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June 7, 2010

Holding Fire, Finding Peace

[This blog was written by Caitlin Rosser, who interned with CSGV between January-May 2010.]

The spring 2010 semester was pretty transformational for me. As a co-founder of the American University chapter of the Student Peace Alliance, not only was I involved in various D.C.-area rallies and activities, but I also interned with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). Initially, I wasn’t quite sure where issues of gun control fit into my interest in peace activism, but after several months, I came to realize that preventing gun violence—like the broader goal of working to end the culture of violence—is an essential element in the work of a peace activist.

One of the most interesting projects I worked on altered my perceptions of the civil rights movement and tested my convictions about nonviolence as an effective form of direct action. The Coalition sought to rebut claims by gun rights activists that gun control is historically racist; and violent, armed action is the method by which African Americans obtained important rights.

While researching the Deacons for Defense and Justice (DDJ), a small movement of men that took up arms to protect their communities in southern states between 1964-1968, I learned what it must have been like to stand up to a violent mob. In this case, that mob was the Ku Klux Klan. During this time, advocates of violence were much more prevalent than I had been taught. Student groups like the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) became much more militant during the 1960s, especially after seeing the terror of the Klan in the south.

Yet I also came to understand that while it may have been necessary for some African Americans to arm themselves to protect the lives of those they loved, it really was nonviolence that gained national attention and helped thrust the civil rights movement ahead. As Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized, “Nonviolence is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.” Nonviolence requires you not to “humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.” The end goal is reconciliation, not bitterness, and that is why nonviolence has been and is still so effective today.

This old debate still resonates today. The gun rights movement aggressively fights for the right to use lethal force at home and in public and portrays the gun violence prevention movement as “anti-civil rights.” In the end, though, the debate isn’t about restricting anyone’s rights—it’s about ensuring a safer world for us all. And isn’t that (or shouldn’t it be) the goal of both “sides” in this debate?

While advocates of armed, “justified violence” may have good intentions, they cannot succeed in establishing a just and sustainable peace in our country. Gandhi was right when he said, “Nothing enduring can be built on violence.” More guns, more hostility, more distrust, and more violence will never bring peace, and there is a serious deficiency in this country if we continue to believe in that fallacy.

In addition to my strengthened convictions about the power of nonviolence, I also learned a great deal about grassroots activism and the critical balancing act between community organizing and legislative advocacy. You can rarely be successful in any campaign without both components. For example, the “Advocacy Day” that the Coalition participated in along with its partner organizations in Virginia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was critical in making state residents feel appreciated and part of the political process. The day included not only a vigil to remember victims of gun violence, but also lobbying inside the State Capitol in Richmond. Rallying and/or protesting raises awareness and fosters solidarity, but if you aren’t willing to work with lawmakers, you’ll never see the change you want.

The perseverance of every person I met at and through CSGV last semester affirmed for me that nonviolence is a lifelong commitment. They are truly in it for the long haul—through good times and bad. Many have never even been personally affected by gun violence. Some of them are volunteers who receive no pay for their efforts.

They have convinced me that peace activism isn’t just something I want to do on the side while I pursue a presumably lucrative career with my college degree. Being an advocate for nonviolence is the only worthwhile thing I could ever want to do with my life; and I intend to do just that.

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