Paradoxes of protection

The Yes Men pose with their satirical defensive suits, the Survivaballs.

“Protection” is a slippery concept. Consider the November 2011 pepper-spraying incident on the Davis campus of the University of California, when students identifying with the Occupy movement were demonstrating nonviolently on their campus and were repeatedly sprayed with injurious chemicals. Videos of the police brutality electrified the nation, woke up uncounted potential allies who until then had been asleep and energized the movement. Sociologists call it “the paradox of repression”: the brutality is intended to stop a movement but instead gives it energy and strength.

Strategically, would we prefer that the Davis students had been protected from that act of repression, leaving no one the wiser about what the 1 percent are willing to have their agents do to protect their privilege? For that matter, would Occupy Wall Street prefer that New York activists had been protected from the police blunder of assaulting them in those early days of campaign, which caused the initial tidal wave of support for Occupy?

Obviously it’s just as true today as ever that a great strength for activists is our ability to “take it” in order to advance our cause. Nonviolent struggle in that way is the same as armed struggle — soldiers unwilling to risk suffering are of little use in combat. We cannot, however, ignore a cultural double standard. Mainstream opinion automatically honors those who risk injury and death by going to war with a gun in their hands. There is no such automatic honoring of activists who take sometimes equally high risks. We do not, while shopping in the drugstore with our activist T-shirts on, hear from total strangers, “Thank you for your service.”

Given the cultural double standard, it makes sense that the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panthers and others could believe in protecting activists while protesting so we might be exempt from suffering for our cause — even if our suffering is required for winning.

I am not advocating for a martyr complex any more than the military is looking for martyrs. I love life and have been hugely relieved each time I’ve risked my life on a direct action and gotten out of it alive. What helped me take those risks, however, was knowing that high school classmates of mine had risked their lives while wearing a uniform, and I am not entitled to an exception. Struggle is struggle. They, and I, wanted to win our cause, and it’s not about glory but simply doing what needs to be done.

On the other hand, strategically, we need to accept that people can get tired and angry and burned out from repeated punishments over time. Not everyone is a John Lewis, the SNCC member who endured dozens of beatings and jailings, and once nearly died as a result.

The key to effective protection may be a matter of timing more than whether one uses arms or not. When campaigners are fresh and protection techniques seem likely to slow down the movement or limit visible state repression, why use them? On the other hand, when campaigners are fraying and tired, protection might be necessary to keep the movement going.

Nonviolent protective supports exist — collectivity, for example.

The affinity-group mode of organizing became widespread in the late sixties in the U.S. I remember my affinity group in the mass sit-down at the U.S. Supreme Court entrance in 1986, protesting the court’s affirmation of Georgia’s criminalization of gays. The organizers wanted all participants to be in an affinity group, especially people no one knew. A young stranger joined my group, and we had little time to integrate him before the civil disobedience started. But our ties were still strong enough to ensure that we looked out for him. When the police came near the young man, he had a psychic break, making loud weird noises and looking scary. Some of us protected him with our bodies while others told the police what was happening, demanding they should leave him to us. We were able to protect him through the arrest and into the police bus, several times strongly confronting the police to let him alone once they’d put cuffs on him. A couple hours later he’d gotten through the episode and became himself again.

I once led a workshop in Thailand that consisted of activists from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. I asked them what they found worked in confrontations with police and soldiers, since the three countries offered many opportunities to face very harsh repression. It was striking how much overlap there was in very different cultures and political situations. They all found that singing reduced the violence; both soldiers and police found it hard to keep cracking heads when the activists were singing, especially when activists were also trying to make eye contact. In all three countries they found that sitting down reduced the violence. Taking initiatives of all kinds, like offering the police drinks from their water bottles, helped.

Shifting out of confrontation and into another mode takes the heat off the activists for a while and gives them time to regroup. Low-risk activities can be substituted for high-risk ones. In Chile, part of the gathering resistance to dictator Pinochet in the 1980s was banging pots inside apartments and houses, leaving windows open. Whole neighborhoods and cities banged pots at agreed-upon times, making an amazing din and building strength but eliciting little repression. Another method Chileans used in that campaign was the “quickie” demonstration. Like today’s flash mobs, at a pre-arranged time a group would appear on a corner, unfold banners, demonstrate for a few minutes and disappear before the police came. These “quickies” were used to build courage and boldness at a time when most people were very fearful of challenging the dictator.

A very different form of protection was tried in Chile in 1931, when students led a nonviolent insurgency against a dictator imposing an austerity program.

Very early in the campaign, students occupied a university building. Police surrounded the building and threatened to come in with guns drawn; danger increased when some armed students fired at police from the windows. The students’ parents, professionals involved with their national professional organizations, warned the dictator that if he ordered a massacre of the students they would themselves go on strike and organize others to do so. The massacre didn’t happen, though as the campaign expanded rapidly those professionals joined the campaign anyway.

The Chilean experiment offers an example of nonviolent deterrence. Contrast nonviolent deterrence with the violent deterrence such as that of the Deacons for Defense. The Deacons were able to deter some opponent violence by showing their weapons; in those incidents, the racist side backed down. If they hadn’t, the Deacons — in order to keep their deterrence credible — would have had to shoot, and a shoot-out of some kind would have occurred, with consequences far beyond the control of the movement. The campaigners’ goals probably would have gotten lost in the dynamics of whatever would follow a shoot-out.

With nonviolent deterrence, in contrast, if the opponent isn’t deterred but instead goes ahead and injures or kills campaigners, the campaign can continue to focus on its goals, and it often expands rapidly by winning public sympathy.

Yet another approach that has deterrent effect is to invite into one’s struggle a third party that has credibility of some kind with the opponent; the nature of third party nonviolent intervention (TPNI) is not to take sides, but to monitor the situation or even to offer protective accompaniment. I was part of the initial team of Peace Brigades International (PBI) when it went to Sri Lanka to protect human rights lawyers who were being assassinated by hit squads. Our job was to be nonviolent bodyguards, going wherever our lawyers wanted us to, in order to raise the stakes for the controllers of the hit squads. In that situation, our credibility came from the fact that the PBI volunteers were recruited from countries that gave aid to the Sri Lankan government. If we were killed in the course of the hit squad’s assassination of a lawyer, our governments would become less inclined to give aid to the government. Like SNCC in its early years in Mississippi, the lawyers used their opponents’ self interest to keep themselves safe.

Peace Brigades International stayed in Sri Lanka for a dozen years of war, protecting journalists, women leaders and others standing up for human rights. Not one of those being protected by unarmed bodyguards was killed. There is a growing variety of cases of TPNI’s effectiveness in many cultures, and in my view activists have only scratched the surface of what’s possible.

One of the most surprising cases of nonviolent protection was carried out in the Philippines in 1986, during the People Power insurgency against Ferdinand Marcos, the well-established (and U.S.-supported) dictator of the Philippines. Previously, armed efforts to overthrow Marcos had failed, and a nonviolent movement was on the way to succeeding; one reason for its growing success was that it succeeded in splitting the army. Unlike last year’s tragedy in Libya, in which the rebel soldiers joined the movement against Qaddafi with guns and created a civil war, the Filipino rebel army in 1986 made a different choice. The anti-Marcos part of the army retired to a military base not far from the capitol city of Manila. Marcos sent the larger, still-loyal part of his forces to attack the rebel army.

The movement’s organizers called on civilians to come to the aid of the rebels, and a million people intercepted Marcos’ army and confronted the force nonviolently. Nuns, priests and others climbed on tanks and began praying the rosary. The people reached out to Marcos’ soldiers, offering them candy and cigarettes. The loyalist troops felt compelled to retreat. The best protectors of the rebel soldiers turned out to be large numbers of unarmed people.

Gandhi himself justified the use of violence if the person threatened couldn’t figure out a nonviolent way to mount a defense. But he also went on to assert that, with sufficient creativity, practical nonviolent tools could be found. The real question underlying the self-defense debate, therefore, is: How creative are you willing to be in exploring strategically the possibilities of nonviolent defense?

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