By now, the world has heard the recording of George Floyd pleading, “I can’t breathe … Mama, I love you” as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, held his knee down on the 46-year-old African American man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Since this killing, cities and towns all across America have erupted in mostly peaceful protests. These protests are the most widespread and serious the nation has experienced since the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.

I am moved to write this piece because rather than focus on the explicit violence of Floyd’s killing and the undeniable violence of the US police, spraying the protesters with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, the media and so many conversations on social media, are characterising the protesters as violent. While it is true that there has been looting and property damage, and also some violence on the part of protesters – which is wrong and unfortunate – the majority of protesters have been remarkably peaceful.

I am a human rights activist. I bring social justice issues into my Hindu community spaces, and bring a progressive and inclusive Hindu voice and presence to the struggles of our time. As such, I tend to claim “ahimsa” – non-violence – as one of my ideals. Ahimsa, to me, is always gentleness of thought, word and deed; a willingness to seek connection and resolution rather than conflict, an openness to engage in dialogue.

There is the line in the Upanishads, “Atithi Devo Bhava.” Be one for whom the guest (one you do not know) is god. To truly achieve this, to truly see the divine in a rapist or a murderer, someone filled with hate: for me, this has always been the lofty aspiration of ahimsa.

What is ahimsa?

Today, I am challenging myself to think through what “ahimsa” is in the face of tyranny and state-sponsored murder. Am I capable of seeing the divine in Officer Derek Chauvin or the Hindu mobs that lynched Muslims in India while chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” or those who killed a 12-year-old Dalit girl in Nepal last week and left her hanging from a tree? Am I capable of seeing the divine in the heads of state of the two countries I call home? And since I cannot, what is ahimsa for me?

A police officer holds a tear gas launcher during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of African-American man named George Floyd. Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

I went through a training in non-violent resistance organised by the Poor People’s Campaign a few years ago. We were divided into activists and police. I was an activist. As the police came to arrest us, we knelt down, linked arms and sang. We sang even as our human chain was forced apart and we were dragged away by the police.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round,
Turn me round, turn me ‘round.
Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me ‘round.
I’m gonna keep on a walkin’, keep on a talkin’,
Marching up to freedom land.

The Poor People’s Campaign was launched by Martin Luther King Jr. months before he was assassinated. Today’s Poor People’s Campaign is a continuation of King’s legacy. It is a fusion movement prioritising the three interconnected pillars of the original Poor People’s Campaign –
systemic racism, poverty, the war economy -– along with the fourth pillar of ecological devastation.

Just as King, inspired by, among others, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in India, advocated nonviolent resistance as the path to justice for all, the Poor People’s campaign includes as one of its fundamental principles, “The Campaign and all its Participants and Endorsers embrace nonviolence. Violent tactics or actions will not be tolerated.”

Interlocking injustices

Six days after the lynching of George Floyd, Poor Peoples Campaign co-chair William Barber gave a Sunday sermon. In it, he did not address the violence on the part of protesters, at least not directly. Instead, he affirmed the moral disruption represented by the massive protests. “Thank God people are in the streets,” he said.

He described the diversity of the protesters who have taken to the streets because they “recognise that what they saw may have happened to a black man, but in fact it happened to all of us.” And he described the protests as a collective cry of “I can’t breathe” in the face of multiple interlocking injustices compounded most recently by the coronavirus pandemic. And Barber goes on, “More than 100,000 people have said, “I can’t breathe,” as this disease choked them to death.”

When a question was asked about the violence of the protesters, Barber shifted the focus back to the violence of the police officer, and the violence of poverty.

US police outside the White House in Washington during a Black Lives Matter protect. Credit: Jose Luis Magana / AFP

On Martin Luther King Day in 2013, I had the fortune of seeing musician and activist Harry Belafonte speak at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Belafonte recounted how his dear friend, King, visited him in New York before heading on to Memphis, the city where he would be killed. In their last conversations, King spoke of his heartache that so many cities were burning.

Gandhi, too, was heartbroken by the violence he could not prevent. As an independent India was born on August 15, 1947, Gandhi was nowhere to be seen in the festivities. Saddened by the partition of the country and the immense rioting and violence throughout the subcontinent, he was fasting and praying in Kolkata. He was not secluding himself in despondence; rather, he was intentionally and energetically trying to intervene in the violence – some would argue, successfully.

“No one wants to see their community burn,” William Barber writes. “But the fires burning in Minneapolis, just like the fire burning in the spirits of so many marginalised Americans today, are a natural response to the trauma black communities have experienced, generation after generation.”

Just as Barber, though committed to nonviolent resistance, does not denounce the violence that has marred some of the current protests, there were moments when King and Gandhi similarly made room for – or perhaps conceded to – the inevitability of violence.

King’s words from his 1953 speech, “The Other America” are often quoted:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? In a sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these occurrences of riots and violence over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Gandhi, when talking to Bengali relief workers in the aftermath of dreadful communal violence and riots in 1946, he said, “Use your arms well, if you must. Do not ill-use them” … “It is the privilege of arms to protect the weak and helpless.”

And though King and Gandhi gave the world the discipline of nonviolent resistance to injustice, both were assassinated. This is not to say that their efforts to build non-violent resistance failed – India was born as a secular nation and the United States enacted the Civil Rights Act in large part thanks to their efforts and sacrifices.

A Police officer charges forward as people protest the death of George Floyd in Washington. Credit: Samuel Corum/AFP

I have been wrestling with my own competing feelings: unequivocal support for everyone taking to the streets; reserving the term “violence” for state-sponsored racism and murders rather than protesters, some of whom might be looting or destroying property (which I simply don’t care about right now, when the real issue is protecting people’s lives); and my deep sadness that people have been injured, even killed, in some of the demonstrations. And I can’t get out of my mind that we are in the midst of a pandemic; that there is no doubt that the protests will cause an uptick in coronavirus cases and deaths; and that the communities which will be most impacted will be the most marginalised, as always.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests, some cities imposed curfews, the US President Donald Trump as well as some state governors alarmingly engaged the National Guard, and there were egregious incidents of police brutality towards protesters. The world watched as the nation convulsed in crisis.

My two homes, India and the United States, are in the grips of authoritarian leaders who care not for the dignity and human rights of minorities. Both democracies are under threat.

Yesterday, I got a call from a friend of mine who participated in the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi. This friend is a young Muslim Indian man. These protests were against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, citizenship laws which, in unison, could potentially render all of India’s 200 million Muslims non-citizens and stateless. My friend was agitated, asking, “Are you safe? Is this a civil war in America?” He also asked, “What about corona?”

He has seen news about the violence, the rioting, the looting taking place in many cities across America. I explained that most protests are peaceful. I said that I, too, was worried about the protests leading to a spike in the virus, but there was little one could do to keep people off the streets at this breaking point of public tolerance, after yet another gruesome, filmed lynching of a black man by the police.

My friend then gently and patiently told me about the Shaheen Bagh protests, which started in Delhi but inspired peaceful protests all across India. He said that the protests were peaceful because that was the only way they would be effective. If they were violent, the state would crush them immediately. He said that they were led by women, mostly Muslim women. When coronavirus appeared, the protesters followed social distancing protocols. Finally, when the state required that public groups be small, the protesters gathered in small groups, but made sure the large group of protesters were represented symbolically by their shoes.

Even when Shaheen Bagh was attacked with bombs and gunfire, the protesters did not resort to violence. They finally had to end the protest because of the lockdown imposed, but they vow to return once the virus scare passes. “Shaheen Bagh zinda hai,” he said. Shaheen Bagh is alive.

Young women surround their male friend as the Delhi Police beat him after a protest in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Credit: Prof Ali Khan Mahmudabad/Twitter

Of course, such brave satyagrahas may not be possible as India continues its repression of its minorities and anyone who raises their voice. The Shaheen Bagh protesters and all anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters are currently being hounded and targeted by the police simply because they exercised their constitutional right to dissent. Sandeep Pandey, a Gandhian peace activist, shared a video message about the arrests of the critics of the regime that are rampant in India.

He ends on a cautionary note, “What is happening in the United States should remind the [Indian] government that if it will be vindictive towards people, then people can also come onto the street and make it very difficult for the government.”

And for me, I guess there are two aspects to ahimsa. There is ahimsa as a life-goal: to be an ocean that refuses no river, to see the divine in everyone and everything, and to know that we are not liberated until everyone is liberated. But there is also the urgent ahimsa of this moment: naming unequivocally the true Himsa, the true violence – that of the state; that of systemic oppression of minorities – and holding space for what Barber calls the “collective gasp of life” of those who are in its chokehold.

Sunita Viswanath is co-founder and board member of Hindus for Human Rights.