“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” John F. Kennedy, March 13, 1962
Over the past few years, advocates of nonviolence (such as myself) have been losing the debate in the climate movement. After decades of a well-funded and organized movement that has tried every nonviolent strategy, yet failed to pressure power structures away from the path of climate catastrophe, the promise of nonviolent success rests mainly on faith.
Adding to the lack of efficacy is a startling rise in draconian consequences for peaceful activism, including dozens of states that have proposed laws legalizing vehicular homicide of activists marching on a public street. As proponents of nonviolence are increasingly ridiculed as “peace police” and booed out of movement spaces, Kennedy’s warning grows more urgent.
We Don’t Need Prisons to Make Us Safer
BY VICTORIA LAW
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH BISHOP/GETTY IMAGES
To the statement that prisons provide safety, we should ask, “Safety for whom? And from what?”
The United States now has 2.3 million people behind bars of some form or another. These are not 2.3 million isolated individuals—their imprisonment sends reverberations into their families and communities. On any given day, 2.7 million children have a parent in prison. Incarcerating that parent removes a source of financial and emotional support for both children and adult family members. For families who are already in economically precarious situations, removing a parent can plunge them into poverty, reduce their safety, and make them more vulnerable to arrest and incarceration.
This is not to say that we don’t need interventions when harm and violence happen. But prisons have proven again and again to be an ineffective intervention. First, we must remember that incarceration is a form of punishment and incapacitation that happens after harm has occurred, not before. We must also remember that incarceration addresses only certain types of harm. People who sell drugs on the street risk arrest and imprisonment. But the same rarely applies to wealthy people like the Sackler family, who earned billions from OxyContin, the addictive painkiller launched in 1996 that spawned today’s opioid crisis. Likewise, board members and corporate executives responsible for oil spills and other environmental disasters or for precipitating economic crises rarely face handcuffs and jail time.