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What makes protest violent?

Susan NepstadAt Religion Dispatches today, there’s an interview with Sharon Nepstad, a sociologist of religion with a worthwhile-looking new book: Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement. There’s lots of interest in it, but an especially useful part of the discussion takes on questions of protest method in a nonviolent paradigm:

To what extent are certain strategies used in protest violent?

The question of the line between violence and nonviolence is an ongoing debate within peace movements. My own research on the Catholic Left-inspired Plowshares movement is an example of a group that really pushes the boundaries by destroying and damaging military equipment. The debate over property destruction has not been settled within the peace movement.

But what I respect about the Catholic Left is that in the 1960s they were ones who began to say that sometimes protest is not enough. There had been hundreds of protests against the Vietnam War but the government didn’t change its policy or position. So the Catholic Left started to call on people to interfere with the government’s capacity to wage war. These activists asked: “Would it be violent if people dismantled the gas chambers in Auschwitz?” Some activists were still opposed to property destruction as a resistance tactic, but the Catholic Left activists argued that they were saving lives by destroying draft cards or by attempting to disarm weapons of mass destruction.

Even traditional Gandhian tactics can be violent if they are used in a coercive manner. The Gandhian concept of satyagraha emphasizes that we ought to search for the good in our opponents; we ought to persuade them as we implement nonviolent acts of noncooperation. But if a nonviolent tactic is carried out in a coercive way, or if it is done with the view that the opponent should be humiliated or degraded, then it becomes a violent form of resistance. It is something that I think activists have to be constantly reflecting upon. The division between violent and nonviolent tactics isn’t always as clear-cut as we think. In my opinion, it has a lot to do with the spirit in which a campaign is conducted.

It’s definitely worth reading more at Religion Dispatches. And don’t miss a review of the book at Times Higher Education.