If peace means this, I don’t want peace:
- If peace means accepting second class citizenship, I don’t want it.
- If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
- If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
- If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.
-Martin Luther King, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” 1956
As part of my final report for the Davis Projects for Peace Grant, I was asked to define peace in my own words. This was an extremely difficult question for me, partially because I wasn’t convinced that peace was a worthy goal in the context of present-day Nicaragua. Peace in Nicaragua, as implicitly defined by those who tag their social media posts with slogans like #NicaraguaQuierePaz [#NicaraguaWantsPeace], means that protestors should leave the streets and allow the country to return to a false stability dependent on the suffering of the majority of the population. Those who define peace in this way place the onus for ending state violence and restoring peace has been placed on those against whom violence is committed, rather than holding those who commit violence accountable. Because, per Max Weber, the state has a monopoly on violence any retaliation by protestors against government repression is construed as violence, while the initial act of violence by state-led groups is not categorized in that way. The price of peace in Nicaragua, according to this group, is accepting injustice and bearing state violence without complaint.
However, this myopic definition of “peace” ignores the fact that protestors – including those that use violence – are, in fact, working towards peace. In a 1965 speech, Malcolm X said, “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” Peace cannot, therefore, be defined simply as an absence of conflict; true peace is dependent on freedom for the oppressed. An absence of conflict can still be violent if the conditions for that conflict still exist. Any “peace” that does not address the root causes of the conflict is a conditional peace for the privileged elite.
In the United States, too, this incomplete definition of peace is weaponized against those who resist government oppression. When police officers murder Black people, for example, the police and the city governments behind them define peace as having streets clear of protesters. They often invoke violence to achieve this result. That use of violence towards a supposedly peaceful goal is widely accepted because they are acting as agents of the state. When Black Lives Matter protestors chant “No Justice, No Peace” in response to state-sanctioned murders, they do not simply mean that protestors will not allow peace (quiet) until there is justice, but also that peace in and of itself is conditional upon justice and freedom. However, when protestors (in the U.S., in Nicaragua, and elsewhere) use violence as a tactic in the fight for true peace, that protest is no longer categorized as “peaceful.”
I believe that the use of violence does not necessarily preclude a truly peaceful goal, nor do so-called “peaceful” or “non-violent” tactics necessarily mean that a group is acting in the pursuit of peace. To use another example, those who protest same-gender marriage by refusing to provide same-gender couples with the same services allowed to heterosexual couples are not exerting physical force, but they are perpetuating oppression. This act may appear peaceful on the surface, but it is at its core a violent act because it strips people of freedom.
The appearance of peace in Nicaragua prior to April came at the cost of the exploitation of Indigenous and Black communities, the disenfranchisement of poor people, and the silencing of the population as a whole. Nicaragua can never return to peace, as certain groups demand, because peace in Nicaragua did not exist before April 2018.
Similarly, though many recent editorials following Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court lament a supposedly unprecedented division in the United States, the United States can never return to a fictional undivided or peaceful state of being, because the country was founded on the oppression of Indigenous and Black people and continues to depend on their exploitation.
The only way to achieve peace – in Nicaragua, the U.S., or anywhere else – is by fighting for justice and freedom for oppressed groups through community-led initiatives. Violence may be necessary to achieve peace. This is not ironic; this is not an oxymoron. Sólo el pueblo salva el pueblo – only the people can save the people.
we will fight if we must, but the fundamental goal of r/evolution must be peace. […] r/evolution means the end of exploitation. r/evolution means respecting people from other cultures. r/evolution is creative.
–Assata Shakur, “r/evolution is love,” 2012