On Gandhi's Birthday, 2003

To Declare Independence:
A Letter to People Working for Justice and Peace

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they may seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it — always.”

— Mohandas Gandhi

The course of human events these past years has given U.S. peace and justice activists good reason to despair, especially when our nonviolent requests for redress are met only with further abuses. As we celebrate Gandhi's birthday on October 2, 2003, we can find many reasons for which we, like Gandhi, could despair.

Our country has the greatest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation, and the gap is increasing. At the same time, the government keeps increasing the taxes on the poor and middle class, exempting the rich and corporations, downsizing social programs and putting what little social assistance remains into the military. Then people are forced into the armed forces to kill and die defending the very system that is oppressing them.

The government treats the rest of the world in the fragile network of international relations with utter disregard and even contempt. It has refused to ratify the Convention on Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the weapons inspections under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Land Mine Treaty and the Kyoto Accords. The government flouts international law and custom, and the UN charter with "low-intensity conflicts" and highly visible invasions. The CIA long ago predicted there would be "blowback" — retaliation against this country for the horrors it has inflicted on other countries.

The government has literally capitalized on the terror of September 11, 2001. It has pushed through the Homeland Security and PATRIOT Acts and embarked on a massive, perpetual "preventive" war against the rest of the world, misnaming it a "war on terror." We heard only later that this plan for militant world corporate/military had been formulated years earlier by Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and others. These men only needed some "blowback" event to trigger their project.

The government diverts more and more of our country's resources into the study and practice of killing. It just voted to give $11,000 per second to contractors for the Department of Defense. In the wars that inevitably follow, the government must spend tens of billions more to attack countries, and tens of billions more to finance their military and corporate occupation.

Finally, the government wantonly destroys our ecology with weapons production and use — especially nuclear weapons — and devastates it with its domestic environmental policies.

We have good reason to be discouraged — but not defeated — as we celebrate Gandhi's birthday. These disastrous and seemingly successful attacks on justice and peace can prompt us to enter into and complete the kind of self-reflection that the country began after September 11, 2001, before it was aborted and coopted by a government the majority of us never voted for. We in the peace movement have in our tradition sufficient resources to address and even subdue these present errant forces. It will, however require a new, even more radical commitment by those of us dedicated to nonviolence.

Since the 1960s, the peace movement has been using the analysis and tactics of Martin Luther King. Broadly speaking, King was calling on the government to live up to its promises. King was asking a government that said it spoke for the people to actually be a government of, by, and for the people. His tactics were to continuously place before the eyes of state and federal governments those who were being excluded from the promises of the United States and to insist that they be attended to and their rights respected.

But those tactics are inadequate now, because those who presently rule our nation have no intention of representing the people. The tens of billions the government is asking for the "reconstruction" of the countries we have invaded goes to the corporations it does represent — oil companies and arms manufacturers. The no-bid contracts will be given to DynCorp, Halliburton, Bechtel, et al., companies who have gotten into the business of rebuilding countries they destroy and selling their essential services to the soldiers who are occupying the countries. We, the ordinary people of our country, need affordable housing, health care and public transportation, elder care and high-quality schools that won't destroy us financially; we want to live without a Big Brother at home, enmity even from our friends abroad, and an environmentally devastated future for our children. Another election won't help. The forces that control our rulers are so pervasive that it really will not make much difference whom we "elect" in the future, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. The forces of greed and violence will prevail over whomever they choose to rule over us.

Thus, the tactics developed to press for a more representative government won't help now. In the present difficulties we need to turn to the analysis and strategies of Gandhi. Like Gandhi, we are dealing with an empire. At present, the United States has about five percent of the world's population, yet consumes about 25 percent of the world's resources. (That injustice is even more appalling when one considers the distribution of that wealth once it reaches the United States.) And the United States enforces this unjust distribution with the most lethal military in the history of the world. Before such an alien — even a colonializing — power, demonstrations may be good in themselves, but in the end will only get us some crumbs from the masters' table.

If we accept this analysis of the non-representative nature of our government, then our nation's own heritage tells us what we must do. We read in the Declaration of Independence of governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"; and "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."

Gandhi had an analysis similar to that of our country's founders. But Gandhi took the analysis further, to stand unalterably opposed both to all injustice and to violence as a means of redressing injustice. It is that analysis that points the way for us now. In its non-representative nature, this government has forfeited the right to govern us. Therefore we must individually and collectively withdraw our consent to be governed by it.

And since violence is so much the tool of this oppressive government, we must aim to achieve massive, nonviolent noncooperation with these rulers and the powers that prevail over them, until the "government" they have established is either altered or abolished. Gandhi teaches, "You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil system never deserves such allegiance. Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil. A good person will resist an evil system with his or her whole soul."

To accomplish this liberation nonviolently Gandhi stressed first Swadeshi, in English: "of one's own country." It began with a boycott of British goods in favor of Indian self-reliance for the necessities of life. In the same way, we must achieve independence from the government by not relying on it or the prevailing powers for our necessities or for what they say are our "necessities." For Gandhi, this meant forming self-sufficient ashrams. This idea was not new. Before Gandhi, for example, the new noncooperative community of Muslims formed ummahs, and before that the new nonviolent Christians formed communities whose sharing and nonviolence were diametrically opposed to the spirit and practice of the Roman Empire.

We must do the same now. We must first live in greater solidarity with the poor and those deprived of their rights, forming communities that share time, treasure, and talent. We might consider forming just such an ashram with the people with whom we struggle for peace. It can begin simply: does everyone need her own car? Think of a group of five or six with only one car in which community members would have to work out who uses the vehicle and when, and how much is to be paid, by whom. How would community trips be planned? These discussions would lead us to recapture the dynamics of community. And then think: Does every house in a neighborhood need a washer and dryer? Does every house, every room, need a TV? Can there be one TV for several different households? (Do we need TVs at all?) Think of common meals (preferably vegetarian) and the discussions we could have over dinner. Thus, in always-increasing ways, we can grow in our inter-independence, in our "soul force," and correspondingly in our withdrawal of cooperation from the people who unjustly rule us. In Gandhi's terse and lovely formulation, we must "first become the change we wish to see in the world."

Further, in order to keep learning and to prevent the ashrams from becoming isolated from each other, Gandhi published a newspaper called Hind Swaraj (Indian Independence). Today, the corporate media are controlled or owned outright by companies that produce weapons. We must develop, cultivate and be faithful to our own media.

Most importantly, we should converse with, and listen to, the most marginalized, oppressed and silenced of our people. As we struggle to reach dignity together, we will find more than enough strength to sustain a campaign against the oppression we face. "Non-cooperation," says Gandhi, "is an attempt to awaken the masses to a sense of their dignity and power. This can only be done by enabling them to realize that they need not fear brute force, if they would but know the soul within."

As our community strength increases, we can find further, more radical ways of withdrawing cooperation. We might be surprised at how much of our phone bill tax is automatically dialed over to the military. We could sign up for the War Resisters League's "Hang Up On War" campaign. We might be led to complete war tax resistance, ably delineated in War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military from the War Resisters League. Another form of resistance is to resist recruitment and assist conscientious objectors within the armed forces; the WRL ROOTS program specifically addresses these issues. We must be unafraid of prison, especially since so many of our people are there. When our absence is supported by our ashram, we can even see prison as a mission and a further transformation of our acquiescence to the government.

Finally, we must use whatever internal and external resources we have to overcome our fear of death and to help others to do the same. Fear of death remains the ultimate means by which the government and its corporate media control the people. We cannot "protect" ourselves by greater death-dealing. Gandhi said that he became nonviolent the moment he conquered fear.

In Iran in 1979, after 25 years of U.S.-supported dictatorship, nearly one million Muslim fundamentalists took to the streets in the largest nonviolent demonstration in history and removed the Shah. In Manila in 1986, after 13 years of U.S.-supported martial law, some one million Filipinos took to the streets and removed Marcos. In Poland, people in the Solidarity labor movement had a new, nonviolent vision of escape from their Russian masters. For years they reached out to more and more different groups until the "critical mass" of nonviolent revolution was achieved. That same nonviolent revolution spread throughout the countries dominated by Communist rule. Even now, we are inspired by the February 15, 2003, nonviolent demonstrations for peace throughout the world.

We the people in this country are in no way inferior to those courageous people and in no way inadequate to the same noble struggle. As inheritors of the tradition of Gandhi and the Declaration of Independence, we can do no less.

— G. Simon Harak,
War Resisters League
October 2, 2003


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