Diversity of tactics and the 1 percent

Image of Occupy Oakland protest on January 28. By Glenn Halog, via Flickr.

In July I participated in an all-Britain Peace News camp in which we discussed, among other things, the idea of diversity of tactics. I was a little surprised when my fellow panelists wanted to turn it into a conversation about pacifism and whether violence can ever be justified.

Although I’m a pacifist, I didn’t get their point. Most people who participate in nonviolent campaigns aren’t pacifists; they choose nonviolent action strategically, because it increases their chance of winning. In Oman during the Arab Awakening, for example, the campaign began nonviolently but soon detoured into violence. The movement stopped, regrouped, began again nonviolently and won their objectives. Had the majority of Omanis somehow become pacifists? Of course not; they simply applied a sensible strategy.

Thanks to the work of political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, we now know that, between 1900 and 2006, when mass movements tried to overthrow their regimes, they doubled their chances of winning by choosing nonviolent struggle. Clearly the millions of people who won nonviolently had not taken an ethical stand against ever using violence, as pacifists do; they simply invented a strategy that worked.

For me, therefore, the question before us is whether diversity of tactics makes sense at this time in struggles against the economic and political dominance of the 1 percent in the United Kingdom — or, for that matter, in the United States.

Violent tactics in Tahrir Square

The question becomes clearer when we compare our situation with the 2011 uprising in Egypt, when alongside the massive use of nonviolent action there was also the use of injurious force against people, as well as property destruction.

It’s important, however, to distinguish between moments of confrontation, when the movement chooses tactics designed to win over the large segment of the population that sympathizes but is unwilling to act, and mass political and economic noncooperation. These are stages three and four, respectively, in my five-stage framework for revolution.

The Egypt we saw on television last year was in stage four, with its massive occupations and strikes and boycotts and demonstrations around the country. Stage four is when Occupy Wall Street organizers could call a general strike on May Day and actually get a response! Stage four is also when, as in the Egyptian case, property destruction and some actual violence is less likely to slow the movement; the basic population shift has been made and the momentum is already enormous.

In other words, the movement’s violence in Tahrir Square isn’t relevant to other movements that are still in stage three. In the U.K., the U.S. and so many other places, our task is to conduct confrontations in ways that maximize the contrast between our behavior and that of the opponent. Our creativity and courage need to show dramatically to the public why they should join us, as happened in Occupy Wall Street’s early confrontations and were largely responsible, through police violence, for its remarkable growth.

In hundreds of campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, we see this dynamic at work: Nonviolent stage three confrontations lead to massive participation, and then the stage four tactics open a power vacuum and the possibility of breakthrough.

What about when our target is the 1 percent?

Never in my long life has the rule of the 1 percent been as vulnerable as now. They are experiencing a perfect storm of consequences that are directly traceable to their decisions — that is, when we do the tracing, shining the light on their decisions through creative actions. See Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone to learn how much worse it’s going to get for them, and for the planet.

Our challenge is to stay focused. The 1 percent want very much to change the conversation and distract us, as when they go about “protecting the Olympics” in London by installing surface-to-air missiles. Their intent is to scare the public by projecting fearsomeness on the shadowy others, including, of course, activists like us.

Now we can see all the more clearly the brilliance of the African-American students sitting in lunch counters in the sixties. Of course they could have heaved rocks through windows or beaten up store owners. That would have been a tremendous gift to the racists because it would have played into the stereotype of blacks as violent. Instead, the students were emphatically nonviolent, and everyone could see exactly who it was who was violent, and begin to make connections to the violence of racism.

I don’t consider property destruction to be violence, and we don’t classify it as such in the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Nevertheless, using property destruction during the student sit-ins in the Deep South would have lost most of the students’ campaigns. Why? Because what counts is not what we self-identified activists define as violence; what matters is what the prospective allies consider violence. They are the ones we’re trying to influence to join us; having arguments among ourselves about whether property destruction is violence is a waste of time. Few if any major campaigns have been won by self-identified activists alone, and certainly no revolution will be.

The gift to the 1 percent given by activists practicing tactics that most people perceive as violent is the invitation to change the subject, from the 1 percent’s greed to battles with police. The police are a buffer between us and the 1 percent. The police don’t make the decisions; they are manipulated to deflect the issue and protect the decision makers.

When we veer from nonviolent tactics, we let the 1 percent off the hook; I picture them sighing with relief when we present ourselves in the eyes of most of the 99 percent as the violent ones.

When Daniel Hunter and I were leading workshops in South Korea, the norm for movements in that country was essentially diversity of tactics. Mainstream activism included property destruction and combat with police. But a Korean student at the July Peace News camp told me that movement culture has changed in the last five years. After a national debate, activists realized that they were having trouble getting people into the streets who weren’t young self-identified activists; in effect, they found they were marginalizing much of the progressive population.

I immediately thought of the argument I’ve heard in the U.S. (and the U.K.) that a reason for diversity of politics is to avoid “exclusion” of friends and comrades. Nonviolent discipline, people argue, will leave out valued members of their political and social circles.

In Movement for a New Society, community was one of our strongest values, and yet in the many campaigns we were part of I don’t remember us ever insisting on a policy so our friends could participate. For us, what really mattered was political integrity; if we were working with oppressed groups, we needed to operate in such a way as to maximize the chance that they would win their campaign — not to reduce their chances of winning for the sake of our chums.

The Korean student told me about the chief of police who was personally supervising a major confrontation. An activist apparently broke through the line and hit the police chief in the head, knocking off and breaking his glasses. This became the major headline of the next few days’ media coverage of the protests. A photo of the assailant, taken by a movement photographer, revealed that the “activist” was in fact a police officer dressed in jeans.

In Korea, as in so many countries, this phenomenon reveals that the 1 percent really wants violent demonstrators and will pay for them if necessary. How many decades of this behavior will it take to show the bogus value of diversity of tactics in stage three?

Our challenge is to devise ways to protect our campaigns from the damage that violent elements can cause them. In Serbia, student leaders in the 1990s found that young police officers were dressing as activists and doing property destruction and street fighting to sink their campaign for university reform. When the students started Otpor to bring down dictator Slobodan Milosevic, therefore, they created a new policy: Otpor’s support for members beaten and arrested would not apply to those who had been provoking destruction and fighting; Otpor would be forced to assume they were undercover police. That was a harsh policy, but Otpor was up against a dictator and couldn’t afford to be indulgent. Other movements may find alternative ways to protect their campaigns from the 1 percent’s habitual use of police provocateurs.

In stage three of the struggle, diversity of tactics seems to me a strategic loser. Stage four is worth its own discussion, but the advocates of diversity of tactics need to face our real situation now.

We have plenty of creativity for devising nonviolent tactics that focus on the 1 percent, which is where our focus needs to be. Like those students in the Southern sit-ins, let’s keep our eye on the prize.

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