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Nonviolence vs Non-violence

When I think about one of the greatest lessons of my youth, I look back on the chapter of my life I spent living in one of the most diverse tenements on the north side of Seattle.

One of the nights I reflect on, my mother and father were asleep in their room, and my brother’s mattress lay on the floor a few feet from mine. They were all asleep. My brother who found solace in sleep during the most pervasive times was the heaviest sleeper in the house. For that reason, I stood alone looking out of our apartment window as I witnessed overt violence between two young men. As the two slammed into each other, a crowd formed. The bystanders stood watching the smaller of the two men lie on his back crying out, begging for help between each blow to the face. The beating continued until the larger of the two men stuck his final blow, spit on his bloody victim, and walked off. A few of the bystanders rushed to aid the bloody young man and by then, I had seen enough. I laid back down and watched the red and amber lights of the ambulance dance upon my brother's resting face.

What I’ve learned in my time as a student of nonviolence, has taught me that all of those bystanders, including myself, were practicing non-violence. It should go without saying that our “non-violent” behavior or inaction was wrong.

So how, or better yet why, do I call myself a student, advocate, and practitioner of nonviolence?

It comes down to this: I’ve been using two different words. And in the difference between the words “nonviolence” and “non-violence” lies the core of Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy.

Many know King as a racial justice leader. Fewer know him for his paradigm-shifting work in developing what we now know as Kingian Nonviolence, a philosophy derived from the teachings of the late Baptist minister. In the Kingian philosophy, a distinction is made between nonviolence spelled with and without a hyphen. “Non-violence” can be better said as “without violence” or the absence of violence. With this definition, as long as I am not using physical force to harm others I am practicing non-violence. This is both the greatest misunderstanding of nonviolence and the greatest lesson I’ve learned in my time as an advocate.

The use of the word nonviolence as inaction perpetuates the conception of nonviolence as a passive, weak, and docile excuse for standing up to violence. What is missing from the dialogue is a comprehensive understanding of nonviolence as not the absence of violence, but the antidote or opposite of violence. Nonviolence is not inaction, it is standing up to injustice and harm with equity and healing.

It was not a single moment but instead the culmination of two factors that defined my learning experience. On one side, I had been actively practicing Restorative Justice and Nonviolence change work through Reach for Youth’s Teen Court program since I was fourteen years old. On the other hand, my involvement in that program led me to spaces like the Marion County Violence Prevention Coalition, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Youth Programming Committee, and Violence Prevention Fellowship, and countless other spaces where I had the opportunity to learn from, educate, and dialogue with other youth and leaders in the nonviolence space.

Only after I had the opportunity to discuss what I learned in my active practice, could I say that I understood nonviolence. This is what I’m seeking for my academic future, a space to discuss, analyze and dialogue over the work of not only myself but of the countless greater practitioners before me.

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