What nonviolence is, and is not

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The nonviolent People Power Revolution of 1986, Philippines

The events in Charlottesville have reignited a long-standing debate about the use of force to create social change. There is an immense amount of rage, and impatience. Violence is becoming more accepted as a legitimate way forward. I see it every day on my Facebook- that’s in fact why I wrote this post.

To begin with, I have no deep moral opposition to violence to achieve liberation. I acknowledge a diversity of tactics is useful and that people will disagree on the way forward. However, the advocates of armed resistance have been characterizing nonviolent resistance in an unfair, narrow manner that I’m sure would tick them off if it were applied to their ideas. So this post aims to call attention to the basics- what nonviolence is, what it is not, and to rescue the practice from the strawman heap and put it in its full complexity.

So here are six theses on nonviolence.

Nonviolence is not the same as pacifism. Pacifism is a very long and complex tradition, but in common parlance it has been equated with being peaceful above all else, and not resisting force. One can be a pacifist and practice nonviolent action, but many practitioners are not morally opposed to violence. Nonviolence can be a pragmatic choice, which it is for me.

Nonviolence is not passive. In October 2000, hundreds of thousands of people flooded Belgrade from all over Serbia, intent on overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic. Vastly outnumbered, security forces stepped aside and the people seized the federal parliament building. Paired with mass strikes and grassroots organizing, Milosevic stepped aside, doing what a brutal NATO bombing campaign had been unable to. The Bulldozer Revolution, named because activists brought heavy machinery to break up checkpoints and barricades, was nonviolent. Nobody would call the actions of the Serbian people passive. They took the initiative, dictated terms of surrender, and defeated a regime that had survived violent attacks from the world’s most advanced militaries. Most of them had no moral opposition to violence. They used nonviolence because it worked.

Nonviolence can be, and often is, radical. A misleading line has been drawn connecting nonviolence (a very large, complex idea) to current methods of achieving social change. Nonviolence equals the status quo, the status quo is no change, nonviolence doesn’t work, Q.E.D. But rallies and Change.org petitions are a very small subset of nonviolent action, and it disingenuous to narrow the definition that much.

Gene Sharp lists 198 methods of nonviolent action, in a flyer that is circulated at certain activist events. I first saw it in Occupy in 2011. Other lists exist, Sharp’s is unusually exhaustive. But we can see that symbolic actions like petitions are a small part of the overall range of activity. The strike is fundamentally a nonviolent action- while it may involve violence in some cases, it is about using economic rather than physical weapons to seize political and social power. The difference between a Charge.org petition and hartal, a type of total general strike used in South Asia, is vast.

As Mark Kurlansky points out in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Ideanonviolence is such a radical concept that there is no English word for it. We simply define it by what it is not rather than what it is. Mahatma Gandhi invented the term satyagraha in part because in order to advocate for nonviolence, one has to create a new mental framework.

Nonviolence is not just an appeal to an enemy’s conscience. This Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) quote has been circulating recently.

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You can here the excerpt of this speech in the Black Power Mixtape here (video).

The thing is, as intuitive as that sounds, appealing to the conscience of one’s opponents is a very small part of nonviolent action. Gene Sharp admits that this strategy usually does not work:

Nonviolent struggle produces change in four ways. The first mechanism is the least likely, though it has occurred. When members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters or are rationally persuaded that the resisters’ cause is just, they may come to accept the resisters’ aims. This mechanism is called conversion. Though cases of conversion in nonviolent action do sometimes happen, they are rare, and in most conflicts this does not occur at all or at least not on a significant scale. (From Dictatorship to Democracyp. 35) (emphasis mine)

Put simply, the fact that nonviolent action proponents admit this straight up indicates that nonviolence is not just about converting enemies. Because that doesn’t work.

Nonviolence is effective. In 2012, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan published a book, Why Civil Resistance Works, which is perhaps the most detailed study of both violent and nonviolent campaigns in the modern era. Their conclusions are clear:

For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results, even in Iran, Burma, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories . . .

Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that successful nonviolent resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. Presenting a rich, evidentiary argument, they originally and systematically compare violent and nonviolent outcomes in different historical periods and geographical contexts, debunking the myth that violence occurs because of structural and environmental factors and that it is necessary to achieve certain political goals. Instead, the authors discover, violent insurgency is rarely justifiable on strategic grounds.

If nonviolence didn’t work, it would have died out a long time ago. Its continued presence is a testament to its ability to win victories for people, who may face enemies with significantly more guns and money.

Nonviolence sets a tactically superior battlefield. Nonviolence often uses similar language and concepts to violent action. In this case, a significant (and often unacknowledged) disadvantage that comes with violence is that it chooses a field of battle in which the enemy has every advantage. So you want to arm up and take on neo-Nazis? Then the police? The National Guard? Marines? Not only are all of these groups armed to the teeth, they all want to use violence. It’s what they’re good at. Choosing violence plays into their hands. You know what all these groups aren’t good at? Dealing with mass resistance. Strikes, boycotts, noncooperation. If they use violence in this context, it just creates more resistance. We already know this in practice- violence against communities in the War on Terror has created more opposition to U.S policy, not less.

Going forward, each activist has to make fundamental decisions. Part of making an educated decision is to see each option in its full depth. Advocates of armed struggle are tired of being mischaracterized and stereotyped, but can turn around and do the same things to advocates of civil resistance. This accomplishes nothing. And as both sides can agree, something must be accomplished, now and forever.

 

 

Is the anti-abortion movement truly non-violent?

Last week, my campus was the site of the Genocide Awareness Project, a traveling display of graphic images about abortion. At two stories high, and long as a large bus, it was by far the most elaborate monument to anti-abortion thinking I had ever seen. It occupied prime space on Library Walk, the main artery of UC San Diego campus. Very few people knew it was coming, so the first day it was met by an ad-hoc group of women’s resource center people and activists.

The second day was much more organized, with close to a hundred people at its peak. The number ebbed and flowed over several hours as people left for class and returned. People chanted “My body! My choice!”; one student protested topless, feeling anti-abortion crusades are only one of several movements that want to dictate what women can do with their bodies.

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Pro-choice counter-protest, Library Walk, UC San Diego (1/20/2016)

There are a lot of things wrong with the Genocide Awareness Project, besides the usual shock-value pictures and culture of intimidation. Posters equated abortion to the Holocaust. Another had a picture of Eric Garner captioned “I Can’t Breathe” alongside an aborted fetus. As you can see in the above image, the trope of abortion being ‘black genocide’ was invoked. The entire display rests on problematic (and often offensive) connections being drawn to link abortion (which American society is split on) to the Holocaust, a self-evident mass injustice. In the end, I found last week troubling. In particular, there’s no evidence that the Genocide Awareness Project was invited by a student or student group. Looking through the online space reservation system, the space was allocated to the group behind the Project- the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.

Traditionally, Library Walk is divided between the central portion, for student groups or canvassers (for Southern Poverty Law Center or Save the Children usually), and the two ends, which are free speech zones for anyone. Non-student anti-abortion protestors last year were allowed to set up on one end of the Walk by the library, but this year had six slots worth of space front-and-center. This, along with a lack of due notice to students- who may have wanted to avoid that part of campus for personal reasons, or allowed time to organize the larger counter-protest, made the whole experience feel uncomfortable.

That said, I would like to dive into a related conversation that came about during the counter-protest. There were sign-making materials on site on Wednesday, so I took advantage and made this sign:

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I felt it necessary to go beyond talk of a right to choose and deal with the most disturbing part of the anti-abortion movement to me. Namely, how militant the rhetoric of groups have become, and how violence against patients, doctors, staff, and security in one form or another is common. Claims that abortion is an ongoing Holocaust, if believed sincerely, justify murder as righteous action. Right-wing hate crimes, including incidents like the 2008 shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, show how extreme speech can convince certain kinds of individuals that they have a God-given duty to kill.

At one point, I was told that my poster was unfair to tie these murders by to the movement as a whole. A majority of activists practice non-violent struggle.

To some degree, I agree with that critique. It is unfair to assign an entire movement moral complicity in murder (and more numerous lesser crimes, like assault and vandalism). However, I also think that claiming non-violent methods does not mean a lack of connection to any violent acts automatically. In the modern developed world, almost every civil society groups will espouse non-violence. That does not mean that they are equal  What follows is a few things that should be considered when evaluating the anti-abortion movement as nonviolent.

Activists claiming to be non-violent may condone violent acts done by others. Many individuals against abortion praise killings and assault of doctors and patients. After last year’s shooting that killed 3 and wounded 9 in Colorado, many took to social media in support of the crime. Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue and long-time leader of the movement, stated the following when Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed at his church in 2009:

“George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder.

“Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.” (source)

I don’t see this as a statement endorsing non-violence. Instead, I see it as using non-violence to deny responsibility, but still support violent action. This strategy devalues peaceful strategy by connecting it to the use of force.

The tactics of the movement are fundamentally violating. Since 1973, the anti-abortion movement has taken two paths. The first is political, including the passage of the Hyde Amendment and restrictions on abortion clinics. The second, which we all think of when picturing the conflict, are attempts to block, intimidate, and trick women from entering clinics.

I don’t see tactics of intimidation, which includes things like the Genocide Awareness Project, as truly non-violent. If we take the narrow definition of violence, which it is the absence of force, then the movement describes itself accurately. However, it’s limiting and inaccurate to exclude actions that are violating by their nature. Yelling at a woman that she’s a murderer and waving a gory picture in her face is not non-violent action. The rhetoric is aggressive enough that those who commit crimes to stop abortions don’t need to do much ideological shifting.

Traditional examples of nonviolence are different from the characteristics of those against abortion. A big issue are ties made between those that oppose abortion and the campaigns of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Both became known for non-violence, but their struggles were about the powerless against the tyrants. The relationship between activists and the system were inferior-superior. There is no great tyrant in the abortion debate- the principal population attacked are vulnerable women. Well-funded groups and conservative politicians are those with tyrannical power.

Ideologies and movements are never strictly violent or non-violent. They exist in a conversation between physical force and moral force. While the anti-abortion movement may adhere to non-violence at some surface level, it is built on a fundamentally violent premise.

The most dangerous idea in the world: nonviolent resistance

It’s not violence, insurrection. It’s not guns and bombs and prison camps and purges. The conventional wisdom is wrong and ahistorical. There is only one defensible means of social change at the general level. That is the use of nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.

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For info about nonviolent resistance- the popular seizure of political power through mass democratic action- check out Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (free PDF, just under 100  pages) and the superb new book by Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution. I read the latter over the weekend, it’s a quick, funnier, and less technical version of From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Black Lives Matter more than CVS laundry detergent

Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015
Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015

So I was honored to be interviewed at the San Diego march in solidarity with Baltimore and the fight against police violence (story with full video here). About 200 people came out to fill the streets and create urgency- black lives do matter, and justice for the living and the dead will come from ordinary people seizing the initiative and finding their own power.

My friend and colleague in Socialist Alternative, Bryan Kim, was also interviewed by Channel 8, and we complemented each other well. Local news incorporated a lot of voices in this event- black, brown, and white, both the organizers and regular marchers.

This one instance gave me the chance to collect my thoughts on Freddie Gray, the events in Baltimore, and the larger epidemic of police violence against unarmed people of color that has been steadily snowballing since last year. Unlike many others pouring their hearts and minds out on Twitter, Facebook, and to their friends and colleagues, I never created a long, detailed response.

Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.
Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.

The one thought I’d like to throw out comes from my own background and belief in nonviolent struggle as the way to enact social and political change. Baltimore has presented a complicated picture for people with this set of views, and the media and institutional politics has tried to put people into what I’d dub “the nonviolent trap.”

Essentially, the media performed a litmus test on everyone who claimed to be nonviolent- either denounce the looting and conflict wholesale, or be called a hypocrite. My tiny soundbite was part of the counter- if we are to talk about violence in these protests, we need to include the violence put on communities by the police and the state. The trial was about one form of violence while ignoring the other, or at the very least requiring a clear denunciation before anything else can be discussed.

Looting a CVS and killing someone like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown are not the same kind of force. They have been made equivalent by some public figures, and often shown side-by-side as equal in media reports. Capital and humans are fundamentally different. The destruction of property through riot action or looting can cause real harm- often in urban unrest the businesses who end up taking damage are owned by people of color. But a damaged storefront can be rebuilt. In the case of something like a CVS, there is no intangible value to what was held within. People are not replaceable. I find looting to be a concern, though it is a product of structural injustice rather than simple greed. But as a nonviolent struggle advocate, I think we need to see conflict as a chain of events, and avoid the quick-take of what happened today. Denouncing only the people of color who have faced economic and social deterioration is a de facto censoring of the oppressed, and in the process helps the elites who have done so much harm.

The best speech you may never have heard by Martin Luther King Jr., entitled “Beyond Vietnam” and given in 1967, has a bit I really like that I used as my basis when I was interviewed. It think it strikes at the root.

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (source)

Plan. Execute. Win. Activism and net neutrality

Net neutrality carried the day at the FCC. The years-long fight between certain sectors of business and a coalition in favor of an egalitarian internet is not over by any means, but a decision to treat the internet like a public utility is a clear win for activists.

FCC commissioners hold hands during a hearing on net neutrality today. February 26, 2015. Mark Wilson/Getty

As Waging Nonviolence writes, the grassroots campaign for net neutrality stands as an example of how to structure activism:

Today’s net neutrality rules would not exist without the tireless work of activists both in the streets and behind screens. Last year, I interviewed activists about how they planned to win on net neutrality, something that seemed impossible at the time. But they achieved today’s improbable victory by following those plans to the letter: having a clear and concise demand from day one, creating synergy between online and offline organizing, and framing net neutrality as a social justice issue.

Gene Sharp, which the New Statesman once dubbed “the Machiavelli of Non-Violence”, emphasizes one thing above all in his work: if you want to win, you need a strong, resilient plan (much of his works are available online for free here). In reality, most social justice movements are not fully planned out before they happen, but figuring out what the central demand is, what tactics will be used, and what the contingencies if there is a setback or repression is key. The move for net neutrality was impressive in its breadth and organization, and the structural basis for its success is what can be exported to other struggles.

As an activist states, this is just one step, and the fight to cement the victory continues with a new standoff:

“Our next goal is to undermine the telecom industry,” said Zeese. “We want to make them politically toxic so that anyone who does their bidding is seen as someone who is corrupted by a monopoly system.”

There’s always a next goal. Mobilization is power.

Occupy Hong Kong, Gene Sharp, and nonviolent revolution

If there is one modern thinker that I think needs larger exposure, it is nonviolent struggle academic Gene Sharp. Now a frail old man in his mid-80s, Sharp has spent the last sixty years compiling countless case studies and composed rock-solid theories on nonviolent means of enacting political change, and added a list of 198 methods to achieve them.

His thesis: even for those with no moral opposition to violence, unarmed struggle is more likely to succeed, and much more likely to produce a better society than the one it overthrew. This idea over the past few decades has gained widespread currency, as a feature in the not-at-all pacifist Foreign Policy this summer supports, entitled “Drop Your Weapons”. 

The Albert Einstein Institution, which is primarily Sharp and Jamila Raqib, operates out of Sharp’s home in Boston. Much of his work is available for free on the organization’s website, most notably There Are Realistic Alternatives, the short pep talk for would-be revolutionaries, and the practical guide to creating a better world, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Gandhi during the Salt March

I already wrote a piece last year extolling Sharp’s virtues; this is more of an update. Some may look at this scene and think Sharp and Raqib to be fringe academics, that nobody actually listens to. However, there is always the theme, across the world and over many years. Ask key organizers of movements, whether those in Serbia that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, someone even US air power couldn’t drive from power. Some of the students behind the initial revolution in Egypt sought Sharp’s advice, and Benny Tai, a key leader in the current Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong openly admits the influence. From this Bloomberg article:

Occupy Central is inspired by a civil-disobedience playbook set out by Gene Sharp, a U.S. academic whose work has inspired non-violent uprisings from Egypt to Serbia, Tai said. Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, argues that once authorities use violence against unarmed protesters they lose the sympathy of the rest of the population, leading to a shift in public opinion to support the protesters.

Protestor in the midst of tear gas dual-wielding umbrellas. Hella badass.

Wherever you go, Sharp shows up somewhere. He may never be the primary influence, and certain local conditions create local strategy and leaders, but he is around. His work is disseminated organically- he or his supporters have never printed copies by the millions. Yet From Dictatorship to Democracy has ended up translated into Chinese, and Ukrainian, and five separate languages used in Burma. We all know that the real heroes are those on the ground, and Sharp is thankfully a humble personality, but the effectiveness and discipline of Occupy Hong Kong shows the power of resources for planning and executing nonviolent forms of struggle. Work by Sharp, Robert Helvey, and others help anyone interested in the work of 20th century nonviolent resisters accessible. Not everyone has the brilliance of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., but lessons learned from their work can be distilled and provided as a guide.

Gene Sharp was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, his fourth nomination. Two years ago he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is its closest equivalent. I would like him to receive the Peace Prize, but it has always been a bit faddish (Barack Obama the year of his election) or strange (the European Union as a whole). This year I’d put good money on Pope Francis winning, but there’s a reason betting sites always have Sharp in the top five.

Have a plan. Know the methods. Change the world.

 

Occupy Hong Kong: through rain, lightning, and tear gas…

A torrential downpour on the mass crowds blocking key parts of Hong Kong
A torrential downpour on the mass crowds blocking key parts of Hong Kong

American media accounts tend to focus on the umbrella- now only four days in immortalized as a revolutionary symbol- as a way to deal with pepper spray. What gets left out is that Hong Kong has a subtropical climate. Not only has it been in the 90s (F), the summer is also notoriously rainy. In this way, umbrellas are the ultimate protest tool. Not only have they helped against police crackdown, the shade and rain protection have kept thousands of people at their posts. An economic shutdown only works as long as people are willing to stay out in the highways and streets.

Twitter is probably the best way to keep track of things, but some websites are doing an excellent job. The South China Morning Post has kept a very well-maintained English-language liveblog, the current section is located here.

Occupy is not just a movement, confined to a place and time. It is a method of action. It is a title given to those that go out and work. It existed long before there was a march on Wall Street, and exists now and will in the future. The protest here has been incredibly well-coordinated, but on a grassroots level. If people are disciplined and certain key traits (nonviolence, respect for the city) are maintained, there is no need for a rigid hierarchy. I am continually impressed by the humanity and decency shown by the protesters, but also their strength under fire, and their endurance under bad conditions- whether pepper spray or pelting rain.