afrekete tells Audre – if you don’t go under. And the two of them will survive ‘because we are both too tough and too crazy not to’.
In Zami – more than in her other overtly political writings – Lorde displays her rare talent for writing originally and sexily: ‘Little hairs under her navel lay down before my advancing tongue like the beckoned pages of a well-touched book,’ is one among many examples. And the erotic moments her characters share are very moving. ‘I felt that there had never been anything else my body was intended to do more than to reach inside of her coat and take Afrekete in my arms, fitting her body into the curves of mine tightly, her beige camel’s hair billowing around us both, and her gloved hand still holding her door key...’
There’s a special vision that comes from living on the margins of society. Jean Genet explored it; so did Lorde in her different, equally fearless way. What comes across in Lorde’s writing is a life fully lived, fully embraced. And Lorde’s voice is so intimate and unaffected it can speak to anyone, whatever your race, gender, class, sexuality, or capacity for craziness.
Zami: a new spelling of my name by Audre Lorde was published in 1982 and is available in reprints by Crossing Press (Freedom, California) and Pandora (London).
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996