Reflections on Nonviolence: The Vieques Experience
by Héctor Rosario
(reprinted from The Dartmouth Online, Wednesday, May 24, 2000)
A few hours in jail can change a person's life. It definitely changed mine.
The day of the arrest was May 5, 2000. Just a day before approximately 300 U.S. Marshals and FBI agents removed most of the women and men from the island of Vieques off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Some of these people had been living there in tents and wooden structures for over a year, taking up residence there shortly after a 500-pound warhead went one and a half miles off target and killed civilian David Sanes in April 19 of last year. Their presence, as well as demonstrations in many cities and towns, is an attempt to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques while reclaiming the land expropriated in 1941 by the federal government.
The place of the arrest was Yankee Stadium during the Yankees-Orioles game. After an easy catch in center field that marked the first out of the fifth inning, six of my friends and I dashed onto the field carrying Puerto Rican flags and a sign reading "U.S. Navy Out of Vieques." We were able to interrupt the game and to publicly condemn the federal government's raid of the civil disobedience encampments. We were dragged off the field by over 20 security guards and rushed to the NYPD station at the stadium. We were put under arrest (which we did not resist) and had to go through the usual procedure criminals undergo.
During our 27-hour stay in jail, we were transported to six different cells and were denied our right to make a phone call until 22 hours had elapsed. But I'm not writing to complain about the less-than-human treatment we received in a six-by-eight-foot cell with a filthy toilet bowl (all that space for three men), or how hard it was to get water or the impossibility for a friend we met there to get his HIV-medication. My purpose is to share with you my thoughts and reflections about the nonviolent struggle to free Vieques -- thoughts that came to mind in those moments of silence when we were not singing salsa music that upset the guards but delighted other detainees. The guards could not understand why we were joyous, and joyous we were. Not to be in jail, but to be there because of our commitment to peace and justice in Vieques.
While in jail, I gained a new perspective on the nonviolent struggle and its consequences. I had time to reevaluate my strategies and thoughts. I finally understood the most important quality of the nonviolent warrior: willingness to die but not to kill. Nonviolent warriors are not afraid to die, neither are they afraid to kill. It is not fear that draws them away from killing the opponent but the understanding that if they win nonviolently, they will not have fostered feelings of hatred and resentment which would haunt them in time. In a violent struggle, the violence of each side goads the other to greater violence. Furthermore, each side uses the violence of the other side to justify its own violence. A nonviolent struggle, on the other hand, does not encourage the violence of the opponent.
To understand the nonviolent struggle, it is imperative that we deconstruct some widespread myths about nonviolence. As Mark Shepard put it in his 1990 Annual Gandhi Lecture for the International Association of Gandhian Studies, "Gandhi's nonviolent action was not an evasive strategy nor a defensive one. Gandhi was always on the offensive. He believed in confronting his opponents aggressively, in such a way that they could not avoid dealing with him." He added that, "Gandhi steadfastly avoided violence toward his opponents. [However,] he did not avoid violence toward himself or his followers". This is the gist of the struggle, to be confrontational but nonviolent and civic.
The nonviolent struggle demands superior discipline, because an enemy that is prompt to use violence will look for ways of creating a scenario that is favorable to him/her, i.e., a violent confrontation. In Puerto Rico, even the two armed revolutionary parties, the EPB (Ejército Popular Boricua) and the PRTP (Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores Puertorriqueños), the two branches of what is known as Los Macheteros, have vowed to adhere to nonviolent methods. This is an important step in our struggle for self-determination, since those who oppose us are forced to abandon their usual position that we are a group of terrorists. For the sake of fairness though, I must assert that the traditional methods that Los Macheteros have employed are legitimate means to fight colonialism and oppression.
Let me present an outline of how Shepard believes the nonviolent struggle works: activists break a law - politely; public leader(s) have them arrested, tried and put in prison; activists accept it; members of the public are impressed by the protest, hence public sympathy is aroused for the protesters and their cause; members of the public put pressure on public leader(s) to negotiate with activists; as cycles of civil disobedience recur, public pressure grows stronger; finally, public leader(s) give in to pressure from their constituency and negotiate with activists.
The nonviolent struggle might seem naive and romantic to some experienced warriors, but I urge them to fully experiment with it and compare the results to those obtained through violent means. This approach works whether you wish to abolish the current political system or whether you want to reform it; whether you want to work from outside of the system or from inside; whether you want to create an independent nation or to fight for civil rights. It is up to the people in any given struggle to define their goals and actively pursue them. In the Vieques experience, our first goal is to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, then fight for the demilitarization of Puerto Rico and finally to obtain independence for our nation. This we shall attain through nonviolent means.