When we think of violence, we tend to think of wars, terrorist bombings, violent crimes, and police violence. However, poverty is a much more pervasive form of violence. Worldwide, approximately 9 million people die from hunger each year.
In 2017, 40 million people struggled with hunger in the United States. One in six American children may not know where their next meal is coming from. Children who experience food insecurity are at a higher risk of developing asthma, struggling with anxiety or depression, and performing poorly in school or physical activities.
To be truly non-violent, we must recognize and confront the violence of poverty, racism, and racist social structures. For example, we must confront the violence we do to immigrants and refugees by denying them entry to our country.
I believe there is something incredibly hypocritical about telling a hungry person they should not protest while we are well-fed, well-housed, and have economic security. Hunger and inequality will inevitably lead to social unrest. When social unrest does occur, those who are comfortable are quick to label the protest as violent.
This hypocrisy is double when we reflect that much of our material comfort is due to paying low wages to the people in this country and overseas who provide us with cheap food, clothing and other goods. As a society and as individuals, we fail to ask what are the wages and living conditions of the people who manufacture our clothing, who grow and harvest our food, who make our electronic gadgets. This too is violence.
So long as we permit racism to exist, deny help to immigrants and refugees, and allow multi-national corporations to exploit the resources of poor countries, our cries denouncing violence will ring hollow. When people feel excluded from the system, not only excluded but perceive that the system is rigged against them, they certainly will not feel invested in the system.
We can try to end poverty and racism or we can declare the protesters to be criminals and put them in jail. While the latter response may seem to address the immediate concern before us, history shows that people can be excluded and impoverished for only so long. Eventually enough people will push back hard enough to force the system to change.
While we may describe such push-back as violence and condemn it, we would be better to first look at the violence we as a society are perpetuating on our own people and on people in other nations. Condemnation of violence may make us feel better but it does not address the causes of violence and may simply serve to perpetuate it.
I end with the words of W. H. Auden in his poem, September 1, 1939:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.