In many activist circles and among politically minded people the term “non-violence” is used frequently, and often the definitions of non-violence vary widely between each group. On the surface, this term sounds like a call for peace and fairness, but often the term is used to condemn other activists and encourage the homogenization of identity and tactic. Very often, the term non-violence turns in on itself and becomes a weapon we point at activists when their tactics do not meet the standards of “appropriate conduct” as described by the state.
So what is non-violence? What is the history of the term? How has it been used among past movements?
Well, if you are from what is currently known as the United States then you probably associate the term non-violence with Martin Luther King Jr. and the tactics he used in the Civil Rights Movement.
The state would have us believe that MLK was a peaceful person who played by the rules and worked the system to create change. However, when we examine the history of the movement it is clear that Martin Luther King Jr. was considered an enormous threat by the government, and was ultimately murdered because of it. He was one of many people that created the civil rights movement. The non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the self-defense and community building of the Black Panthers, and the revolutionary words of Malcolm X all contributed to a robust movement with broad tactics.
The truth is that non-violence as a tactic was never about adhering only to state legitimized definitions of non-violence, protecting property, or following the rules of the police. Non-violence is a tactic in a diversity of tactics, and being aware of how it is warped by history and government is just as vital as understanding how other types of revolutions have been vilified and forgotten by the state.
So why does this matter? Why do witches need to understand non-violence?
Reclaiming Witchcraft comes from a long history of liberation politics. Many people in the tradition are activists and radicals that are working hard to create autonomous spaces where witchcraft as a healing and deepening practice can flourish. We actively challenge our community to continue the work of dismantling whiteness, to become gender expansive, and to examine heteronormativity and class privilege. As witches, we envision different worlds together, explore and agitate one another, and believe in our power to make things happen.
But we have a problem. When we fail to question what the state tells us about “acceptable resistance” we end up with this: https://starhawk.org/how-do-we-call-a-truce-in-the-gender-wars/
In this article Starhawk blatantly fails to understand what is and is not violence. Instead she defends TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who have been emotionally injured by their trans critics and calls for the “bridging of gaps between trans people and feminist seperatists.” What she fails to understand in this article is the real harm a group of cisgender people (TERFs) can cause transgender people. Even if they do not hold the same power as a cisgender man, a cisgender woman carries more state-given power than that of a transgender person and they can–and do–regularly use that power to continue the oppression of transgender people.
Creating organized pressure against state-given power is often a strategy of self defense against the people who are given state legitimized power over another group. We see this type of self defense play out when a rioter kicks back a tear gas canister, when TERFs are pressured out of positions of power, and when people take up arms to defend their loved ones from fascism and police brutality.
If we fail to understand what violence is on our own terms we fail to carry the movements that we care about forward. If we look the other way when the police inflict incredible spiritual, psychological, and bodily harm to protesters, but condemn the protesters that break a few windows and hurt no living being we are positioning property above life and permitting the state to continue subjugating the people. Through whiteness, patriarchy, and shame we are taught that we must give up our power to make others comfortable and that without control we will fall into violent chaos. We confuse self-defense, survival, and world building with terrorism and violence because we are taught to be afraid of our own power.
This is not the way of the witch.
To be a witch means to hold and wield great power. As witches, we understand and utilize power within ourselves and within our covens and collectives. We are called to be a communal source of tactful and resilient power in a merciless world. Through our perception and discernment we hex and heal, build, and destroy, lead and be lead. We create worlds where we will have to be bold and fight for our survival because we have listened to the spirits and realize what has been taken from us.
Witchcraft is a peoples medicine, and peoples medicine is violent through the perspective of the state. For centuries witchcraft and peoples medicine has been squashed, erased, reviled, and reduced to nonsense in the public eye. To be a witch and to claim our own power is violent according to the overculture and has been treated as such by the overculture. To claim witchcraft as nonviolent is, quite simply, a falsehood. Witches have only recently been able to shake the public image of violence off of them because many witches (often of privilege) have downplayed the radical role of witches throughout history. Even in its most basic form, a witch was a person (almost always a woman) who was seen as a threat to society. They were seen as violent.
Whether or not we like to admit it, when we speak of nonviolence as a tactic it is almost exclusively defined by whether or not the oppressor thinks something is violent. Often when people shame others for not using non-violence they are unwittingly (or wittingly) becoming a mouthpiece for the state, and are aiding in the alienation of other tactics in our movements, thereby weakening the potential for change. When a person in power, like Starhawk, uses the term to defend her “gender critical” (TERF) peers against the consequences of oppressing others, Starhawk is misrepresenting a movement and alienating vulnerable people in her communities. Furthermore, she is also misrepresenting a lineage of witches she is a part of, as witches have very rarely fallen under the umbrella of non-violent despite what people may think.
In order to be critical of the narratives we encounter in liberation movements we must know how words can be used to deceive and reinforce the control of the state. As spell casters and magic workers we know the power that words can hold and have to build the discernment necessary to use them in ways that build the worlds we desire to manifest.