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César Chavez on the Pragmatics of Violence


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In this paper, I examine several arguments that justify property destruction as a form of civil disobedience.  These arguments stress that the question about the use of violence in social protest is not a moral one, but a strategic one; that is, about the most efficient means to achieve political goals.  I then rely on César Chavez’s conception of nonviolent civil disobedience to demonstrate why these arguments fundamentally misunderstand the dynamics of power and violence.  Chavez argues that advocates of property destruction threaten to reduce struggles for social justice to power politics by ignoring moral guidelines for strategy, fail to consider how state repression against violent protests harms the most poor and vulnerable members of society, and confuse a violent shift in the balance of power with the creation of a more just, democratic, and equitable society.



On August 1999, a small crowd in the French town of Millau descended upon a McDonald’s restaurant under construction.  Under the eyes of local police, the crowd proceeded to dismantle the pre-fabricated building, loading pieces of the walls, roofing, and electrical outlets into the backs of trucks.  The crowd then paraded to the police headquarters in a festive mood.  They unloaded the materials and then proceeded to the outdoor cafes.  One of the leaders of the crowd, José Bove, claimed that the dismantling was in response to two issues (Bove 2001, 3-18).  First, the action was a protest against American tariffs levied against French cheese because of the European Union’s refusal to allow entry to American beef with growth hormones.  The tariffs had essentially priced Roquefort cheese out of the American market, adversely affecting French farmers.  Second, the protest was directed at the globalization of "malbouffe", or bad food, as represented by the menu at McDonald’s. 

As a result of the protest, Bove was convicted of vandalism and gained international notoriety.  He was invited to speak at the protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November 1999.  He gave his speech at a downtown McDonald’s and then punctuated his visit by eating a Roquefort cheese sandwich in front of it.  During the course of the rioting that marred the Seattle protests, that restaurant was vandalized.  When he was later asked to reflect on his protest in Millau and the property damage in Seattle, Bove said that one must differentiate between different kinds of violence.  He distinguishes between indiscriminate violence, which he criticizes, and an act of property destruction that "has a direct relationship to the problem."  (Jeffress, 2001)  As an example of the latter, he mentions the case of French wine growers that destroyed a shipment of imported wine that they believed was eroding their market share.  Bove claims that the destruction of the wine is appropriate as a form of civil disobedience, and points out that violence is sometimes needed for social change, citing the Boston Tea Party and the storming of the Bastille, as examples.

Almost two years after Seattle, tens of thousands of anti-globalization activists gathered together in Genoa, Italy in response to the meeting of the G-8 nations.  At that meeting, small groups of protestors clashed with police and Carlo Giuliani, a 23- year old anarchist, was shot twice in the head at close range by police.  Officials quickly cracked down on the protest leaders in order to quell any further violence.  An investigation later revealed that the local police planted explosives in the headquarters of the protestors and lied about being attacked in order to justify the mass arrests.  (FAIR 2003)

Bove’s responses and the events in Genoa raise important questions about the role of violence in modern civil disobedience: Are certain forms of violence legitimate as social protest today?  If so, what kinds and what are their limits?  Is violent civil disobedience strategically prudent for social movements today, given the kind of repression that they may unleash?  This paper attempts to offer answers by drawing on Cesar Chavez’s conception of nonviolent civil disobedience.  I begin by examining several arguments that justify property destruction as a form of social protest against corporate economic globalization.  These arguments stress that the question over the use of violence in social protest is not a moral one, but a strategic one, that is, about the most efficient means to achieve political goals.  I then rely on Chavez’s idea of nonviolence to demonstrate why these arguments about the strategic use of violence in social protest fundamentally misunderstand the dynamics of power and violence.  Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Chavez adheres to absolute nonviolence.  Yet, for years, Chavez was a hardnosed community organizer before he founded the United Farm Workers union (Griswold Del Castillo and Garcia, 22-40).  Those experiences taught him that nonviolent civil disobedience is the best form of social protest, not only from a moral point of view, but strategy-wise as well, and that the costs of violent protest clearly outweigh the benefits for any movement dedicated to social justice.

Strategic Arguments for Violent Civil Disobedience

Shortly after the WTO protests, Rachel Neumann criticized those nonviolent activists who disparaged the property damage in Seattle as merely an expression of "adolescent rage."  Rage, she writes, is not an inappropriate emotional reaction toward institutional injustice.  Part of the harm inflicted by institutional injustice, such as colonization, and in Neumann’s view corporate globalization, is that it "refuses people their own emotions and natural reactions" by substituting foreign or artificial values and ideas that disrupt ways of life and belittle people’s feelings of loss and injury.  (Neumann, 89)  Thus, to "condemn the rage by judging those who express it, without acknowledging the larger context of systematic state violence is to strengthen the opposition."  (Neumann, 90)  Instead of concentrating on the moral appropriateness of rage, she maintains, we ought to concern ourselves with developing political strategies for channeling it in progressive ways.  Property destruction, in Neumann’s view, need not be ruled out as a way to do this.  Indeed, the emotional energy behind such anger can be used to develop more creative forms of civil disobedience beyond the usual rallies, sit-ins, and orchestrated mass arrests that have come to be the hallmarks of most instances of nonviolent protests today.

Proponents of absolute nonviolence usually dismiss property destruction, according to Neumann, because they rely on very broad and abstract definitions of violence and nonviolence.  First, absolutists fail to make a distinction between violence toward property and violence toward human beings and, then, assume that the former almost always leads to the latter.  However, there are historical examples that show this escalation does not always occur:  "The Luddites smashed machinery, the Wobblies closed mills and mines, the English suffragists broke windows, and Earth First activists tinkered with engines and tires of logging trucks—all without injuring other human beings."  (Neumann, 90)  Second, proponents of nonviolence also fail to distinguish between different kinds of property.  Here, Neumann cites from a communiqué of the ACME collective, one of the anarchist groups in Seattle, that makes a distinction between personal property,  "the things we own that have worth because they are dear to us (books, photos, the homes we have worked on)" and private/corporate property "that exists solely at the expense of others and with the purpose of generating more capital."  (Neumann, 91)  ACME believes that property destruction is not violence unless it kills or injures human beings in the process.  They direct violence toward private/corporate property in order to "destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights" and to "exorcise the set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us."  (ACME Collective)  Thus, from the standpoint of Neumann and the anarchists, those who disparage property destruction as a form of civil disobedience fetishize property rights.  Absolutists fail to appreciate how the production of private property in our world systematically violates human rights.  Once we can recognize that violence toward things is not the same as violence toward people, and that not all property rights deserve respect, especially if it is property that is created and sustained through the exploitation of human beings, then property destruction can be classified a form of civil disobedience rather than as a crime.

Such reflections, according to Neumann, move the issue of violent civil disobedience from morality into the realm of political strategy.  Strategic issues deal with the question of command and control: When is it appropriate to engage in nonviolent protest and when is violence called for? Howard Zinn provides a set of criteria for the strategic use of violence.  (Zinn, 109)  First, violent civil disobedience preferably ought to be directed at property rather than at human beings.  Second, violent civil disobedience must be limited and not indiscriminate.  Violence should be used "surgically" to remove injustice.  Finally, violence must be aimed directly at the source of injustice--those officials or institutions perpetuating harm.  Under these conditions, rampaging mobs randomly attacking people or property are not engaged in civil disobedience since they are not concerned with the "deliberate [and] organized use of power", that is, with ensuring that the violence they set free is controlled, directed at those people or places responsible for injustice, and in a manner that will inhibit the officials or institutions from harming to the public.  (Zinn, 108)  

Zinn offers these criteria as both moral and pragmatic regulative ideals.  He recognizes that violence is an evil that should be used only as a last resort in order to defeat a greater evil.  Moreover, indiscriminate violence on the part of protestors can turn the public against a cause.  These considerations, however, are not enough to make the case for principled nonviolence.  Like Neumann, Zinn finds absolutists politically foolish.  It is morally appropriate to work to reduce violence in the world, in his view, but this does not entail that certain political circumstances will never arise that make it necessary to consider violence as a method of achieving some important social end.  The proponent of absolute nonviolence refuses to acknowledge that there are values other than peace, such as justice, for instance, and that "it is possible to conceive of situations where a disturbance of the peace is justifiable if it results in some massive improvement of the human condition for large numbers of people."  (Zinn, 106)  His argument does not entail that violence is always the most appropriate response to injustice.  Like Neumann, Zinn thinks that the use of violence ought to be guided by circumstances, not moral principle.

An absolutist might respond that there are very good strategic reasons for not engaging in violent forms of civil disobedience, namely, the possibility of massive state repression.  Violent protest should be avoided because it invites retaliation and occasions official corruption.  For Zinn, history does not establish that violence only begets violence.  Shay’s Rebellion, for example, deeply impacted the deliberations at the Constitutional Convention, violent union struggles in the 1930s brought about significant labor reform, and the urban uprisings of the 1960s drew to the conditions of the ghettos.  He observes:  "Independence, emancipation, labor unions—these basic elements in the development of American democracy all involved violent actions by aggrieved persons."  (Zinn, 111)  Thus, again, the question about the use of violence must be weighed and evaluated carefully by experience and circumstance.  Zinn concludes:  "I insist only that the question is so open, so complex, that it would be foolish to rule out at the start, for all times and conditions, all of the vast range of possible tactics beyond strict nonviolence."  (Zinn, 111)

Chavez and the Pragmatics of Social Protest

Chavez, like other absolutists, would insist that the question about the use of violence in civil disobedience is not merely about strategy.  Moral principles are always at the center of social struggles against injustice and it is misleading to think that one can completely abstract them away.  Neumann, the ACME collective, and José Bove, hope that by making distinctions between different types of violence and property the moral arguments against material destruction will appear illegitimate.  The absolutist will turn out to be backing the forces of injustice by valuing all property rights more so than human life and well-being.  Yet, this argument is disingenuous; it too relies on a moral principle, namely, that one ought to value human life and well-being over things.

Chavez thinks that it is important for social justice movements to acknowledge such moral principles at their core.  Otherwise, strategic thinking can foster habits that negatively transform the character of a movement.  Chavez dedicated most of his adult life to the struggle against the dehumanization of farm workers by California agribusiness.  He knew the history of farm worker struggles over the past century and understood all too well that growers were willing to rely on violence to maintain their power and keep farm workers in subordinate positions.  The UFW was created to stop the misery of farm work and alleviate the worker’s poverty by forcing agribusiness to respect their dignity as human beings.  At the center of the UFW struggle, therefore, is a conception of human beings as autonomous and rational agents, capable of planning and making their own life choices.  The growers commit injustice by maintaining a system that treats workers as "agricultural implements or rented slaves" instead of rational agents.  (Chavez 1969, 35)  A violent response on the part of the workers would undermine the UFW struggle by weakening their commitment to this ethical ideal of humanity: 

If I were to tell the workers:  "All right, we’re going to be violent; we’re going to burn the sheds and we’re going to dynamite the grower’s homes and we’re going to burn the vineyards," provided we could get away with it, the growers would sign a contract.  But you see that that victory came at the expense of violence; it came at the expense of injuring.  I think once that happens it have tremendous impact on us.  We would lose our perspective and we would lose the regard we have for human beings—and then the struggle would become a mechanical thing."  (Chavez 1970) 


In this passage, Chavez worries that allowing any violence as an option leaves open the possibility that people could be injured or killed.  This option permits a kind of utilitarian calculus to pervade the movement; one that weighs the cost of violence against the possible benefits for the movement.  Such strategic thinking considers individual human beings as disposable pieces in the struggle toward a noble end. 

Chavez is concerned about this kind of mentality seeping into the farm worker struggle precisely because it is the mindset with which the growers conceived of the farm workers.  To agribusiness, farm workers were fungible resources that had to be accounted for in calculating profit, not as individual human beings who deserved proper treatment and respect.  Chavez constantly reminded both his supporters and detractors:  "if to build our union require[s] the deliberate taking of life…then I choose not to see this union built," because it was the attitude that separated the UFW from agribusiness.  Without this foundation, the UFW would simply become another business union, "mechanically" concerned with its own power, stability, and prestige, and not a movement dedicated to upholding the dignity of farm workers.  Therefore, in Chavez’s mind, acknowledging moral principles as limits to political strategy prevents instrumental thinking from compromising a social movement and corrupting its commitments into power politics.

Neumann and Zinn could concede that ethical evaluation might be called for when considering violence toward people, but still hold that ethical restrictions are inappropriate when dealing with the issue of property damage.  Objects do not deserve moral treatment.  The real issue is how best to target property and damage it in such a way to halt injustice.  Chavez would respond that the idea of criteria for the use of property destruction is misleading because it fails to understand the dynamics of state power and violence.  Violence is not a force that can be neatly controlled.  Even if a group can limit their own violence and surgically apply it, they cannot control the wake of violent retaliation and repression that may follow.  A group might control their own actions, but they cannot control the situation, which includes the reactions of other agents, that their actions engender.

Chavez believed that the use of violent protest by the farm workers in their struggle for collective bargaining contracts would only bring a backlash from the growers.  Property destruction, in Chavez’s view, would only perpetuate a cycle of violence that had been underway for decades rather than shift the balance of power in favor of the workers:  "The important thing is that for poor people to be able to get a clean victory is something you don’t often see.  If we get it through violence, then the employers will just wait long enough until they can get even with you—and then the workers will respond, and then…"  (Chavez 1970)  Indeed, even when the UFW was finally able to sign its first collective bargaining contracts in 1970, many growers quickly moved to thwart the farm workers by signing with the Teamsters instead (Dalton, 16).  This led to competition between the UFW and the Teamsters that frequently erupted into bloody confrontations between members of the two unions.  While the two groups clashed in the fields, the growers were able to forestall making any real improvements for the farm workers.  Chavez knew that any deliberate use of property destruction by the UFW bring about an even more cruel backlash upon the farm workers than the one they were already experiencing with principled nonviolence.

Zinn acknowledges that violent protest may lead to backlash and repression.  But, as he and José Bove suggest, history also shows that violence can sometimes shift the balance of power away from dominant groups.  Nonviolence in the farm worker’s struggle might very well be the appropriate tactic, given the willingness of the growers to react brutally.  However, that judgment would be based on the conditions of that particular situation.  Zinn would caution that we should not generalize from the farm worker experience and decide that violence is never appropriate, under any circumstances, because of the possibility of backlash. 

Chavez thinks that, even from a strategic point of view, the likelihood of repression should make the call for use of violence by subordinate groups dubious.  This is because, if and when the powerful do backlash, it is usually the poorest and most vulnerable members of the subordinate group that suffer.  Chavez remarks: 

Examine history.  Who gets killed in the case of violent revolution?  The poor, the workers.  The people of the land are the ones who give their bodies and don’t really gain that much for it…Those who espouse violence exploit people.  To call men to arms with many promises, to ask them to give up their lives for a cause and then not produce for them afterwards, is the most vicious type of oppression.  (Chavez 1978, 97)


Chavez cites the example of revolutions in Mexico and the rest of Latin America where the poorest members of society were the ones to suffer tremendous loss with little improvement in the institutions that directly affect their lives (Chavez 1970).  Thus, for Chavez, the idea that such vulnerable groups are most likely the ones to endure the brunt of state retaliation should make activists who espouse violence question its effectiveness as means of social justice.  If by social justice, we mean a condition of respect, fairness, and equity for all members of society, especially the most disadvantaged, then a situation that provokes or encourages powerful groups to further harm, marginalize, or confine the disadvantaged is clearly not desirable as a tactic, and in fact, contributes to their oppression.  We, therefore, ought to question the commitment to social justice of those groups that are cavalier about others caught in the web of repression, such as ACME, which brags about being able to escape the police while other demonstrators were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and shot with rubber bullets (ACME Collective 1999).

            Nonetheless, Chavez is willing to concede to Zinn that violence can sometimes alter society.  Subordinate groups may be able to shift the balance of power in society using violence.  However, such a change is not the same as creating more fair, democratic, or equitable conditions that will alleviate the suffering of the subordinate group.  Indeed, Chavez maintains that victory won through violence validates the use of force and creates a precedent for its use in any new social arrangement that can hinder the development of stable democratic politics: 

If we were to become violent and we won the strike, as an example, then what would prevent us from turning violence against the opponents in the movement who wanted to displace us?  Say they felt they had more leadership and they wanted to be leaders.  What would prevent us from turning violence against them?  Nothing.  Because we had already experienced that violence awarded us victory" (Chavez 1970).


Violence, then, is not a substitute for the development of persuasive and reasonable leadership, or for the hard work of organizing people into self-managing groups that can protect their own interests in coalition with other communities.  Violence can change the people in power, but it is not conducive to the formation of the kinds of social habits, political skills, and expectations that create a democratic civic space.  In Chavez’s estimation, only nonviolent organizing can rouse the disadvantaged and provide them the opportunity to become agents empowered to control the processes that directly affect their own lives:

The burdens of generations of poverty and powerlessness lie heavy in the fields of America.  If we fail, there are those who will see violence as the shortcut to change.  It is precisely to overcome these frustrations that we have involved masses of people in their own struggle throughout the movement.  Freedom is best experienced through participation and self-determination, and free men and women instinctively prefer democratic change to any other means.  Thus, demonstrations and marches, strikes and boycotts are not only weapons against the growers, but our way of avoiding the senseless violence that brings no honor to any class or community.  (Chavez 1978, 97) 



In this paper, using Chavez’s conceptions of nonviolence and organizing, I contend that arguments in favor of property destruction as a form of social protest fail to understand the dynamics of violence as a political tactic and how that failure mitigates the utility of violence as a strategy for achieving social justice.  Violent civil disobedience, from Chavez’s standpoint, threatens to compromise the politics of a social justice movement and to unleash repression from dominant groups that disproportionately affect the most poor and marginalized members of society.  And while violence may occasionally alter power relationships in society, there is no guarantee that the new arrangement will benefit subordinate groups.  Indeed, there is reason to think that social change brought about by violent means will have a harder time establishing a stable system of democratic will-formation.  Chavez’s experience reminds us that the struggle for social justice is about empowering and training the disadvantaged to be able to take control of their own lives and to have influence in the institutions that directly affect them.  Violent protest, no matter how effective as a tactic in upsetting the balance of power in society, is not a substitute for this kind of training in democratic action.  The extent to which violent civil disobedience attracts state repression is the extent to which it contributes to further oppression of the most disadvantaged members of our community.   


Works Cited

ACME Collective.  1999.  "ACME Collective Communiqué." (July 14, 2003).


Bové, José and Francois Dufour.  2001.  The World is Not for Sale:  Farmers Against Junk Food.  Translated by Anna de Casparis.  London:  Verso.


Chavez, César.  1970.  "César Chavez:  Apostle of Nonviolence."  Observer (December 20, 2000).


_____.  1969.  "Good Friday Letter."   In The Words of César Chavez, ed. Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback.  34-36.  College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2002.


_____.  1978."  Martin Luther King, Jr.:  He Showed Us the Way, April 1978."

In The Words of César Chavez, ed. Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback, 96-97.  College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2002.


Dalton, Frederick John.  2003.  The Moral Vision of César Chavez.  Maryknoll, NY.  Orbis Books.


Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.  "Media Missing New Evidence about Genoa Violence." (August 19, 2003).


Griswold Del Castillo, Richard and Richard Garcia.  César Chavez:  A Triumph of Spirit.  Norman:  Oklahoma University Press, 1995.


Jeffress, Lynn.  "A World Struggle is Underway:  An Interview with José Bové."  Z Magazine.  June 2001. (June 28, 2003).


Neumann, Rachel.  "A Place for Rage."  Dissent.  Vol. 47, No. 2, (Spring 2000).  89-92.


Zinn, Howard.  1968.  "A Fallacy on Law and Order:  That Civil Disobedience Must be Absolutely Nonviolent."  In Civil Disobedience and Violence.  Edited by Jeffrie G. Murphy.  103-111.  Belmont, Calif.:  Wadsworth, 1971.