Patricia Nell Warren

How Can Non-Violent Activism Win?

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 10, 2008 2:04 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: civil disobedience, Gandhi, non-violent activism, peace movement

The thread on my "Chicago 10" item went to non-violent activism and how effective it might be today. We need to be clear on what makes non-violence such a devastating and successful strategy. I mean...how can non-violence win when a government can respond with such extreme violence? I think that many Americans today are not clear on what the key dynamic is, that makes non-violence work. Especially younger Americans who weren't around in the 1950-1970 era of civil-rights change. It has been a long time since we've seen a victory for nonviolence in the U.S. So let's look at history.

The idea was launched in 1846 by Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail as a tax protester. He began advancing the idea that citizens ought to improve government by refusing to obey unjust and stupid laws. His landmark 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience" was literally read around the world. After an era of gory revolutions and civil wars across Europe, during which both sides got carried away in senseless violence, Thoreau's idea offered a visionary option for peaceful routes to change.

The 20th century saw this strategy evolve. A big victory came in India, where Gandhi used non-violent protest to persuade British colonial authorities to grant India her independence. The tactic was adopted by some South Africans in their fight against apartheid. In the U.S. it was used successfully by Martin Luther King and American blacks in their fight against segregation, and by the 1960s peace movement. To name a few.

But many Americans today seem to forget what makes non-violence work. It doesn't work because a handful of activists let the cops drag their limp bodies off to jail. It doesn't work because the TV news media record these arrests.

A protest movement has to have a good chance of winning. The only way you can win, if you're pitting your unarmed nonviolence against the threat of armed government violence, is by having NUMBERS on your side. Ultimately, if a peaceful movement is to succeed, it has to become a tidal wave of marchers. This way, authorities have the lightbulb moment and realize that it's not a good idea to send out the troops. So they are finally motivated to make the needed changes. The threat lies in the veiled warning by the marching millions. "We're peaceful now, but if you continue to ignore us, violence may break out... and there may be civil war."

India is the classic example. Indian leader Gandhi realized that India's vast population was his biggest weapon. He finally got millions of Indians marching, and briefly got Hindus and Muslims working together. The British were smart enough to know that their occupation forces couldn't win a protracted shooting war against millions of Indians, so they withdrew from India. Gandhi won with NUMBERS. So did the U.S. black civil rights movement, after it became clear to U.S. authorities that millions of blacks would soon be organizing and protesting. So did the 1960s peace movement, when the U.S. government finally saw that the peace movement was no longer a few draft-dodgers and Yippies.

I don't think this core dynamic has changed today. But today we have an unfortunate situation here in the U.S. So far, none of the causes being peacefully protested -- whether the abuses of globalization, or the Iraqi war, or the fate of our forests, or gay rights, or even all of them banded together -- have pulled enough millions of civil disobedients to scare our government (and the corporations that control it) towards peaceful change. These movements don't have the NUMBERS yet.

It's true that civil disobedience has created a few explosive moments. Most of these happened during DNC and RNC conventions and World Trade meetings, when thousands of demonstrators representing dozens of causes converged on those cities. I was at the 2000 DNC convention in L.A. on a media pass, so I witnessed the police brutality against peaceful protest there. But these moments were not big enough yet for the government to take them seriously! Washington D.C. continues to dismiss legitimate protest as a "handful of professional anarchists," and legislators has passed new laws that enable the justice system to characterize even peaceful protest as "violent" and "conspiratorial." Most people in authority have felt comfortable sending out the troops, and seeing to it that even the mom and pop marchers get sent away on long felony convictions.

Change will only happen when the government and its supporting corporations see that they're facing the overwhelming millions of citizens who demand change. We will have to repeat what Gandhi did in India. Hopefully our government will be as smart as the British were, and realize that they can't fight millions of us, or put millions of us in jail. We have the option of demanding change at the ballot box -- but the government is ready with their electronic voting scheme so they can do better at stealing elections, the way they did in Florida in 2006. We've had the option of demanding change in court, but the government is doing a good job of subverting the courts.

If our votes fail to send the message of change in November , we will have to send it other ways. Peacefully, of course. But the numbers must be there if we want to win.


Copyright (c) 2008 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.


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As always, Patricia, you bring up not only issues, but strategies to help solve the challenges facing our community.

I am one of those "younger generation" you speak of that haven't really seen non-violent protest in action. Your post certainly inspires and educates me about something I hope we see more of in our community! Thank you!

As one of those who came through ACT UP, I've seen the power of a well-timed civil disobedience protest. One of the biggest problems I had with most folks was understanding that civil disobedience isn't necessarily violent. You can protest peacefully!

And sadly, protesting is done far less often in our community than it should be.

I think this might have to do with a revolution of apathy and materialism that started in the 70's and reached a pinnacle in the 90's, as well as corporate take-over of the means of communication. If the media won't even cover a protest at all anymore (as they ignore many peace protests), how can they gain traction?

But I think/hope people are beginning to wise up again.

Thanks, Patricia, for yet another posting that evokes deep thought.

I am not entirely sure, however, that you are correct in saying that raw numbers are the *only* or even always the *main* ingredient that causes nonviolent protest to succeed. From time to time, a small protest will nonetheless illustrate and underscore the immorality and inhumane-ness of the government position --- so embarrassingly that the protest does indeed result in a corrective government response in some way.

Not a protest, but the most recent example of this type of humiliating moral embarrassment is Abu Graib. Unanimously around the globe, the US government activity was seen to be so reprehensible that the USA lost its position as the supreme champion of human rights in the international community. (Yes, Abu Graib itself was dismantled, but Gitmo and other aspects of torture are still in the news and are still being argued --- so no doubt the victory here was partial at best.)

In the 1960's civil rights movement, the policemen using firehoses and attack dogs on non-violent protesters (which city was that? Montgomery? Jackson? I'll have to look it up ...) had the same effect --- the gratuitous police brutality was so clearly inappropriate that it changed thousands of hearts across America to sympathize with the protesters.

And although it is correct to characterize the leadership of MLK as being nonviolent, it bears mention that the civil rights movement as a whole was not entirely so: Several major cities had extensive "race riots", the largest being the Watts Riot of September 1965, where the planned nonviolence of the event quickly fell apart. The second major "gay" riot of the 20th Century, the White Night Riot at San Francisco City Hall in May 1979, started out as a peaceful protest march that later in the evening turned violent in a similar manner. The interplay dynamics of nonviolence vs. threat-of-violence is a delicate dance indeed, and more complex than either you or I can discuss adequately in brief postings such as here.

As a historical footnote --- and the younger GLBT generation should not be allowed to forget this point --- it also bears mention that the intellectual "bridge" between Gandhi and MLK was the premier gay-identified character of the era, Bayard Rustin, who had worked briefly in India for its national independence (not directly with Gandhi, but clearly under Gandhi's philosophical influence). Rustin's writings tell of how MLK was drawn to nonviolence on his own, but Rustin tutored him in some of the subtler points necessary to observe when it is used as a political strategy.

The history of non-violence is now rich enough that it deserves a definitive chronicle --- Patricia, I doubt that my writing talents are up to the task, but I am sure that yours would be! You wouldn't mind winning a Pulitzer, would you?