Transformation of Violence

©2000 Last updated: 11/15/00

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Editor's Note: This essay was written by NSP inmate, Harold Wilson. It was the second place winner out of 80 essays entered in the Gandhi Institute for Non-violence's annual Season of Peace essay contest in honor of Dr. King and Gandhi's contribution to world peace and justice.

Where does it come from? This powerful rush of emotion and adrenaline which society labels as violence? Nothing has ever been created that did not possess something of it's creator. Is mankind the creator of violence or does it come from the creative force of the universe? Call that creative force anything you wish, yet some of that force and that power belongs to each of us. That power is able to change people or situations by either a caring attitude expressed through creative actions, or by massive destruction and cold-heartedness.

Facing Violence

About a million years ago when I was just a "fish", in prison for the very first time, I came face-to-face with violence. It came to me for no discernible reason or cause, at least that a fish like me could see. A fish being prison slang for any new inmate, since most newly incarcerated people feel like a fish out of water and are too often easy prey for the "sharks" who are the predators of prison.

I had experienced violence in my life before coming to prison. Violence of my own making and thinking. But seldom, if ever, had I been hit in the mouth for refusing to give some guy any of my canteen food, or for refusing to do any one of a hundred different immoral sexual acts, or just for being "fresh meat". But prison changed all that and changed me, in some ways for the better, but mostly for the worse.

The Results Of Violence

The constant threat of violence in prison permeates every minute of your life. It is always there, lurking in the next bunk, or behind the corner of the chapel, or there in the shower with you. Even the accidental bumping of a bunk can get you hit upside-the-head with a steel chair in the hands of the man you are locked in with every single night.

These experiences, and a million more, some as "harmless" as hearing the sound of a bullet whizzing by your head that was fired to break up a fight on the yard, change even the most gentle person. They destroy the trust you have in others, and which others have in you. The trust that the person you are sharing the shower with will not, find you sexually attractive, or easy prey. The trust that the guy who is being friendly to you and showing you around the prison yard won't try to steal your radio the minute your back is turned. Once trust is destroyed it is nearly impossible to rebuild it or create it anew.

The Results of Incarceration

Being incarcerated creates and multiplies the stresses and tensions which promote violence by the repressive and confrontational atmosphere of prison life. When a guard shakes-down your cell and confiscates your TV because the cable connection has been repaired or looks altered somehow, your first thought is one of violence and vengeance. You feel that something that cost you nearly a years wages, by prison standards, has been stolen from you for no good reason at all. Staff will lie, be abusive, uncaring or downright lazy, anything to protect their easy kick-back jobs and authoritarian image.

There are only a few, painfully few, ways in which being incarcerated helps the rehabilitation process of a prisoner. There are a very few mental health treatment programs which help one or two prisoners change for the better and rethink the violence they have relied on for so long to survive and resolve conflicts in life. Some powerful tranquilizing drugs produce personality changes in some violent prisoners, but in most cases they either end up being "zombies" or "wired" monsters who are ready to snap at any moment. Some of the best help toward rehabilitation often comes from volunteers who come into prison as a part of self-betterment groups such as AA, religious fellowships, and other inmate cultural clubs and groups. These precious people have the one essential quality that 99% of all prison staff are lacking. They actually care about the man or woman who is locked up. Both while the person is still inside and also once they are returned to society.

What Works and What Doesn't

Prison staff seldom, if ever, care about rehabilitation. In fact, most staff do not even use that word anymore. Most believe it's either impossible for a prisoner to be changed and rehabilitated, or they simply don't care if that prisoner returns to society as a bitter, vengeance seeking monster. A monster they helped to create through abuse, racism, repression, mental torture, or physical brutality.

We all have the power to transform or bring about change and self-rehabilitation. There are many tools which we can use. You would be surprised how much positive transformation a caring attitude and concern for the welfare of others can go toward preventing violence. Both violence within one's own life and the violence with which we all encounter everyday.

Transforming Example

One example of this transforming power happened to a woman in New York City, named Marge Swan. One dark night Marge was returning home across Central Park. On the way to her apartment, she was carrying a heavy load of books in both arms. She heard footsteps behind her and a big man came up and crowded her to one side. "Hold-up!" she thought. But in a flash of transforming power inspiration she turned to the man and said, "I'm so glad you came along, my arms are aching from carrying all these books. Won't you carry them for me?" She dumped the whole load of books into his arms.

To his surprise, he took them. They walked together to the door of her apartment and then she held out her arms for the return of her books, saying, "Thank you so much, you really helped me a lot.." The man replied, lamely, "Lady that wasn't what I was going to do." By calling on the hidden "better side" of her potential assailant, Marge not only avoided being mugged but enabled him to be a more considerate and caring person than even he thought he could be.

Great Leaders Use This Power

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and their followers demonstrated it is possible to transform violence into peace and non-violence by facing suffering and possible death in order to gain a principle, and do so without returning violence for violence. In this way they forced recognition of their causes and thus won allies and victories without violence. A person is no less a person when they walk away from a conflict. or handle it with humor rather than resorting to violence. One is no less of a person when permitting an adversary the opportunity to save face in order to maintain their dignity and retire from a stressful and potentially violent, confrontation with a win-win solution.

Gandhi and King's approach to potential violence requires thought before action and listening, not, merely hearing. It requires that we be ourselves; rather than an uncontrolled person under the influence of emotions, environment, alcohol or drugs. It necessitates weighing the cost of our actions and being concerned for their consequences.

How Can it Work in Today's Violent Times?

Today you read about and hear about people who say that they would not feel it was necessary to carry a weapon if it were not for the fact that the environment is full of armed people looking for a chance to kill or rob a defenseless person. "You have to fight fire, with fire," you may hear them say. How mistaken this is! Everybody knows that you don't fight fire with fire; you fight fire with water! The water of non-violence which quenches the fire of violence, defuses bombs, cools hot tempers, reduces tensions, and takes away all fear and hostility with an attitude of caring and good will.

There are causes for which one is willing to suffer and even die for. This was the case with the struggle of Gandhi for the independence of India and with King's demonstration for civil rights in the South, and most recently with Mandela's fight for freedom in South Africa. But it is hardly considered right, or appropriate to offer up your life in trying to protect the contents of your pocketbook.

Everyone Uses Different Tactics

Every person needs to search deeply for the right tactics and follow the most inspired and intelligent, leadership available. Before Gandhi started what was perhaps the most important and effective demonstration of his life, his famous march to the sea, which touched off the national protest against the repressive salt laws of India, he spent two months in seclusion. He was searching inwardly for the most transforming tactic to fight this kind of repression. He found it! All people need to take the time for this kind of deep searching.

Participant's in Dr. King's march on the capitol of Alabama were not regarded as weaklings or cowards because they suffered the attacks of mobs and police dogs without fighting back. They did not allow themselves to be discouraged or pushed back from their goal of marching into the city of Montgomery. Their courage and determination drew supporters from all over the country, and finally forced the authorities to summon the National Guard to protect them. This became the turning point of the civil right's movement in the American South.

The Role of Society

The same society we live in is responsible for the existence of crime and criminals because, to a point, criminal activity is a product of the social disorganization of our world. A society which is one of the most violent in all of history. This tragic level of violence among our people is in part a response to the violence embedded in our institutions and in our values. Some people, more than others, are entrapped by this violence and find that it fills their lives with trouble. But there is no one among us that does not share the capacity for violence, and there is no one who is not hurt by it, one way or another.

Is This the Way it Must Be?

People should not live this way, nor should they be forced to accept that society is partially responsible for crime. Even if that is so, it does not lessen the individual person's responsibility for their own actions. The same transforming power that Gandhi and King used so effectively still has as much power for us in today's world. This power is able to transform hostility and destructiveness into cooperation and community, while still doing true justice among us. It is possible to tune into this power, and if we do it will enable us and our opponents to realize our birthright, of peace and dignity. There are certain individual and group dynamics that make it possible to effectively direct this power; and that these dynamics can be learned and used by all people everywhere to build more constructive lives and healthier societies.

Alternatives To Violence

One of the ways to use and direct this power is from a program called Alternatives to Violence (AVP). The AVP program began in 1975 in the New York state prison system. A group of prisoners in the Green Haven prison felt the need for non-violence training in preparation for their upcoming roles as counselors in an experimental program in a youth institution for under-age offenders. The adult offenders asked a local Quaker group to provide such training. From this AVP has spread world-wide, not only in prisons, but also school and community settings as well. At first AVP's focus was on prisons and helping to reduce the level of violence in the prison environment. Both to survive it, and at the same time, to deal with violence when a person is confronted with it directly both in prison and back in society. The guidelines AVP uses are:

Transforming power feels like, "AHA!!!" Because with it you can sense a spirit of caring. There is a real letting go of something, (feelings, patterns, grudges, etc.). You feel a sharing of something. You will feel right about it. You will lose your fear if you had any to lose in the first place.

Conflict, in social action comes in many forms: brute force, implacable institutions, internal divisions among one's friends, are just a few. If there's an opening in the situation, a way through toward resolution, we're going to have to be very quiet so as not to be at the reactive mercy of each posing thought. We have to listen very carefully for this uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves and all the various levels of our being. We also must listen for the way in which fear and polarization from the outside, reflect what is within us all, and for ways in which we can do what we do with each other, but without putting the other person, friend or foe, out of our hearts.

Where Does It Start?

It takes the split-second timing of the quiet mind, like Gandhi's or King's, working in harmony with an open heart to know just when and how to say, "Hey!" to a potentially dangerous opponent. So we work to be clear enough to seize that time. If you're a union leader in a tough collective bargaining session, for example, you'll want to catch that moment when it's best to yield a little, or when to shake your head saying, No Deal! If you're working in a non-violent peace movement, timing will be crucial: when to call for national opinion, when to confront the central government, when to march to the next Montgomery, and when to walk to the sea once more. With the future of the human race at stake, we need to strengthen that precious awareness which allows us to take in all the elements of our world's situation.

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