How to create a dilemma

Because tactics are much on the minds of activists in Occupy — and many other movements — these days,  I’ll devote my column occasionally to that aspect of strategy.

I’m using the military definition of tactics: actions or maneuvers that are intended to produce an advantage in a struggle with an opponent. A given nonviolent method may or may not be a tactic, depending on its objective. A group picketing a bank, for instance, may be there just to express a point of view — a lot of protests are exactly that — and the bank can safely shrug its marble shoulders and go on with business. But a labor union may use the same method when picketing a factory to decrease the chances of replacement workers going inside. In that case, picketing is truly a tactic, a method of action intended to produce an advantage in a struggle with an opponent.

Today, I’d like to talk about a particular form of action whose objective is to put the opponent into a dilemma where, whichever choice is made by the opponent, the campaigners gain an advantage. I invented the concept for my 1973 book, Strategy for a Living Revolution — though other people have implied that they invented it, too!

A recent example of a dilemma demonstration was in the neighborhood-based direct action campaign to prevent the 1 percent (including a billionaire from Chicago) from picking the pockets of Philadelphia’s 99 percent through casino gambling. The campaign was started by young friends of mine against the advice of Philly “old heads” who said the casinos were “a done deal.” In his account of the campaign, researcher William Lawrence tells us that, of the two casinos designated by the state of Pennsylvania to operate in Philadelphia, the campaign stopped one of them and forced the other to shrink to a third of its intended size.

Among their many imaginative tactics, Casino-Free Philadelphia used a dilemma demonstration they called “citizens’ document search.” The state had set up a gambling regulatory commission that collected planning information and operated in secrecy. The campaigners demanded that the files be made available to the public, and said that if the commission refused, the campaigners would be forced to enter the commission’s offices and liberate the information that the public had a right to know.

The commission was put in a dilemma. If it revealed the documents, the campaigners won: the information contained would damn the commission. If it did not reveal the documents but instead called the police to arrest the activists engaged in the document search, the campaigners also won: an obscure bureaucratic agency would be spotlighted for its probable conspiracy against the public interest. (This mini-campaign was called “Operation Transparency,” inspired by the Canadian model invented by Philippe Duhamel and reported by Hannah Jones and William Lawrence.)

To underscore their point and attract even more media interest, the campaigners went to Pennsylvania’s State Capitol ahead of time and, using rags, buckets and water, washed the windows of the building where the commission’s offices were located — all “to promote transparency.”

When the activists came back to the Capitol a week later to do the document search, the commission chose to arrest them. But the campaign grew amidst widespread mass media coverage, and the commission ended up embarrassingly releasing some of its records anyway!

In this way, the dilemma demonstration empowers activists because it provides an advantage either way the opponent responds. The civil rights sit-inners go into a luncheonette and demand a cup of coffee. If they get the cup of coffee, great — another discriminatory practice falls! If they get arrested or beaten up instead, the activists still gain an advantage. The violence that underlies racism is exposed and the movement grows.

The secret in designing a dilemma is that the campaigners need to create an advantage for themselves no matter what happens. It wouldn’t work if the demonstrators couldn’t create an advantage either way — if the sit-inners, for example, regarded getting the coffee (or being beaten and jailed) as a defeat. Like a good playwright, the tactical artist uses imagination to create choices that are fine for the campaign but bad for the opponent.

One reason that Gandhi became the preeminent leader of India’s independence struggle was because he knew this art, and his people loved twisting the tail of the British lion. Take, for example, the collecting of salt by millions of Indians in 1930, as researcher Aden Tedla describes in this short account. The campaign used a variety of tactics, but the central role played by making salt as an act of civil disobedience had to do with its being a dilemma demonstration. The British could have refused to arrest people for making the often-inedible substance, but that would mean giving up their highly lucrative salt monopoly. Still, the Indian National Congress would have been delighted if the British had made that choice. Instead, the empire chose repression, which was also fine with the Indians because it shredded the legitimacy of the British and hastened their departure.

When, in 1967, A Quaker Action Group (AQAG) sailed the Phoenix ketch to North Vietnam with medical supplies in defiance of U.S. law, it created a dilemma for the U.S. government. The ship’s route from Hong Kong to Haiphong took it directly through the U.S. Seventh Fleet; it would be easy for the Navy to stop the boat and arrest the crew. The government could’ve also followed through on its threat to prosecute me and the other officers of AQAG, seize our bank account and padlock our office. On the other hand, that would mean stopping Quakers from doing our ancestral duty of humanitarian aid to the victims of war, and the government was already watching significant demographics shifting away from supporting the war. We were prepared for either response of the government; it, again, was a dilemma demonstration.

The dilemma so challenged the government that consultations among the State Department, Treasury and the Pentagon couldn’t resolve the issue; finally the White House decided to allow the Phoenix to sail unharmed to Haiphong harbor and unload its medicines for civilians suffering under U.S. bombs. Our story made the nightly news on television and was all over the press. The peace movement grew.

Sometimes, however, activists will try to take a shortcut known as “provocation.” In tactical terms, provocation is vastly inferior to the dilemma demonstration because, simply, the public is not that stupid. Most people can see that the activists don’t really want whatever this disruptive thing is that aims at a repressive response — stopping traffic, for example; the activists just want a police attack. Most people (including otherwise potential allies) will shrug their shoulders and say, “If they want it, the activists should get it.”

What gives a dilemma demonstration its power is the dramatic clarity in the fact that the activists really want to expose the documents, make the salt, deliver the medicines or drink the coffee.

The downside, however — and every tactic has its downside — is that a dilemma demonstration takes imagination to create. A rule among my friends in the Casino-Free Philadelphia campaign was never to organize a march or a rally. They made that agreement to force themselves to become creative and to invent new tactics. And, in four years of campaigning, they never did hold a march or a rally. There is so much else one can do.

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