Nonviolence is like …karate?
Yeah, you read that right.
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect Kazu Haga, a Kingian Nonviolence trainer who has facilitated restorative justice groups in California prisons for twenty years, to dedicate an entire chapter of his new book, Healing Resistance, to nonviolence as martial art. But he does.
And the crazy thing is, he has a point.
Kazu is the rare person you can simultaneously imagine traversing a prison hallway and decorating a cookie. In the three hours I spent with Kazu, he managed to receive bear hugs from at least four towering formerly-incarcerated men, guys who I later learned had spent 25, 35 years behind bars—and then offered me home-baked chocolate cake as if it was no big thang.
Healing Resistance has been praised by Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Erica Chenoweth (Why Civil Resistance Works) as inspiring, Paul Engler (This is an Uprising) as “informed by a rich spiritual practice, deep practical experience…and years of careful research,” and Joanna Macy (The Work That Reconnects) as “like oxygen.”
Here is what I asked, starting with karate, and how he answered:*
Nonviolence is like karate…why is that important for activists?
When I was a kid, everywhere we moved Mom made sure we had a heavy-bag… so, I punched and kicked the hell out of the heavy-bag every day, and I think it was just a healthy release.
But also…Nobody ever goes to the two-day karate workshop and thinks they’re done with karate and understand karate. It’s a lifelong practice, and it needs to be the same way with nonviolence. You don’t go to the two-day nonviolence workshop and come out the other end being like, “Oh, now I can intervene in a physical confrontation with two strangers in the street.” It takes consistent practice, ‘cuz it is about engaging in conflict, learning how we engage in conflict in skillful ways, and that’s not an easy thing.
These traditional forms of martial arts—we’re not learning how to beat someone up, we’re actually deepening into a different way of learning how to relate to each other: more self-control, and discipline. I think it’s also the difference I try to make between strategic forms of nonviolence and principled forms…if your only understanding of nonviolence is as a set of strategies, then you could make the case that the Klu Klux Klan uses nonviolence when they organize marches and they don’t beat people up…
In your book, you talk about MLK’s vision for building a Beloved Community, which he says must include your enemies. So, Exxon Mobile execs…how can we bring them into Beloved Community?
One of the things that I’ve found is that, especially doing work in prisons with people who’ve committed the most serious forms of harm, that once you begin to unpack their stories, it all begins to make sense, and not that that justifies what they’re doing, but it’s like, “Oh, no wonder why you killed somebody.” And even with Exxon Mobile execs, I could imagine if we really unpack their story, like, it doesn’t justify what they’re doing, but it’s like, “I totally could have become that way, had I grown up the way they’d grown up.” I think it’s so easy for people to be like, “I could never be like those people,” but “normal” people turned into Nazis and monsters, just as “normal” Japanese people went on to commit the Rape of Nanking. It’s easy for us to be like, “I could never be like that,” you know, there’s an arrogance to that. Human nature is so delicate. That’s what it means to hold [your enemies] in Beloved Community. I mean, we’ll hold those individuals accountable…
How should we hold people accountable?
As long as you point the finger saying, “You’re an evil person, you messed up,” people are gonna get defensive, and as long as people are defensive, that is the opposite of accountability. Accountability is to rip apart all your defenses and say, “Yes, I did that, I caused that harm and I feel terrible.”
When we talk about holding people accountable, what if the key word to emphasize was to hold, and not accountable. What does it mean to hold space for people so that they can feel safe enough to say, “I did that thing.” A lot of the people I work with have gone through so much harm themselves. Mariame Kaba says, “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it.” …For so many of those people, they’ve gone through so many forms of violence that have never been validated, and then they get labeled a criminal – and that’s who they become. I feel like oftentimes if they’ve never had their pain validated, it’s impossible to hear someone else’s pain. Oftentimes we go to these groups [in prisons], and it takes years of just validating their story so they can get to “Oh, fuck, I’ve hurt these people, now I get it.”
What advice do you have for XR activists who want to be out doing nonviolence, and want to be doing this well, but might not have access to teachers and trainings?
Talk therapy…but also, having the courage to be in communities where you’re starting to have the hardest conversations. You know, an example is childhood trauma stuff with my family. I didn’t talk to them for twenty-five years, and it was just this past holiday where I finally developed the courage to actually write them a letter. We have to be doing that work. What are your shadows, and what are the things you’re too scared to talk about, and how can we create containers that are safe enough so you can be doing that work? Can we build relationships that are strong enough to explore these things? Mess up along the way, probably hurt some people along the way, but – have relationships that are strong enough to come back together again and keep trying.
You can pick up a copy of Healing Resistance in the UK or US at healingresistance.com.
*This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.