5 ways movements can handle threats and attacks

Congress of Racial Equality march in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 1963 in memory of the children killed in the Birmingham bombings. (Wikipedia / Thomas J. O'Halloran)

Congress of Racial Equality march in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 1963 in memory of the children killed in the Birmingham bombings. (Wikipedia / Thomas J. O’Halloran)

We’d attracted a dense crowd by street speaking against the Vietnam war. I got off the soapbox to allow someone else a turn. A young man in army uniform stepped in front of me. He was trembling with the effort to keep it together as he confronted me, barely a foot away. “How can you protest the Vietnam war when we’re over there to keep you free?” Then he showed me his knife.

I remembered that confrontation when I read about the attacks on the Minneapolis demonstrators from Black Lives Matters on November 22. Every incident is different, but the trend felt familiar. The movement pushes, then encounters violent retaliation. The 1960s again.

The young soldier gripping the knife seemed about to snap, so I looked steadily into his eyes. “You don’t want to do this,” I said quietly. “You’ll be in big trouble, and you won’t stop us.” People around us were paying attention to the new speaker on the box. No one had noticed the knife yet. The soldier considered for a moment while we locked eyes, then put his knife away.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s American social movements forced the greatest progressive changes in my lifetime, despite sometimes violent resistance. Activists developed ways of increasing our safety and — when we did get hurt — maximizing the change potential of those incidents. One of the tools was used again brilliantly last month, after five members of Black Lives Matter Minnesota were shot while protesting. Overnight they organized a disciplined march to City Hall in which a thousand people joined to demand racial justice, not swerving from their original issue.

With this inspiring action fresh in our minds, it might be a good time to review some of the other tools activists have used to counter violent resistance, and prepare to add to the toolbox.

Unarmed peacekeeping

In the ‘60s, we routinely had medics with us at our demonstrations, as well as trained marshals to head off trouble when possible. Marshals in the midst of a larger crowd often found it possible to isolate a fight between attackers and demonstrators. Sometimes the marshals encircled the fight and kept the fight from spreading, then de-escalated. Groups expecting trouble routinely trained marshals/peacekeepers for each action and trained the demonstrators as well. For a heated antiwar demonstration in Berkeley a large church was used overnight to train 3,000 demonstrators.

Training for Change trainer Erika Thorne witnessed such nonviolent intervention in Minneapolis on November 28. She and other people from white solidarity group Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ-Minnesota, responded to the shooting of the five Black Lives Matters protesters. They went to a busy mall to ask white shoppers to join them in taking responsibility for the attitudes that support white supremacy. They gave out yellow slips of paper with the county attorney’s phone number to call, urging action. A white man went into a rage and began screaming at two of the SURJ women. As he continued to yell, some white shoppers who had been neutral when first approached came over to join the group. One mother stood directly in front of him despite his continued raging.

The Minnesota shoppers were responding in a natural human way, but protesters can’t always count on that. It’s possible to recruit people ahead of time. I remember a Catholic nun who, long after her religious order had given up the black habit, kept hers to wear to demonstrations where tension was expected. This was one precursor of what became a field with even international application, called “unarmed peacekeeping,” or third party nonviolent intervention.

Stay in the game

During the 1950s Algerian struggle for independence, French pacifists had a rough time protesting their government’s war. They faced assaults by police and civilians. They learned to shorten the attack and reduce injury by sitting on the ground when it began. They told me they memorized these words: “When in doubt, sit down.” The tool was mirrored by the U.S. civil rights movement with success. Decades later in Thailand, I learned activists there found the tool useful during the nonviolent insurrection of the early ‘90s.

Keeping the initiative is important. Being calm and restrained may not be enough – look for other moves you can make. As shown in the movie “Freedom Song,” civil rights activists learned to go to each others’ aid in non-threatening ways, like putting their bodies between the attacker and the demonstrator. This can be done even if you have already been hit, if you’re not disabled. Stay in the game. Start a song – your group might pick it up.

Discipline as a deterrent

All these positive micro-behaviors are more likely to be performed if a demonstration is well organized. In fact, a disciplined action is itself a deterrent to violence. Canadian trainer Karen Ridd and I worked with an annual Cambodian peace march in which marchers had recently been killed. Buddhist monks led the long-distance march through territory where government and Khmer Rouge soldiers fought. The march’s goal was to strengthen peasants who were exploited by both sides.

Karen and I learned that the march stopped each night to camp and hold prayers. After breakfast the leadership typically began marching before clean-up was finished. Some participants would follow, then others, in a long, straggling procession. We led a succession of role-plays for 30 of the leaders in which she and I created difficulties that they found could have been met effectively if they were organized and disciplined. They worked out a culturally appropriate system for marching down a road as a tight-knit, united band. Future treks proceeded without fatalities.

Postponing confrontation

In the film “Selma” we see a dramatic example of choosing not to proceed into danger. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Martin Luther King, Jr., sensed a trap. He famously turned the march around, setting off a furious tactical debate. In the film, however, we see the brilliant execution of the turn-around: orderly, unhurried, with dignity.

It is no disgrace to postpone confrontation, to let tactics be led by strategy — which, in King’s case, were probably augmented by divine inspiration. The question is how it is implemented. The signal sent by the demonstrators needs to be one of self-possession, of empowered decision rather than fear.

The point of the attacks, after all, is to scare us. While we feel our fear we can also summon our courage, remaining in control of ourselves. We retreat, when useful, in good order. In effect, we refuse to play their fear game.

Refusing to let fear run us builds the movement in at least two ways. It enables us to keep pushing for our original goal rather than back off or shift our target, as when Occupy Wall Street shifted focus from the 1 percent to the New York police. Second, the violence can lead to the “paradox of repression,” when additional participants and allies step forward. That’s what happened in Minneapolis.

Learning from the hardest challenge successfully met

Swarthmore’s searchable Global Nonviolent Action Database has the largest known published collection of civil rights campaigns: 72. Most of the campaigns were attacked, often by angry people not in uniform. Remarkably, nearly all found ways to continue their campaigns despite the violence. About half of the 72 campaigns used the violence to increase their size and strength by inducing the paradox of repression.

For successful movements, the most extreme sustained exposure to risk in my lifetime was in Mississippi in the early 1960s. The “freedom houses” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, were surrounded by people who wanted SNCC workers dead, and who had an organized instrument for making that happen, the Ku Klux Klan. In 1964 I asked Bob Moses, head of Mississippi SNCC, how so many SNCC members survived. He told me, “It’s because we don’t have guns in our freedom houses, and everyone knows it.”

Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he explained. The terrorist KKK was a working-class organization, and did the dirty work of white supremacy. The middle and owning-class White Citizens Councils were the controllers, and protected the KKK members from arrest for church burnings and lynchings. The leaders of the White Citizens Councils knew that negative economic and other consequences would happen to Mississippi if nonviolent SNCC members were murdered, so they told the KKK to hold off. If SNCC had tried to defend itself violently in that context, all bets were off — members would simply be killed in what would be branded a “shootout,” with minimum consequences for KKK and maximum negative outcome for SNCC.

If ever there were a time when young adult activists can usefully watch “Eyes on the Prize” and other films about the civil rights movement, this is the time. In situations more polarized than ours, black people and their white allies faced terror and won victories. Today’s activists will add creative new movement tools for handling threat. I’m guessing that the best tools are invented as we live into the exercise of courage. The legacy we have already is a good place to start.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.