Transformation of Violence

Where does it come from—this powerful rush of emotion and adrenaline that society labels as violence? Nothing has ever been created that did not possess something of its creator. Is humankind the originator of violence or does it come from the creative force of the universe? Call that creative force and power anything you wish, some of it belongs to all of us. That power is able to change people or situations by either a caring attitude expressed through creative actions, or by massive destruction and cold-heartedness.

It feels like a million years ago when I was just a "fish"—prison slang for any new inmate, since most newly incarcerated people feel and act like a fish out of water and are too often easy prey for the "sharks" who are the predators of prison—and I came face to face with violence. It came at me for no discernible reason or cause, at least that a fish like me could see.

I had experienced violence in my life before coming to prison—violence of my own making and thinking. But seldom, if ever, had I been hit in the mouth for refusing to give some guy some of my canteen food, or for refusing to perform any one of a hundred sexual acts, or just for being "fresh meat." But prison changed all that and changed me, in some ways for the better but mostly for the worse.

The threat of violence in prison permeates every minute of your life. It is always there, lurking in the next bunk, or behind the corner of the chapel, or there in the shower with you. Even the accidental bumping of a bunk can get you hit upside the head with a steel chair in the hands of the man you are locked in with every single night.

These experiences, and a million more, some as apparently harmless as hearing the sound of a bullet whizzing by your head that was fired to break up a fight in the yard, change even the most gentle person. They destroy the trust you have in others, and that others have in you. The trust that the person you are sharing the shower with will not find you easy sexual prey. The trust that the guy who is being friendly to you and showing you around the prison yard won’t try to steal your radio the minute your back is turned. Once trust is destroyed it is nearly impossible to rebuild or create it anew.

The repressive and confrontational atmosphere of prison creates and multiplies the stresses and tensions that promote violence. When a guard shakes down your cell and confiscates your TV because the cable connection has been repaired or looks altered somehow, your first thought is one of violence and vengeance. You feel that something that cost you nearly a year’s wages, by prison standards, has been stolen from you for no good reason at all. Staff can lie and be abusive, uncaring, or downright lazy—anything to protect easy kickbacks and authoritarian image.

There are painfully few ways in which being incarcerated helps the rehabilitation process of a prisoner. There are a very few mental health treatment programs that help one or two prisoners change for the better and rethink the violence they have relied on for so long to survive and resolve conflicts in life. Some powerful tranquilizing drugs produce personality changes in some violent prisoners, but in most cases they either end up as zombies or wired monsters, ready to snap at any moment. Some of the best help toward rehabilitation comes from volunteers who come into prison as a part of self-improvement groups such as AA, religious fellowships, and other inmate cultural clubs and groups. These precious people have the one essential quality that 99 percent of all prison staff are lacking—they actually care about people who are locked up, both while they are still inside and also once they are returned to society.

Most prison staff seldom, if ever, care about a prisoner’s rehabilitation. In fact, most staff do not use that word anymore, since most believe it’s either impossible for a prisoner to be changed and be rehabilitated, or they simply don’t care if that prisoner returns to society as a bitter, vengeance-seeking monster—one they helped to create through abuse, repression, racism, mental torture, or physical brutality.

We all have the power to transform or bring about change and self-rehabilitation. There are many tools that we can use. You would be surprised how far a caring attitude and concern for the welfare of others can go toward preventing violence—both violence within one’s own life and the violence everyone comes face to face with every day.

One example of this transformative power involves a woman in New York City named Marge Swan. One dark night Marge was returning home across Central Park to her apartment, carrying a heavy load of books in both arms. She heard footsteps behind her and a big man came up and crowded her to one side. "Hold-up!" she thought. But in a flash of transforming inspiration, she turned to the man and said, "I’m so glad you came along, my arms are aching from carrying these books. Won’t you carry them for me?" She dumped the whole load of them into his arms.

To his surprise, he took them. They walked together to the door of her apartment and she held out her arms for the return of her books, saying, "Thank you so much, you helped me so much." The man replied lamely, "Lady, that wasn’t what I was going to do." By calling on the hidden "better side" of her potential assailant, Marge not only avoided being mugged, but enabled him to be a more considerate and caring person than even he thought he could be.

Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and their followers demonstrated that it is possible to transform violence into peace and nonviolence by facing suffering and possible death to gain a principle, and to do so without returning violence for violence. In this way, they forced recognition of their causes and thus won allies and victories without violence.

A person is no less a person when walking away from a conflict or handling it with humor rather than by resorting to violence. One is no less a person when permitting an adversary the opportunity to save face in order to maintain dignity and retire from a stressful and potentially violent confrontation with a win-win solution.

Gandhi’s and King’s approach to potential violence requires thought before action and listening, not merely hearing.

It requires that we be ourselves rather than an uncontrolled person under the influence of emotions, environment, alcohol, or drugs. It necessitates weighing the cost of our actions and being concerned for their consequences.

Today you read and hear about people who say that they would not feel it necessary to carry a weapon if it were not for the fact that the environment is full of armed people looking for a chance to kill or rob a defenseless person. "You have to fight fire with fire," you may hear them say. How mistaken they are! Everybody knows that you don’t fight fire with fire; you fight fire with water! The water of nonviolence that quenches the fire of violence, defuses bombs, cools hot tempers, reduces tensions, and takes away all fear and hostility with an attitude of caring and good will.

There are causes for which one is willing to suffer and even die. This was the case with Gandhi’s struggle for the independence of India, with King’s demonstrations for civil rights in the South, and most recently with Mandela’s fight for freedom in South Africa. But it is hardly considered right or appropriate to offer up your life trying to protect the contents of your pocketbook.

Every person needs to search deeply for the right tactics and follow the most inspired and intelligent leadership available. Before Gandhi started what perhaps was the most important and effective demonstration of his life—his famous march to the sea, which touched off the national protest against the salt laws of India—he spent two months in seclusion, searching inwardly for the most transforming tactic to fight this kind of repression. He found it! All people need to take the time for this kind of deep searching.

Participants in Dr. King’s march on the capitol of Alabama were not regarded as weaklings or cowards because they suffered the attacks of mobs and police dogs without fighting back. They did not allow themselves to be discouraged or pushed back from their goal of marching to the city of Montgomery. Their courage and determination drew supporters from all over the country, and finally forced the authorities to summon the National Guard to protect them. This became the turning point of the civil rights movement in the South.

The society we live in is responsible for the existence of crime and criminals because, to a point, criminal activity is a product of social disorganization. Our society is one of the most violent in the world. This tragic level of violence among our people is in part a response to the violence embedded in our institutions and in our values. Some people, more than others, are entrapped by this violence and find that it fills their lives with trouble. But there is no one among us that does not share the capacity for violence, and there is no one who is not hurt by it, one way or another.

I do not believe that people should live this way, nor do I believe that they must accept a society that is partially responsible for crime. Even if it is, I don’t think that this lessens the individual’s responsibility for one’s own actions. But I do know that the transforming power that Gandhi and Dr. King used so effectively still has as much power for us in today’s world. This power is well able to transform hostility and destructiveness into cooperation and community, while still doing true justice among us. I believe it is possible to tune in to this power, and that if we do, it will enable us and our opponents to realize our birthright of peace and dignity. I believe that there are certain individual and group dynamics that make it possible to effectively direct this power; and that these dynamics can be learned and used by all people everywhere to build more constructive lives and healthier societies.

In my own life I have discovered that one of the ways to use and direct this power is through the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). At first AVP’s focus was on prisons and helping to reduce the level of violence in the prison environment, both to help prisoners survive prison and, at the same time, to deal with violence when they are confronted with it directly, in prison or back in society. The AVP guidelines that I have learned are:

  • Seek to resolve conflicts by reaching common ground.
  • Reach for that something in others that seeks to do good for the self and for others.
  • Listen. Everybody has made a journey. Try to understand where it is the other person is coming from before you make up your mind.
  • Base your position on truth. Since people tend to seek truth, no position based on falsehood can long prevail.
  • Be ready to revise your position if you discover it is not fair to all.
  • When you are clear about your position, expect to experience great inward power to act on it. A response that relies on this power will be courageous and without hostility.
  • Do not expect that this response will automatically ward off danger. If you cannot avoid risk, risk being creative rather than violent.
  • Surprise and humor can help transform violence into nonviolence.
  • Learn to trust your inner sense of when to act and when to withdraw.
  • Work towards new ways of overcoming injustice. Be willing to suffer suspicion, hostility, rejection, and even persecution if necessary.
  • Be patient and persistent in the continuing search for injustice.
  • Help build a community based on honesty, respect, and caring.
  • Build your own self-respect.
  • Respect and care about others.
  • Expect the best.
  • Ask yourself for a nonviolent way. There may already be one inside you.
  • Pause and give yourself time before acting or reacting. It may make you open to nonviolent transformation.
  • Trust your inner sense of what’s needed.
  • Don’t rely on weapons, drugs, or alcohol. They weaken you.
  • When you have done wrong, admit it, make amends, and then let it go.
  • Don’t threaten or put down.
  • Make friends who will support you. Support the best in them.
  • Risk changing yourself.

Transforming power feels like, "Aha!!!" because with it you can sense a spirit of caring. There is a real letting go of something (feelings, patterns, grudges, etc.). You will feel a sharing of something. You will feel right about it. You will lose your fear if you had any to lose in the first place.

Conflict in social action comes in many forms: brute force, implacable institutions, internal divisions among one’s friends, just to name a few. If there’s an opening in the situation, a way through toward resolution, we’re going to have to be very quiet so as not to be at the reactive mercy of each opposing thought. We have to listen very carefully for this uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves and all the various levels of our being. We also must listen for the way that fear and polarization from outside reflect what is within us all, and for ways in which we can do what we do with each other, but without putting the other person, friend or foe, out of our hearts.

It takes the split-second timing of the quiet mind, like Gandhi’s or King’s, working in harmony with an open heart, to know just when and how to say, "Hey!" to a potentially dangerous opponent. So we work to be clear enough to seize the time. If you’re a union leader in a tough collective bargaining session, for example, you’ll want to catch that moment when it is best to yield a little, or when to shake your head saying, "No deal!" If you’re working in a nonviolent peace movement, timing will be crucial in deciding when to call for national legislative opinion, when to confront the central government, when to march to the next Montgomery, and when to walk to the sea once more. With the future of the human race at stake, we need to strengthen that precious awareness that allows us to take in all the elements of our world’s situation.