Liz Bernstein, Executive Director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, reflects on the necessity of nonviolence in diffusing tense situations:
Since my arrival in Belfast yesterday to prepare for our Women Beyond War conference, the UK news has been full of the story of a British soldier who was murdered in Woolwich Barracks in southeast London.
At the scene of the murder on Wednesday, Ingrid Louay-Kennet used nonviolence to defuse and calm a terrifying situation. She got off her bus, and while others took photos, she went to speak to the two men.
As she approached the body, one of the men said ‘Don’t go too close to the body’. She later described it:
“I thought, okay. And because I was down I could see a butcher’s knife and an axe – that’s what he had – and blood. I thought, what the heck? I thought obviously he was a bit excited and the thing was just to talk to him…. I was not scared because he was not drunk, he was not on drugs. He was normal. I could speak to him and he wanted to speak and that’s what we did. …I went to speak to the other man who was quieter and more shy. I asked him if he wanted to give me what he was holding in his hand, which was a knife but I didn’t want to say that. He didn’t agree and I asked him: ‘Do you want to carry on?’ He said: ‘No, no, no.'”
As Anouchka Grose wrote in the Guardian about Ingrid’s actions: “She simply continued to treat the killers as human beings, even showing them kindness…. By acting with phenomenal generosity, grace and understanding, she seems to have helped to contain a situation that may easily have spun out of control.”
As I sit in the hotel trying to secure last–minute visas, collate participant kits, and finalize transportation & meals for our conference, it seems fitting to be reading in the headlines such a clear example from everyday life about the power of nonviolent action – and communication – in the face of violence.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative’s fourth biennial conference, Moving Beyond Militarism & War: Women-driven solutions for a nonviolent world, will be hosted in Belfast by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and five Laureates of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. They will be joined by over 80 influential activists, academics, and decision makers from across the globe whose work focuses on ending militarism and war.
Indeed the essence of nonviolence – and what we will be discussing the next three days in Belfast – is not just how to stop war in Syria and horrific levels of rape in DR Congo, but violence on our streets, in our communities, and the necessity of acting from love. And it often begins with listening. As Martin Luther King taught us: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
And just as he and his fellow civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, who was not just tired one day but trained for a full life of nonviolent activism, we know the importance of training for change.
Imagine if we had more programmes teaching peace education and nonviolence in all school curriculums, like those of PeaceJam, and PeaceBoat – two programs we’ll hear about at Women Beyond War. Thus trained, many more of us would feel comfortable doing what Ingrid did. It would be an ordinary, not extraordinary, response to violence we face.
At Women Beyond War we will learn from those experiences, and share practical skills, such as those used to defuse conflict in London, and other nonviolent direct action tactics.
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