A Call to Militant Empathy

You are Not My Enemy. Violence is My Enemy.

A Call to Militant Empathy

by Peijman Kouretchian


Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 9.36.47 PM(Photo by Mica Stumpf)


The streets look like war. Two NYPD police officers were just “assassinated” apparently as revenge for the Eric Garner chokehold death. This is the first major physical attack on actual police officers after the Ferguson riots ignited the #blacklivesmatter movement. Though this was just the act of one troubled person and doesn’t represent the mostly physically nonviolent movement that has been going on, it is absolutely paramount to be clear on what principles we are aligned with as we fight for justice.

Recently I became certified as a Kingian Nonviolence (a system of conflict reconciliation built on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) trainer. The protests bring to mind two important principles from what I learned:  “Avoid internal violence of the spirit, as well as external physical violence,” and “Attack systems of injustice, not individuals within those systems.”

When protests break out there is often an abundance of rage. Where is this anger usually directed? At people. Often towards the police, or individual officers. This results in dehumanization, seeing others as less than human. When we dehumanize others, violence is justified against them, and the system which created them remains unchanged. The way out of this cycle is two fold: 1) Attack and transform the systems that created these individuals.  2) Refuse to hate individuals and instead empathize.

Empathy is the art of connecting to the real experience of another person by looking at the world from their perspective. It is at the root of all social evolution, and according to Gloria Steinem, “the most revolutionary emotion.”. When we empathize and look at other’s actions from the point of view of human needs, it becomes easier to understand why someone acts the way they do, even if the strategies they are using to meet those needs are flawed, and possibly unacceptable.

There is a tremendous need to empathize with the black community and what they experience at the hands of police. The history of trauma needs space for people to grieve and time for situations to heal. I am thankful to see this movement inspiring empathy in that direction and hopeful that others are awakening to the concept of white privilege.

But, what about the police? Do they also deserve our empathy?

There is so much demonization of police going on right now, that we can forget that behind the uniform is a human being. Surely the unjust deaths of civilians at the hands of police are absolutely enraging, but if we want to awaken the police to be more humane and to create systemic change, will hating them advance our cause?

What’s it like for the police when they are beating on people, or killing innocents? What drew them to that kind of “work”? What kind of system of dehumanization did THEY have to go through before they were ready to brutalize others?

Recent studies have shown that in the moment of violence, aggressors lack empathy for their target. This lack of empathy can be temporary or permanent. One’s capacity for empathy is shown by the level of functioning of a special circuit in the brain, the empathy circuit. Dr. Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center, explains that the empathy circuit can be underdeveloped or damaged by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component.

On December 9, 2014 I attended a protest in Oakland. When the riot gear came out with full weaponry in hand and emotionless facial expressions on display, the atmosphere was tense. I saw it as the perfect place to challenge myself to practice empathy. Here they are, ready to beat me at the command of their superior, and if I can open myself to empathize, maybe I can shift the energy. I raised my voice as loud as I could without screaming and started addressing all of the police at once:

“You are not my enemy. Violence is my enemy. I have faith in you. I know there is a human behind that uniform. I won’t give up on you. I know you are not all bad. I know on some level you probably don’t want to be here right now. I know it may pain you to get orders to hit or arrest us. I know there is good inside of you. I know there is another way. You are not my enemy. Violence is my enemy.”

 Inside of me emotion was swelling and tears came as I felt that the police were softening up. Some of them acknowledged me with head nods or by waving their hands. The ‘us vs. them’ vibe seemed broken at least for a moment. I noticed the lack of hate within me, and instead the genuine concern for their humanity behind the cold exterior they were displaying. My partner Mica Stumpf described the scene, “There was a real energy shift when you started empathizing with them. The police seemed to relax a bit and feel some relief, maybe because they finally had a good interaction with a protestor. The other protestors seemed to be a bit shocked and intrigued by what you were doing as well. At the very least you planted some seeds.”

Research shows that bias is often unconscious, so even police who may identify as non-racist, may be unconsciously associating people of color with crime. Criminologist Lorie Fridell has developed a training to counteract the bias through promoting empathy between police and the community “the more we interact with individuals who are different from ourselves, including those we stereotype, that’s going to reduce both our conscious as well as implicit biases.”

If we want the police to be more empathic, I believe we should model that ourselves. Dr. King taught that if we are motivated by hate and vengeance, those emotions will be reflected in the change we create.  Let’s wake the police up to what they are doing – and could be doing instead – without resorting to their tactics of dehumanization. Let’s be fierce in our refusal to dehumanize! Let’s bring forth this form of confrontational heart-centered conflict transformation: Militant Empathy.


If you’d like to learn more about what it really takes to engage in nonviolent conflict transformation and de-escalation, check out Peijman’s trainer page here at the Metta Center for Nonviolence. He is also co-founder of Empathy App and a transformational coach.