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Seoul Tragedy at Zone 4
[Opinion] Nonviolence, madness and the Yongsan Inferno
Layne Hartsell (prose)     Print Article 
Published 2009-02-05 12:12 (KST)   

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The current case is indeed a tragedy in every way, for the people and for the state.

In this article, I want to provide a perspective on nonviolence, or peaceful means, both as strategy and as principle - perhaps what could have been. It is a response to a friend who sent me an email asking my opinion on nonviolence in the light of the tragic event in Yongsan.

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It is true that people must strictly follow the law at all times, yet when homes and livelihoods are threatened, or there are dire circumstances such as protecting innocents, a severe moral dilemma arises. Community (individuals) must take action and do something; so must the police. Without support, people who are the "losers" in the system will be tempted to resort to violence.

The essence of nonviolence is truth, justice and peaceful living which can be called preventive medicine. If conflict arises, as it may occasionally, then it is cured by using the prescription of just means.

To create social harmony when basic human needs are bound up in the market economy, human rights will require a restraint on capitalism, either by the system of enterprise or by democratic government. Restraint must start long before there is a crisis, when peaceful means, such as organizing, mediation and the right use of the legal structure, are more easily applied. To plan or to profit from social disharmony or injustice is depravity. And, for people in society-at-large to deliberately ignore obvious social injustices, early on, makes those who ignore injustice, complicit with the crimes, overall. Indulgence in society, in the midst of injustice is to join the mainstream of depravity.

Remarkably, when a crisis arises, society thus tantalized by the spectacle will join in and divide themselves over whether the police are responsible or whether the resistors are responsible - forgetting to ask whether we ourselves profit from, and contribute to, the system which creates the social injustices which we are clearly aware of, or should be. Democracy is fine as a spectator sport and all the better on television.

At the same time, there are some people in society who understand that justice is active rather than passive, and work to maintain justice, even at personal risk. Why not aspire to be in that group?

Without action and some personal risk, justice is sterile. Justice is not something that can be frivolously discussed over a cappuccino at a multinational chain which exploits peasant coffee farmers. Platitudes are often spoken in the midst of consumer frenzy as if justice had all of the weight and substance of the artificial froth of our cafe, while we bray into our fancy cell phones about how much we are speculating in the global casino.

Zone 4, Yongsan, Seoul

Society must see to it that the landlord system does not destroy the livelihood and homes of people, anywhere. A livelihood and a home is a human right. If these rights are not protected by society, people will fight in one way or another. If the police, acting as the state, and on behalf of society, cannot protect the basic needs of the populace, people will rise up. Meeting the violence of people fighting for their lives with the superior violence of the state will show the insanity of state violence. There are diminishing returns on such an investment.

In the current case, I happened to see the live news as the situation unfolded. I watched in horror as the resistors rained Molotov cocktails down on to the police below. Then, I watched as the police attacked, in force, and as the building finally went up in flames. The resistors believed that they were acting in self defense and the police were doing the same; all escalating from a show of teeth and claws to the finality of death.

How could it have been different since the tenants found themselves in an impossible and isolated situation?

The tenant resistors had quite a bit of money and some support through an organized group. More importantly, they had the moral high ground. I believe that they could have sacrificed some time and energy by staging a campaign complete with press conferences, the participation of families, old and young, and rightful negotiation with authorities. If society and the authorities did not respond to the injustice, then the tenants would have had to resort to further self-sacrifice, or call off their protest.

One option would have been a revolving fast at the site, where each tenant does a one day fast, ongoing for the entire group. Another option would have been for each tenant to go to the site, each day, and trespass to seek arrest. This is what is meant by the concept of direct action. As the numbers of trespassers grew, moral tension would be created in society. Such peaceful means could have been conducted with a sense of creative talent for real theatre, social theatre, where real risks are taken. It is a worthwhile thought experiment to see that within the bounds of nonviolence that the flourishing of human creativity for meeting different situations is nearly boundless. Bringing that creativity into the social arena, with the proper restraint, would work wonders for society.

The individuals involved in direct actions must always have an eye for moral tension, thus they must act morally in order to plead with society to hear their case. In the current case, it is possible that if the tenants had applied the above ideas, the situation would not have escalated to the lose-lose situation.

However, if the above options proved fruitless, and they may have proven fruitless, then the individuals and group would have had to muster the courage to further self-sacrifice. Someone in the group could have begun a fast, potentially to the death, as a plea to society (not the police or state) to respond adequately. The person fasting would stop his or her fast only if certain non-selfish conditions were met: such as pressure to revise the tenant laws; a wider social net to help people out; community petitions and demands for laws on the gentrification of neighborhoods etc. If there were an appropriate response from society, the tenant who is fasting would stop his or her fast immediately and work with the coalition which built up around the fast.

However, if society (individuals) is numb from their fleeting pleasures of consumerism and exploitation, then the person fasting will have to sacrifice his or her life in the end, preferring to not continue to live if people and society are degraded to such a point where they have little human concern for those being run over by the system. Self sacrifice is the personal willingness to sacrifice oneself, mildly or extremely, for a cause, idea or principle. Nonviolence runs counter to the fact that many people are all-too-willing to sacrifice others' well-being rather than their own indulgences. This is the definition of violence. Violence and nonviolence are choices.

While direct action may be necessary for social progress, direct action as self-sacrifice would be rarely used, perhaps less than 1 percent of the time. The other 99 percent of the time, people would be engaged in the process of real community development.

On the matter of police violence: In a consumerist, exploitative, system, the definition of police and state are criminal as they stand, no matter how democratic. In the current case, the absurd use of police force, rather than tempering the situation must go down in Korean History as a severe blemish. The Korean people deserve better.

Societies of the world which find exuberance in the current form of greed based capitalism and who are willing to overlook the obvious injustices, have large currents, or mainstreams of degeneracy. "There are going to be losers in the system, but why care? It's their fault. They are not 'competitive.' If they act up, then let them be crushed. It is not up to me. I am going to exercise my freedom to go to the store and to buy more gadgets and slick clothes and sip my cappuccino. I deserve it." The depravity runs quite deeply.

In recognition of the lives lost and the injustice of suffering imposed upon the families of the victims, both tenants' and police, it is hopeful that the victims did not die in vain. We can hope that the preventive medicine of peacefulness will be applied early, in the future, rather than seeing preventable crises emerge in society and take further lives.

The Zone 4 tragedy should be instructive as to the direction society should move. Whether that happens or not is up to individuals who enjoy rights and freedoms and the ability to act; all of what their forebears have won for them. That the Korean people are no strangers to self-sacrifice should give them hope that truth and justice will prevail.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Layne Hartsell

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