May 11, 2007

Organizing: the Key to Nonviolence Training

By Mark R. Day

Everything was going well at the May 5 “Nonviolence Workshop for Activists” at Oceanside’s San Luis Rey Mission, that is, until after lunch when the “Minutemen” showed up to harass the participants, many of whom were Latino students. The intervention took place along an archway outside the mission’s dining room.

Yolanda Rios and friends. Photo by Carlos Vonson.

It was all too real: three young white guys and a blonde woman, just the kind of people you might expect at a Minuteman rally. The woman kept waving an American flag at an exit sign, saying: “It’s time to go, illegals. It’s time to go back to Mexico.” One of the white guys was pretty obnoxious, too. His sign read: “America is for Americans, not for Illegals!”

The catch was that these were not real Minutemen “anti-inmigrantes,” but actors recruited to play the part of the super patriots. Only the conferees didn’t know that and were thrown off guard. A Chicana, outraged at the picket sign, stared down the “Minuteman” and said forcefully, “America is not a country, it’s a continent!”

More harsh words were exchanged, and when a male student grabbed the picket sign and tore it in half, the “Minuteman” had his moment of glory. “Look how violent they are,” he said, smugly. “They ought to be thrown in jail for this.”

The incident was later unpacked at the workshop. Feelings ran deep. The anger subsided, and a few tears were brushed away. The actors were introduced and the students assessed their reactions. Under the circumstances, a few had not done very well, especially since they had just viewed the documentary “A Force More Powerful” showing how African American students desegregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn in the 1960s.

During those sit-ins, local toughs had initially beaten the students while the cops watched from the sidelines. Nobody fought back physically, but in the end, the sit-ins continued and a boycott of local businesses brought the city to its knees. Segregation was defeated.

“Nonviolence works,” said workshop leader Erik Olson Fernandez, who works for a San Diego school employees union. “But it requires discipline, training, suffering and, above all, lots of organizing.” Olson, who has participated in several community organizing campaigns in San Diego, was trained by the Rev. James Lawson, one of Martin Luther King’s senior aides.

At the Oceanside workshop, Olson Fernandez outlined Dr. King’s principles of nonviolent social change and steps to achieve it. Among them is King’s insistence that nonviolence seeks to defeat evil, not people, and that “nonviolent love does not sink to the level of the hater.”

Several activists wrestled with these concepts, having faced lewd comments, provocations and verbal insults from the Minutemen at day labor sites and rallies in recent months. “Getting down to their level of racism is not the way to handle it,” said Cal State San Marcos student Yolanda Rios. “Listening to the words of Martin Luther King has helped me a great deal. It’s about organizing yourself first, then others.”

After the talks and films at Mission San Luis Rey, the participants broke into small groups to discuss Dr. King’s six principles of nonviolence, reporting their conclusions back to the plenary sessions. “The whole conference was well executed and professionally planned,” said Ellyn Herr, a high school teacher. “The key to nonviolence is organizing. This experience gives me courage and motivation. I really want to take a stand.”

As the conference concluded, a young Jesuit seminary student from Minnesota was seen entering the Mission chapel for a moment of prayer. It was he who portrayed the “Minuteman” at the lunchtime confrontation. Asked how he felt, he responded, “I really feel exhausted. It takes a lot of energy to hate.”

Mark Day can be reached at:

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