Nonviolence is a beautiful theory but it doesn’t work in the real world, critics have long argued. It is—they maintain—passive, weak, utopian, naïve, unpatriotic, marginal, simplistic, and impractical.
In spite of these widely-held assumptions, however, people around the planet go on building one nonviolent people-power movement after another.
Rather than being held back by pervasive beliefs about nonviolence as otherworldly and unrealistic, they act as if the vision, strategies, and tools of nonviolent change are transformative and effective. We are consequently awash in a proliferation of nonviolent campaigns building more democratic societies, championing human rights, struggling for economic justice, and working to safeguard the planet.
And not a moment too soon. Engaging the challenges of our time—economic, environmental, political, intra-national and international—will require an even more profound growth of people-power movements deploying creativity, gumption, and relentless persistence to muster the political traction for effective solutions.
These efforts will hinge on many factors, including fostering greater public awareness of the power and effectiveness of nonviolent options. Luckily we are living in a time when the historical and contemporary profusion of nonviolent campaigns is being researched, documented, and increasingly disseminated. The stereotypes and limiting beliefs that keep us from tapping the power of nonviolent change are being slowly chipped away, in part by the fact that the stories of this power are being gathered, assessed, interpreted, and gotten out to activists, scholars and, more and more, the general public.
The formats for this important awareness campaign are varied—books, encyclopedias, documentaries, videos, and websites like Waging Nonviolence. Now we have another important tool. Long-time activist, trainer, and writer George Lakey and his colleagues have made the latest contribution to this important process by creating the Global Nonviolent Action Database.
A project of Swarthmore College (including Peace and Conflict Studies, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility), this database offers an initial 430 cases of nonviolent campaigns demonstrating nearly 200 methods of nonviolent action from 214 countries between 1170 BCE and 2011. The examples are organized into six “issue clusters”: Democracy, Economic Justice, Environment, Human Rights, National/Ethnic Identity (including anti-colonial struggles), and Peace.
More than 45 students who have taken project leader Lakey’s research seminar “Strategy and Nonviolent Struggle” were involved in writing the cases. A number of other cases were created by students from Georgetown, Tufts, and the University of San Francisco.
Lakey recently explained how this project has roots in a question he asked himself long ago:
I was brought up in small town where everything was about being practical, so when I ran into moral questions about the use of violence as an undergraduate, my practical mind immediately got busy, asking ‘what are other ways of handling nastiness, ugliness, or threat?’ And I couldn’t find much about it. I thought about the Battle of Gettysburg; I knew there were rooms full of books about that one single battle. I thought, ‘how perverted is it that there are rooms full of scholarship about one battle?’ Where are the rooms full of scholarship about other ways of going about things?
The focus of this database on the “other ways of going about things” is nonviolent action campaigns. As the website explains:
The cases in this database are campaigns, not movements. The difference is largely determined by specificity of goals. “The civil rights movement” is not for us a case, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a case, as is the Nashville Sit-in of 1960. The colonial Indian movement for independence from Britain is not a case, but the Salt Satyagraha of 1930-31 is a case.
The Global Nonviolent Action Database provides the visitor a profile of each case rooted in a streamlined classification system that highlights the campaign’s actors (“leaders” are leaders of the campaign in question; “opponents” are those opposed to the campaign); tactics; the emergence of allies (shifts in support from the status quo to a new condition); and what it terms Success/Outcome.
This is one of the more intriguing features of the database, where the researchers assign points based on the success or failure of the campaign to meet its stated goals. Additional points are assigned based on next steps, including the campaign’s survival and growth. (A total of 10 points is possible.) The case is finally filled out with a succinct but detailed narrative of the life-cycle of the campaign, followed by a list of influences and often hyperlinked sources.
To get started, you can click on “Browse Cases” to see a series of listing of cases from around the world that gives a birds-eye view of the campaign, including total points. (“Zambians campaign for independence, 1944-1964,” for example, garners 10 points, while the “Anti-Roads campaign fights highway construction in England, 1991-1995” tallied only 2 points).
To see a detailed case, you may want to click on “Egyptians campaign to oust President Mubarak, 2011.” The campaign is assigned 10 points for achieving its demand of removing the president from office, while the other aims are still I process (five are listed) and are not yet assessed.
I find it best to first read the extended narrative, and then return to the goals and the six categories, which you can expand by clicking on one or another. By clicking on Methods, for example, a window opens that details the numerous methods used during this campaign. (These methods are drawn from nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp’s classic list in his 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.)
In the spirit of nonviolence, the database welcomes suggested changes and additions. As Lakey put it:
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we get all kinds of angry letters from people saying ‘I was there in Tahrir Square and that’s not the way it happened!’ I expect and actually look forward to their letters because they’ll help us tweak and improve the database.
You can click on “Suggest a Case” and send them ideas for additional nonviolent action campaigns to highlight. I have already used this feature to suggest a few cases from my experience, including nonviolent action campaigns focused on homelessness, nuclear weapons, Central America and the US war in Iraq.
As it matures, The Global Nonviolent Action Database could explore ways for campaign participants to play a role in “peer-reviewing” content or being involved in the development of the actual case itself. A future iteration of the site could build on the existing database to create a more accessible and compelling presentation, which could include sidebars with accounts from various dimensions of the site in question. And a future feature could include a social media interface to encourage conversation about these momentous events. (For now, one can join in the discussion about the database on Facebook.)
These potential additions or adjustments are for another time (or another project). For now, we can celebrate the emergence of this tool that is rescuing the memory of innumerable efforts to become more human through nonviolent action—and that may strengthen present and future campaigns by example.
A French philosopher once taunted his American colleague by saying, “Well yes, it works in practice, but will it work in theory?” Now, thanks to the Global Nonviolent Action Database, we have a little clearer understanding on how nonviolent people-power is working both in practice and in theory.