By Will Falk, Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition
It is long past time we honestly assessed our capacity for violence. Violence – unconscionable violence many seem unconscious of – rages on around us. I write “unconscionable” because what other word describes the images of Palestinian children on hospital beds with half their heads caved in? I write “unconscious” because how many of us actively sit in the despair these images produce?
Within violence there are two extremes: the decision to die and the decision to kill. The decision to die and the decision to kill can be as easy as deciding what to have for dinner. For the wolf, the decision to kill and the decision what to have for dinner are literally the same. For the moose hunted by the wolf, the decision to die becomes the decision to be dinner. For the moose, the decision to die means sacrificing her body to the sacred cycle so that life may continue.
It is becoming increasingly clear the dominant culture must be stopped. The more effective we become resisting, the more violence will be visited upon us. Will we be strong enough to decide to die for a better world? Will we be strong enough to decide to kill for a better world? If this sounds too extreme, then I ask you: what decisions were faced by Tecumseh, Nat Turner, Crazy Horse, Denmark Vesey, and Padráic Pearse when they picked up rifles and hatchets to meet bullets and swords?
I experienced the decision to die and the decision to kill simultaneously the two times I tried to commit suicide. I am compelled to write about my suicide attempts because in what was designed to produce my own death, I produced new life. And, in the process of healing, I see that I am privy to experiential wisdom that most never will be. I’m not saying that anyone should visit the dark places I have, but now that I have returned from those dark places I feel a responsibility to describe what I’ve seen.
The decision to die came slowly. It began during my senior year in college. The reality that I borrowed $90,000 to pay for my education started to sink in. I saw my future draining away while I was inevitably chained to jobs to make enough money to pay off my loans. I wanted to be a literature professor spending my life reading, researching, and writing about the stories that shape the world, but somehow I let myself be convinced that the best way to pay off my loans was to take out another $120,000 to go to law school.
From the moment I settled on going to law school, my decision to die solidified as I stuffed the messages of protest my heart sent me deeper and deeper into a hole dug by my own denial. I hated law school. I sensed the deep contradiction inhering to the practice of law. Lawyers are supposed to practice justice, but I read case after case of the United States endorsing genocide through Federal Indian law policy, genocide through upholding slavery, patriarchy through a concentrated attack on the bodies of women, and the constant destruction of natural communities in the name of “progress,” “the economy,” and “development of natural resources.”
Then, I became a public defender. The hole of denial I dug to bury my heart in simply was not big enough. My emotions – left to fester in their hole – seeped out to infect my body with a profound weariness. Each time I accepted my own powerlessness in the face of the system, each time I walked into a jail to sit with someone who should not have been held there, and each time I watched the face of a client being dragged to prison, my heart pumped out its poison. The poison spread into my limbs making my every move a struggle upstream against a strong current. The poison spread into my mind until it became impossible to see a future inhabited by anything other than the clinging, gray fog of numbness.
Finally, I made the decision to die.
The only person I’ve ever tried to kill is myself. It wasn’t hard. I even looked myself in the eye – my reflection in the mirror – as I ground a couple sleeping pills with the butt of a knife into a fine powder. I watched my hands as they stopped shaking for the first time in days to shape the powder into tidy, straight lines. I noticed the way the cowlick over my forehead conveniently fell out of the way as I bent to snort the lines. I even enjoyed the taste of the tap water as I drank down the twenty-odd pills and put on my pajamas before crawling into bed losing consciousness.
In my desperation, the decision to kill was that easy.
I survived the suicide attempts in a physical sense and I am very grateful. Parts of me, however, did not survive. I killed the last vestiges of my desires for financial and social comforts. I killed my self-doubt that I was capable of embracing an actively resistant lifestyle. I killed my denial that my heart truly knows what’s best for me.
In so many ways, I was left for dead – and it was the best thing to ever happen to me because I know how untouchable a dead person can be. Giving up on everything but the defense of those I love makes me more effective than I could ever have imagined.
I was recently part of a discussion about the practice of tree spiking. Tree spiking is a tactic used by land defenders to protect forests from logging. The tactic involves hiding a long nail – called a spike – in the trunks of trees. Typically, logging companies are alerted to the possibility of spikes in a proposed cut, so loggers are aware of the risks they’re taking. If the blade of a saw strikes the nail it can break the saw or cause the saw to careen off possibly injuring or even killing the logger or mill worker. Bad profit margins in spiked forests and pressure from logging unions to protect loggers make corporations reluctant to log in areas where tree spiking has occurred. In short, tree spiking can be an effective way to combat deforestation.
Many people are outraged that land defenders would consider a tactic that might lead to the injury of fellow humans. They remind advocates of tree spiking that many loggers have no choice in their profession. Tree spiking detractors ask advocates if they aren’t just occupying a place of privilege when they place a logger’s body in jeopardy through spiking. Detractors accuse advocates of being just like our corporate enemies if we even consider placing a human in physical harm’s way. And, as if this should end all debate of the efficacy of tree spiking, they ask, “Isn’t tree spiking violent?”
Imagine a logging operation. The spray of living flesh coats the loggers’ arms and chests and sticks to their beards in the form of saw dust. Behind the loggers is a stack of dozens of dead tree corpses. These trees were stretching their green nettled arms towards the sky in celebration of the sun’s warmth just moments before. Underneath the tree, in the soil and crawling up the trees’ skin, a whole network of mycelium was busily shuffling nutrients from strong, healthy trees to young or sickly trees in the community. In the tops of the trees, families of swallows have built their mud nests against the trunks. Many of these nests, full of chicks with wings not quite ready, are crushed as the trees collapse to the ground.
Then, a logger hits a spike. His saw careens off the nail. Maybe the saw strikes him and he is cut and bleeding. Maybe the cut is so bad he must be rushed to the hospital. Maybe the cut is so bad he dies. In any case, the logging stops – if even just for the time it takes to remove the injured logger.
When I imagine this logging operation and listen to people urging advocates of direct action tactics like tree spiking to think of the loggers that may be hurt or to disregard any option that involves violence, I cannot help but ask: What about the trees? What about the mycelia networks living in mutual relationship with tree roots? What about the chicks living in the treetops?
I am growing impatient. We are losing and losing badly.
Just this morning, I looked at a list of extinct species. West African black rhinoceroses will never again cause the earth to shake under their heavy tread. Pyrenean ibexes will never again dance their sure-footed way through the mountains of France and Spain. Sea minks will never again glide through the green foams along the coasts of Maine and New Brunswick.
What would these animals ask us if they were still around to communicate? Would they ask us to hesitate in the face of their total extermination, or would they ask us to help them survive?
It’s not just extinction either. The best-case estimate for old growth forest in the United States is that we’ve lost 95% since the arrival of Europeans on this continent. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization says that 22-44 million trees are cut down per day around the world, or 916,000 trees cut down per hour, or 15,000 trees cut down per minute, or 250 trees cut down per second.
How many CEOs, politicians, or loggers have been cut down by land defenders? Any? A few? A fraction of the 250 living trees felled around the world in one second?
I need to be explicitly clear. I am not calling for wanton violence. I am simply asking those of us who love life on the planet enough to be engaged in active resistance not to remove tools from the table.
We must think about the negative impact of any action taken, but we must also remember that every second that passes means more trees felled, more forests eradicated, more topsoil spent, more water rendered incapable of sustaining life, more air poisoned, more species extinct, and more peoples killed and displaced. We must understand that the destruction that builds with every passing second brings us closer and closer to our own extinction.
Our own violence was long ago determined for us. The decision to die and the decision to kill are made through our complicity in this genocidal and ecocidal system daily. To think that we can somehow keep our hands clean ignores that they have been soaking in blood for centuries. There’s not one square inch of soil on this continent that has not been affected by the perpetual shedding of indigenous blood by the dominant culture. The comforts of civilization come to us greased in the human tallow of oppressed workers around the world, come to us over mangled corpses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, come to us through the psychic theft perpetrated by a world view trying to tell us that all of this is how it should be.
We are animals. Just like the relationship between the wolf and the moose, we must kill to survive and we must die so that others may live. We can choose to kill as the wolf does – carefully selecting a sick or weak moose to sustain the pack – or we can kill indiscriminately dropping napalm, bouncing betties, and carpet bombs. We can recognize that we are already killers, or we can hide in our comforts and deny the violent reality surrounding us.
There are those who for a number of valid reasons are not willing to engage in direct actions like sabotage or tree spiking because they might be deemed violent. I would encourage those who reject violence in all forms to consider whether they are willing to accept life-threatening violence on their own bodies. If you cannot do violence, are you willing to take violence? Can you place your body between the bombs and the bombs’ targets?
We have seen what will happen to even non-violent resistors who effectively impede business as usual. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Rachel Corrie was smashed to death under an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 when she acted to stop the destruction of a Palestinian home in Gaza. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a poet no less, was hung by the Nigerian government. These non-violent resistors all demand that we ask: Can you make the decision to die?
There are others who believe that we need to stop the dominant culture from destroying everything and are willing to consider a variety of tactics. I cannot take the place of your heart in your own journey towards understanding your limits. I can, however, tell you that as someone who has made the decision to die and the decision to kill before, I do not believe it makes you evil, wrong, or even any different from the rest of us.
We are all engaged in violence. Some are willing to take it, but will not engage in violence. Some are willing to give violence. It is time we decide our capacity for violence. Time is short. How we channel this violence will determine our very survival.