Tisch College hosts speaker series event titled ‘Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom’

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The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life hosted another installment of its Solomont Speaker Series, titled “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom,” on March 7. The event featured Rev. James Lawson and Kent Wong, who spoke to the Tufts community about the philosophy of nonviolence and discussed their new novel, “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom.”

The Zoom webinar event was co-sponsored by the Africana Center, the civic studies program and the Tufts University Chaplaincy.

Dayna Cunningham, dean of Tisch College, opened the event by introducing the two speakers, emphasizing their involvement in nonviolent activism throughout their careers.

During the civil rights movement, Lawson participated in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Memphis sanitation strike and the worker and immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles. Lawson was also Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teacher and worked alongside him and other future leaders of the movement.

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Wong is the director of the UCLA Labor Center and is also a union attorney and a labor activist.

“[Wong] has taught a course on nonviolence with Rev. Lawson for the past 20 years and has published books on the labor movement, immigrant rights and the Asian American community,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham went on to introduce Lawson and Wong’s novel, “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom.”

“[The novel] provides a crucial resource on the long history of nonviolent philosophy and how we can overcome violence and oppressions and organize direct action, charting a powerful road map for a new generation of activists,” Cunningham said.

Peter Levine, associate dean of Tisch College and the event’s moderator, began by asking the speakers about the misconceptions of nonviolence.

The reason nonviolence is so revolutionary is because it turns on its head the … obsession that we have that violence is the most powerful force in the world, and our use of violence for achieving all kinds of goals,” Lawson said. “Most of the goals — when we really look at their consequences — we’ve never achieved through violence.”

Lawson said the Black Lives Matter movement was effective in that it invoked incredibly diverse nonviolent demonstrations across the world.

“It was indeed, according to many scholars, 96–97% nonviolence, with most of the violence coming from police, looters [and] anarchists,” Lawson said.

However, Lawson said he is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement at the moment because its protesters  listened when the Democratic Party told them to “stop demonstrating” with the arrival of the new administration.

In the ‘60s, the Democratic administration was often telling us … to stop the demonstration,” Lawson said. “I think [the Black Lives Matter movement] would have been wise to say ‘we will not demonstrate in the first 100 days of the Biden administration,’ but then they should have picked up the cudgels again, because 2020, 2021 [and] 2022, [have] allowed the public discourse to be almost entirely dominated by the nonsense of a Republican Party growing in its … chaos and lack of understanding of what it means to be human.

Levine then asked Lawson to elaborate on a statement from his book, in which Lawson explains the power of nonviolent philosophy.

Lawson explained that although there is more activism, he believes that the approach does not have a personal discipline around the issues of nonviolence to bring about social and political change.

Too many activists run around on too many issues … you cannot blame them … because so many issues are interconnected,” Lawson said. “Our society has been largely shaped by plantation capitalism, by violence, sexism, male-domination chauvinism and racism. These four forces of spiritual wickedness in our country are interrelated and interwoven. It’s no longer plainly racism as in the ‘60s. It seems to me the activism has not caught up with this … therefore it’s not as effective as it could be.”

Levine asked the speakers about what youth can do to work on their own understanding of nonviolence.

The approach that Rev. Lawson and I have taken in our class is to look at the … link between personal transformation and societal transformation,” Wong said. “The philosophy of nonviolence is deeply rooted in addressing and understanding that link … many of the powerful social movements … have reflected that nexus of the personal transformation, the ability of workers, … of communities of color, … of young people, to find their voice, to find their inner strength and power.”

At the end of the webinar, a question prompted a conversation about what nonviolence looks like in higher education.

We have to challenge the imbalance that exists within the university structure that historically has privileged people based on class and racial bias,” Wong said. “[We need a] transformation within the university system, whether it be through the establishment of ethnic studies, women’s studies, LGBT studies, the advances of affirmative action and demanding full representation of underserved communities.”

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