padre melo

What is “Nonviolence”? Reflections on the Honduras Election Protests

Photo (c) Mark Coplan. Youth and police, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. 

February 21, 2018 — By Thom Haines

From January 23 – January 30, I was part of an emergency delegation to Honduras in the wake of another highly controversial election in that country. Tens of thousands of Hondurans flood the streets and highways in protest of what is widely seen as a stolen election and an attack on their democracy. A heavily armed military and police presence is everywhere.

Our delegation of 50 faith leaders from around the US was present in solidarity with protesters who — like Honduran Jesuit priest Padre Melo –are under threat, and to bear witness.

Author’s Note: In my mind, and in the mind of most everyone we met and every grassroots NGO with whom I work, the 2017 election in Honduras was indeed stolen by right-wing oligarchs, with the approval of the United States — just as the 2009 coup in Honduras was conducted with the approval of the United States and involved many of the same parties. We heard zero doubt that the election would not have been stolen and the violence would not be occurring without the approval of the US government — which government is principally in support of the multinational corporations extracting minerals, agricultural products, and hydroelectric power at the lowest cost. It is a repressive relationship with a long and complicated history that precludes brief summary. The reader is of course encouraged to conduct to their own research.

Since November, dozens of protestors have been killed by the police. Protestors on the highways are often quite young, some as young as twelve or thirteen, with parents observing from a short distance away. They must worry about the risks their children take as they face a police presence armed to the teeth. They also clearly support their children’s actions and judge them worth the risk.

Militarized forces in Honduras — whatever the publicized intent — uphold an economic status quo that benefits the elite and represses anyone who dares challenge it. Dole trucks rolling past the highway protests were a potent symbol of where the riches of Honduras end up. (The drivers of the trucks, though, seemed universally supportive of the protestors.)

In the face of this violent presence, sometimes the protestors had sticks. Sometimes they would burn tires in the highway. I did not, and do not, object, just as I did not and do not object to the fires on the streets of the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis during the Jamar Clark protests, or to the sticks and stones wielded by Palestinians against the massive force of the Israeli army.

Claiming to be “nonviolent,” though, I observe my own pangs of discomfort at these token indicators of what would surely (and glibly) be characterized by Fox News as violent intent.

But what is nonviolence? What of the decades of activists claiming it in the US?

In Graham Green’s The Comedians — set in Haiti during the period of rebellion against the brutal dictator, Papa Doc (Francois Duvalier) — we read of a funeral of three ill-equipped rebels:

“The priest … preached a very short sermon on some words of St. Thomas the Apostle: ‘Let us go up to Jerusalem and die with him.’ He said, ‘The Church is in the world, it is part of the suffering in the world, and though Christ condemned the disciple who struck off the ear of the high priest’s servant, our hearts go out in sympathy to all who are moved to violence by the suffering of others. The Church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly. Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never. One is an imperfection of charity, the other the perfection of egoism. In the days of fear, doubt and confusion, the simplicity and loyalty of one apostle advocated a political solution. He was wrong, but I would rather be wrong with St Thomas than right with the cold and the craven. Let us go up to Jerusalem and die with him.’”

As US citizens, we all reside somewhere on the spectrum of oppressor and oppressed, but our experiences vary according to our privilege. So, I say the following only for myself and for those similarly situated: We live in a bubble of “peace” created and enforced by a violent empire, and we benefit from this negative peace economically and personally. This violence is evident on the streets of Minneapolis as well as the highways of Honduras.

Can those of us who live as economic beneficiaries of a violent system claim to be nonviolent merely because we are reluctant to pick up a weapon? What is our standing to critique the violence of others — however minor — who are motivated by suffering, if we ourselves are ignorant to the full extent of that suffering?

Young Hondurans see a very different Honduras than that seen by the US State Department and mass media. Yes, we are compromised by our position of privilege. That does not relieve us of our moral obligation to call for a radical change in US policy and to stand in solidarity with those who are exploited and repressed.

The mobilizations we witnessed in Honduras are components of an existential struggle for justice that connects directly to us here. A better world is possible, and it starts with each of us.


On January 29, I was one of the nine spokespeople at the US Embassy in Honduras on behalf of our delegation. We went to the embassy with Padre Melo to amplify the voices we heard in the community. Here is a summary of my message to Chargé d’Affaires Heide B. Fulton and members of her staff:

A couple of days ago our delegation spent hours standing by highways in and around El Progreso. I was amazed and appalled at what I saw. Dozens of young Hondurans, some possibly as young as 13, were willing to risk their lives to protest the recent election of Juan Orlando Hernandez. They faced police and army units armed to the teeth. There were chants of “Fuera JOH!” (“Juan Orlando Hernandez, OUT”) and a passing parade of supportive vehicles including Dole trucks.

I was inspired, on the one hand, and appalled, on the other, by how encouraged the young people were to see us. When our delegation arrived, the youth at first were afraid, thinking we were reinforcements for the armed forces. They were happy and relieved to see it was us. They looked to us for protection. They felt safer because we were there. It is extremely unfortunate that police and military supported by US aid that should be protecting them are, instead, potent symbols of repression.


Thom Haines is an Assistant Carver County Attorney in Minnesota and a member of the Mayflower United Church of Christ Global Justice Advocacy Team in Minneapolis. Thom is a regular contributor at Newspeak Review.