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“Policing in the United States of America Today Represents a Profound Failure”

(This is the third of 5 short selections from an interview with Waging Nonviolence co-founder Nathan Schneider. You can read the first installment of the interview series here and here.) Nathan will be the featured guest for BPF’s monthly phone call on October 27th.)

We can’t talk about nonviolence without talking about police — partly because many nonviolent movements choose to push or break laws in some ways, also because there’s always this question of the “legitimate use of force” from the police, and state violence in general. As a proponent of nonviolence, what’s your take on policing as an institution, and what have you learned about police and policing thanks to your deep study and advocacy of nonviolent movements?

Anti-foreclosure protests. October 2011. Minneapolis, MN.

Policing in the United States of America today represents a profound failure from the perspective of nonviolence. Our fear and social isolation has caused us to heap ever more resources into militarized policing and an incarceration system that represents a grave crime against humanity.

Police. Republican National Convention Protests. September 2008, St. Paul, MN.

I think it’s important for communities to have experts trained in deescalating conflict and intervening when necessary. In some cases, that’s what police officers do. But by setting up incentives for departments to amass more weapons and for governments to amass more prison beds, we’ve ensure that this is the exception rather than the rule — both for how police treat political protest and how they treat supposedly non-political crime. A nonviolent approach, obviously, would seek to design a system that required fewer police, fewer weapons, and fewer prisons, but that’s a goal our political system seems incapable of embracing. It is up to social movements to make this politically possible.

Nathan Schneider is a co-founder and editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, both published in 2013 by University of California Press, are Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet. He has written about religion, reason and violence for publications including The Nation, The New York Times, Harper’s, Commonweal, Religion Dispatches, AlterNet and others. Visit his website at

* Top photo: Police on Horseback. Mayday 2012 Rally. Minneapolis, MN. All photos by Nathan G. Thompson

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Comments (3)

  • Inge

    In Anaheim, CA the police own vehicles purchased from Homeland Security. Disneyland is a HUGE player in maintaining order, so not to interfere with their ability to make money. The police department and city council are in their pocket. We made headlines over a year ago when the police unleashed police dogs on to a crowd of families peacefully protesting outside the police station. Next came members of SWAT to make sure people were intimidated. All this stemmed from 2 shootings and killings of unarmed “gang” members. I do not condone gangs but the police seem to enjoy their cat and mouse games here and no one is held accountable.

    I have been to many protests, starting in the early 90s and these days the police have become militarized… which was not the case 20 years ago. I think we can thank 9/11 for that and the willingness to give up our rights in exchange for a false sense of security. Now everyone is considered a potential terrorist.

  • nathan

    ” I think we can thank 9/11 for that and the willingness to give up our rights in exchange for a false sense of security. Now everyone is considered a potential terrorist.”

    This was definitely a main point of escalation, but the militarization started during the Clinton era. A lot of folks use the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 as a pivot in all of this. Responses since then to protest in general, but especially large demonstrations, have never been the same since then.

  • Jeff

    One precedent for Seattle-style military intervention against nonviolent popular protests was Herbert Hoover’s deployment of the US Army to evict the Bonus Expeditionary Force from Washington DC in July 1932. Unlike the milder reactions to previous Depression Era marches of the unemployed in 1894 and January 1932, it was the six-week occupation of the capitol by these 43,000 World War I veterans and their families that led our national heroes, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Maj. George S. Patton, to repeatedly attack their encampments with tear gas, clubs, and bayonets, causing scores of injuries. Nonetheless, the vets mobilized for a second demonstration in 1933 and their persistence paid off when Congress approved their bonus demands over FDR’s veto.

    Of course, this doesn’t even approach the level of state violence applied to prevent any interruption in business activity, as shown by the bloody but often unappreciated history of organized labor in America. Sitting here in front of my computer, I can’t begin to imagine life as a West Virginia coal miner 100 years ago, when the life or death of families and whole towns was dictated by the avarice of mine operators. Would I have picked up a gun to defend my children, my community, and my union against rampant company terror in Paint Creek Strike of 1912 or the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921? Or would I have been willing to sacrifice all that to forswear violence as morally reprehensible under any circumstance?

    I’m not sure about that choice, but I do believe that, partly due to the bitter struggles of our great-grandparents, and partly to the wealth our nation has forcibly seized from the rest of the world, most North Americans these days don’t have to choose between starvation and armed conflict. We’re not likely to get even close to political violence unless we stubbornly challenge business-as-usual, and that kind of mayhem will be overwhelmingly directed at us.

    To bring it down to the level of one contemporary movement, it shouldn’t surprise any of us to see military enforcement of the extraction and transportation of unconventional oils if civil disobedience became determined enough. Wouldn’t it mean we’re succeeding if the National Guard is called out to guard Keystone XL and other poisonous enterprises as multitudes of nonviolent indigenous peoples, Buddhists, and local communities arise to protect life on Earth? Do we have the courage to stand firm in the way of systemic violence while creating our own interdependent future? I think we do.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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