In this episode of Nonviolence Radio, Michael Nagler interviews Mel Duncan, the co-founder and Director of Advocacy and Outreach for Nonviolent Peaceforce, a world leader in unarmed civilian protection. Mel represents Nonviolent Peaceforce at the United Nations where the group has been granted consultative status. Nonviolent Peaceforce provides direct protection to civilians caught in violent conflict and works with local groups on violence deterrence in a variety of conflict areas around the world.
Mel speaks of the powerful work the Nonviolent Peaceforce has accomplished in conflict areas around the globe by identifying 77 best practices to prevent violence, protect civilians, saving lives, and promoting peace through the unique tool of Unarmed Civilian Protection.
Who’s Protecting Whom?
Michael: On the one hand, we mustn’t get into this work in order to protect ourselves because that’s the wrong motivation. We do it because we want to protect others. We do it because we feel it’s the right thing to do. But on the other hand, it does show that there’s an incredible power in this thing. A critically important part of the argument is to show people that [nonviolence] has the power both to persuade the opponent and to protect you and your side. So, it has that power. But it would be wrong to say, “I’m going to do it nonviolently because I’m scared.”
Mel: Well, first of all, we do have a much higher risk threshold than most people. And that’s taught to people in training. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a risk threshold, because we do. Martyrdom is not a sustainable activity. And so, we do protect ourselves—and if we cannot protect ourselves, we can’t protect others. One of the things that’s been a good learning, is that often in the field, the blur of who is protecting who – it becomes blurred about who is protecting who. And at times the villages are protecting us. And at other times, we are protecting them. And I think that that is the ideal mutuality of nonviolent protection.
Michael: That is really wonderful to hear. Yeah, that again is an aspect I hadn’t thought of. But it definitely protects us from what we used to fear so much and rightly, which is peace imperialism. You know, we’re coming in there to give you people peace because you can’t do it yourself. So, I know that NP has a policy and so does Peace Brigades International and other organizations, a policy of leaving when they’re no longer needed.
But what you’re saying here is more intimate and more powerful. That we’re in it together. You know—they’re protecting us, we’re protecting them.
You’re not just global north, parachuting in to defend the global south. So, you’ve gone far, I think, to strike that balance between, “Yes, we do have something we can offer you. And no, we are not here to tell you how to do it. And to imply that you are helpless.” I think that’s one of the great successes of Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Mel: Yeah. Working with the agency of the people. That’s why I never talk about capacity building anymore. I always refer to it as capacity recognition.
Nonviolent Peaceforce in the United States
Michael: It’s not surprising to me the way your splendid organization, Nonviolent Peaceforce, has adapted itself to work in the United States. Having started with the traditional model, “Across Border,” which wasn’t actually what Gandhi had in mind, when you get right down to it. He was all community-based.
Mel: You know, we’ve been doing training in Minneapolis for peacekeepers at the poll for the upcoming election. And there’s this group, the Powderhorn Safety Collective. And they have been providing security in the neighborhoods adjacent to where George Floyd was murdered since last June. They are doing UCP. They just didn’t know it.
And so, I think what’s happening is rather a zeitgeist, that this is coming up because it’s required and people are understanding and sensing at a very different level that we have to reshape the way we do security. The Powderhorn Safety Collective, one of the things that they tried to do is to intervene before 911 is called. Because good things don’t happen often to people in those neighborhoods when 911 is called.
So, it’s a very constructive approach. And you know, I would venture that there’s hundreds of those operations around the world.
Michael: Yeah. I think we all could name off a few. You know, one in the Bronx, one in Chicago, those are the famous ones.
The Nonviolent Ideal and Rethinking Police Accountability and Neighborhood Safety
Michael: So, Mel, if I could repeat what I hear you saying, it’s you’re working on transitioning our whole security concept, really, from one based on force to one based on trust and community which is totally laudable, totally what we have to do. And I would say this is absolutely a constructive program—and that will become clear when we actually build the alternative institutions. Like restorative justice instead of the school to prison pipeline.
And when we provide psychological services that the police force can operate in tandem with, all of that will make it obvious that it’s a constructive program. But the main thing that constructive program will allow us to do and I think it’s huge is to get out of the blame game. And not blame the police purely and simply for the killings. Of course, they shouldn't be doing it, but we have to realize that we’ve put them in an impossible situation. You have to realize when you have made somebody else responsible for your security, you’ve given away some ethical prerogative or something. It’s not fair for you then to turn on that person and say, “I don’t like the way you did that. You shouldn't have done it that way.”
So, that there are excesses that lead to police brutality, there’s no question. And it does have to be stopped. But we have to, above all, avoid the psychological posture of pointing the finger at them and saying, “We are blameless and you did this whole thing.” That will get us nowhere.
Mel: I understand what you’re saying and I just spent 20 minutes on the phone with the St. Paul Police an hour ago explaining what we’re doing in terms of poll protections next week in St. Paul. At the same time, there’s a line that I think you crossed, in terms of people have to be accountable for their own acts. And we have to hold people accountable. Policing is a profession where bad apples should not be allowed. There is no excuse for a bad apple. And there is no excuse for police federations that will protect those bad apples at all costs. And so, I think that there is some room for blame.
Michael: Yeah. No, I don’t disagree with that, Mel. And I’m not saying there isn’t behavior which really has to stop, but I’m just saying that we can approach it a little more compassionately if we look at the whole context. And after all, the ultimate goal in nonviolence, although it’s hard to achieve—this is where, we have to make a compromise with the real world, but the ultimate goal that we have to achieve is not so much accountability as persons taking responsibility.
You know, the ideal a hundred years from now would be for the police to heartedly, willingly, and proudly take that all on themselves. However, I’m always holding up the ideal and the future paradise. In the real world, the police have to do their job correctly.
But I guess the only thing that I feel strongly about that I’m arguing against, is to feeling that once we’ve gotten to that we have solved the problem and we had no buy-in of our own.
Mel: Let me unpack what you just said about the absolute goal of nonviolence is not accountability, but people taking responsibility. And so, what I think what I heard in that, is that accountability is after the fact. And that responsibility is proactive.
Michael: Yeah, but there’s another element to it, in that in accountability, we’re not giving them the agency. We’re not giving them the opportunity to step up, recognize what they did, and self-correct—which is the ultimate goal.
But it’s always good to have a distant shining goal, even if you’re not able to live up to it in the present, in your lifetime.
Mel: Yes. Izzy Stone said, “If you expect to find the answers to your questions in your lifetime, you’re not asking big enough questions.”
But, let’s unpack that a little bit more, that we have a responsibility for the internal inter-workings of the police. Would you say that the Danes had a responsibility for the internal workings of the Nazis when they occupied Denmark?
Michael: Wow. That would be hard for me to say: “you’re invaded by a foreign power which is bent on dominating you.” I would say that the Danes had the perfect solution which is to say, “We’ve got a nonviolent way out of this and we will suffer and we will trust the slow process and we will risk—we will get the entire Jewish population out of here, at risk to ourselves.” And you know, I think the fact that most of the Danish resistance was largely was one of the main factors in Georg Duckwitz, the German attaché tipping the Danes off that the Jews were going to be collected the following morning.
And if there had been just, you know, like a Maquis French-style resistance killing people wherever they could, I bet he wouldn't have had that kind of liberal-mindedness.
Mel: The reason that I brought up that question is not to equate police with Nazis, but to say that there are some communities that see the police as an occupying force. So, to say to those communities, “You have responsibility for the inter-working of an occupying force,” I think is a task that can’t be done. It’s a fool’s errand.
Michael: I would agree with you. But that’s a special situation because those communities that you’re referring to had probably the least agency in creating the situation that leads to the need for force-based policing. But for us majority communities – majority in number who have the dominant impact in shaping the culture, we’re the ones who have got to look inward while we’re looking outward. You know, I don’t say, “Heck, it wasn’t your fault.” We say, “We share this fault.”
But also, what it does is it allows us to work on what we can most easily work on which is our own difficulties. That’s what you always do in nonviolence: avoid saying, “You guys, you’ve got to take care of your stuff.” And say, “I better look at my stuff.” And then I’m going to use nonviolent persuasion to get you to face up to yours.
Mel: And you know where I would make a difference with that statement? As you work for social change, not that you get yourself all fixed and then begin working for change.
Michael: You’re not going to wait until you’re lily-white and you don’t have to. I think all you need to do is to show that you are acknowledging that you are also human and prone to error. And you are also working on your stuff. And it’s the best, most effective way to get them to work on their stuff.
Mel: Yeah. It’s one of the reasons why I openly acknowledge my mental illness. Because first of all, it’s an illness, a condition I have. And it should be normalized. And secondly, then it’s pretty easy to see that I’ve got some pretty big flaws.
Michael: Yeah. And you can see Gandhi was doing this all the time. He had to kind of look hard to find faults in himself. But he said, “I have made the freest and the fullest and frankest confession of my many sins.” And that gave him the strength and the power to go forward and to influence other people. Because, you know, as Gary Snyder once said to me, “I shaved off my beard because you can’t influence people unless you look like them.” He meant – to put it better, what he meant was you had to be on a human level with them. We’re both human beings. I’m not a morally superior kind of creature.
One Example from the Field
Michael: So, I have occupied your time for a long while. And what I would like to – by way of just wrapping up, if you could just tell us briefly so folks have a feeling for what unarmed protection can do, tell us what did happen at that camp, that U.N. IDP camp in Bor with Derek and Andres.
Mel: Well, that happened a few months after the civil war reignited. So, it was like April of 2014. And they were in this—there were really makeshift camps that sprung up around U.N. conclaves. And a number of rebels came over the berm and came into the camp and started shooting people point-blank.
And Derek and Andres were with 14 women and children. And so, they went to a hut-like structure and stood in the doorway as the women and children were inside. And on three occasions, young rebels came up to them and screamed profanities and, “You have no business being here. We want those people.” And on and on, pointing AK-47s at their heads. And on three occasions, Derek and Andres held up their Nonviolent Peaceforce identity card and said, “We are unarmed. We are here to protect civilians and we will not leave.”
After the third time, these young rebels left. And Derek and Andres could hear them as they went back to join the group say, “Stay away from up there. Leave those people alone.” In the debrief, Andres says very clearly, “If we would have a gun, we probably would have been shot.”
Michael: I can’t imagine a more dramatic and clear demonstration of the power of nonviolence by people who are dedicated and well-trained and well organized, and even not too badly funded. So, that is a wonderful, wonderful note. I want to thank you, Mel, not only for this interview, but for the 20 years of work that led up to it. And I still have the feeling that this is going to replace the war system someday.