Loincloths, Ski Masks, and Social Movements

“Certainly a soldier, myself included, is an absurd and irrational man, because he has the ability to resort to arms in order to convince. In the end, that’s what a soldier does when he gives an order: convince by force of arms. That’s why we say the military must never govern, and that includes us. Because whoever has had to resort to arms to make his ideas felt is pretty short on ideas… that’s why we say that armed movements, however revolutionary they may be, are basically arbitrary movements. In any case, what an armed movement has to do is raise the problem and step aside.” March 11, 2001.

Anyone recognize the speaker? How about this: “those of us who are military are not intelligent, if we were we would not be military”, in April 1999.

These are words of the EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the first in an interview in Mexico City and the second in a letter to Mumia Abu-Jamal. Play this name that quote game one more time with me for this: “who is the true warrior-he who walks always with death at his side or he who controls the death of others?” That’s Gandhi.

What’s the point of this quoting game? I’ve heard the violence/nonviolence in social movements framed too many times in terms of the EZLN versus Gandhi. The EZLN is supposed to exemplify armed struggle. Gandhi is supposed to exemplify weakness or a reluctance to take a punch. The truth is that Gandhi said, correctly, that courage was in facing punches and not in doling them out. And the truth is that the EZLN is very clear about how unhappy they are to be an armed movement.

In March, when they went to Mexico City, they made a big show of leaving their weapons at home. Of accepting that the only protection they had was the political protection of hundreds of thousands of (equally unarmed) Mexicans who would take care of them.

Pitting the EZLN against the Indian Nationalist Movement as if approving of one means disapproving of the other is an odd and unfair thing to do. Does supporting the EZLN mean I like violence? Does thinking highly of Gandhi’s strategies mean I’m a pacifist? Or does being impressed by both mean something else entirely? Maybe it means that I support understanding one’s own situation and context and trying to act appropriately, which is what characterizes both movements. Maybe it means I support building alternatives at the same time as resistance, taking care of one’s own people, communicating with them, making the opposition look ridiculous, and trying to choose appropriate actions for the situation.

In 1995, when the Mexican Government attacked with the intention of arresting the Zapatista command, the command didn’t stand and fight. They retreated. They knew that if they fought, the Government would have every excuse to execute terrible reprisals against their people. This year, they left their weapons in Chiapas and went to Mexico City, and the government-who would have loved to arrest them– was helpless.

Advocates of armed struggle say that the only reason the government doesn’t repress a movement out of existence is because the movement is ineffective. So how does that work with the unarmed Zapatista caravan? Was it ineffective? Is that why the government didn’t attack it or round up the leaders? Or is there such a thing as political protection against repression? Do governments, in spite of having all the guns, still rely on the obedience of people to govern- and do they not fear losing that obedience?

I heard an Indian military analyst once criticize Indian militarists who thought India should gear up to try to resist or deter a US intervention. The trouble with their argument, he said, was that there is just no way India, or any 3rd world country, can militarily deter the US. Such protections as there are, are political. I believe the same is true for social movements.

The opposition would like nothing better than to turn a social struggle into a military one. That’s one they can win. But as the EZLN said, even violence is nothing more than a way to convince. The purpose of an assassination or a massacre isn’t usually to kill the people assassinated or massacred. It’s to convince the people who aren’t killed. The question for social movements is, given the potentials on both sides, is it worth using that method to convince?

Note that this isn’t a moral argument. I believe that self defense on the part of an oppressed people is a moral act. I think Malcolm X was right to be unmoved by white liberals trying to teach black folks nonviolence-go teach the Klan nonviolence, he said, and then we’ll talk. I think that superior morality isn’t in self-defense or in pacifism, but in doing whatever is necessary to end the oppression in the least costly way possible. If I thought that meant violence, I’d be blowing something up right now. Since I don’t, I’m not.

Both the EZLN and the Indian nationalists found symbols that communicated with people. The EZLN uses ski masks, rubber boots, and guns. Gandhi used loincloths and spinning wheels. The point isn’t to use their symbols but to find ones that are appropriate to our own time and place.

I have high hopes for the movement against capitalist globalization in the first world. I hope that it expands to realize the importance of colonization of native people, the oppression of african americans everywhere but especially in the justice system, the exploitation of immigrants, the abuse and inequality suffered by women, the destructiveness of the drug war, class exploitation and poverty at home.

But I am worried that we are being drawn into an arms race with the opposition. That’s something both our friends in ski masks and our friends in loincloths refused to do.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.