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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Not to mention, it is the right thing to do, and the only wrong thing to do is deny God. His will for Us is to live not die. In His image which we all represent. An opening of the eyes, awakening of the Spirit. Non-violent conflict resolution, the key word being RE SOLUTION. A system based on falsehood and deceit will fail. Stick to the heart of the matter, the truth.
As someone who’s sat at home watching tv news with family members, it has been blindingly obvious that protesters have to behave like they’re purer than the driven snow for the majority of people to recognise the justness of their cause. Cameras go to the most “exciting” (ie. violent) points – whether that’s someone being hit or a plate glass window being kicked in.
Most people do not want to be associated with people who chuck blocks off buildings at police officers, smash shop windows, throw smoke bombs, spray paint walls, etc. It looks out of control and threatening. It excuses over-reaction by police in the eyes of the public: Precisely BECAUSE they find the images of body-armoured police hitting someone with batons, they look for the reason. Lo and behold! People are surging towards the police, faces contorted in anger, stones flying, windows being smashed; the thought is, “Oh, THAT’s why they reacted – they were being threatened. Well, it isn’t pleasant, and maybe one or two went over the top, but they’re either rotten apples or were just panic-stricken given the circumstances. If the protesters had been peaceful, the police wouldn’t have been forced to [kettle/spray/charge/mass arrest] them…”
Protest is fundamentally doing two things: Changing the people who engage in it, and changing the people who see it. Witness is vital.
You can tell people that the majority of protesters were peaceful until you’re blue in the face. They’ll home in on the guy who dropped a fire extinguisher off the roof into the crowd (as happened at the London students’ protest at the increase in fees), or the small business that got vandalised.
Quite justly, they’ll say, “I don’t want to be associated with people who think this is OK.” Quite unjustly, they will seek to divert themselves from discomfort at seeing police officers behaving frighteningly by seeking reasons for it that support their narratives, not because they’re bourgois or stupid, but because they’re humans.
It really is about the story you’re telling, isn’t it? I’m as irritable with people who insist that “the cops” are all violent and corrupt as with people who insist that “these protesters” are all “rent-a-mob” types who turn up just to cause trouble. They’re blanket statements designed to shore up a sense of certainty and self-righteousness. And they just don’t take plain humanity into account. It seems we evolved to take notice of overtly scary behaviour because it’s a survival threat, so all you need is a tiny minority of people doing something that looks scary and you’ve got everyone’s attention.
Problem is, you want everyone’s attention on how badly the system behaves, not on one bloke kicking a window; you want the protesters framed as Us, not Them, for the whole nation. Like women or minorities in the workplace, protesters need to work harder to get half the credit. It isn’t fair. It is effective.
Nonviolent discipline is tough because we’re systematically trained away from it our whole lives, which is why it gets short shrift from so many. It’s easier to shy away from it and act out in ways we’re familiar with. I don’t blame people for recognising its power and being too scared to step into it – I’m struggling with it in my ordinary daily life. Everything we do is about habit, and when I’m stressed and scared, I fall back into old patterns of behaviour which are often unhelpful.
I’m just thinking this over. It seems that the reason Gandhi got us out of India was because the movement overall grokked the personal, philosophical, and strategic value of satyagraha. And one of the strategic strengths was how it came over on film. There were violent outbreaks, but they didn’t have media saturation. Cameras went where Gandhi was, and those around him tended to be hardcore satyagrahis.
Nowadays, we all have cameras on our phones. TV crews can be anywhere fast. If we’re holding others to account, we need to be aware of how we’re behaving. The end of the salt march was filmed. If even one of the satyagrahis had fought back, it would have ruined the effect. As it was, the world saw troops beating still, unarmed, silent people; and as each fell and was carried away, another stepped into place. The horror of the system was starkly exposed. That piece of film burned into mass consciousness and was the thing that finally shamed the Raj to death.
Do I have that discipline? Probably not. I recognise that nonviolent discipline is the only way to show up the system. As someone whose chronic illness prevents active street participation in most protests, I’m very aware that I’m not in the position of being carried away by the crowd’s mood, or being confronted by police officers with batons. It’s easy for me to sit here and think about it.
Maybe, though, a spectator’s eye is what’s needed sometimes. Because it’s not just about the protesters, it’s about how the protests are interpreted by the wider world, how they’re digested by the majority. I spend a lot of time trying to convince people who are natural allies of peace and justice movements that they ARE natural allies; the problem is those images of masked people kicking in windows, the fires on the street, the stones thrown. They undermine the message: The “audience” may agree with the aims of the protest, but they see even a few images of a ruckus, and they say, “Well, there’s a right way and a wrong way to get things done.” Violent images only further entrench their distance from the protests, entrench the belief that they are mostly helpless bystanders who can’t engage in collective action because protests and demos are both ineffective and populated by “extremists” (aka window-smashing, smoke-bomb-throwing, people who can be characterised as criminals looking for an excuse). It’s a downward spiral.
And when I say that, I’m told by some activists that this view is irrelevant because I wasn’t there/am not out on the street. I’m at home, seeing these images, just like the other 90+%, the people the same activists are angry with for not understanding them.
Getting the message across creatively – humourously is best, because no-one feels scared when they’re laughing – without loss of integrity is the key.
This was rambling. Sorry.
That’s it, that’s what I was trying to say: It’s about public humiliation. When you’re totally nonviolent, they only have one choice – to make you the winner of the conflict. If they treat you with respect, you’ve shown that you’re stronger than they are. If they over-react, behave badly, get violent, you’ve shown that they’re out of control and you’re morally superior. Either way, the system is publicly humiliated, and there’s nothing an unjust system hates more than being shown up as shabby, unjust and vindictive.
From my experience, “Diversity of Tactics” is code for allowing the Black Bloc to use others’ demonstrations as cover to attack police. (G20 in Toronto)
A discussion about tactics, however, is essential within an inclusive strategy of non-violence.
I would just like to suggest the caveat that the question here might not be “diversity of tactics” or not, but what kinds of tactics a movement chooses to use in the framework of diversity. As I argued last November, Occupy Wall Street was practicing a diversity of tactics while remaining essentially nonviolent, breaking no windows. I think there are parts of the DOT framework worth preserving even if one decides that window breaking is not strategic at a given time.
The point of diversity of tactics is to allow room for different people with different skillsets to have room for creative approaches. #OWS captured the hearts and minds of the world with nonviolent creativity. Unfortunately the phrase is being brandished as a slogan to mean immunity from criticism or disagreement.
There’s nothing creative about spraying “Yuppies Out!” on condos in 2012. May as well put up “Impeach Reagan” posters to go with that.
While I think you’re right that DoT is often used as a way of dodging accountability for disruptive actions, I don’t think that doing so represents a correct understanding of the framework. Sparrow Ingersoll, one of the leading advocates for diversity of tactics at Occupy Wall Street during the winter, put it this way in an interview with me:
Practicing a diversity of tactics rigorously means carefully respecting those one is working with, engaging in constructive and critical dialogue, and finding ways to ensure that one’s actions do not disrupt or counteract the actions of one’s comrades. Just as advocates of nonviolence often misunderstand the word to mean something bordering on passivity, many of those who claim to represent the idea of a diversity of tactics are really just using it as an excuse for something else.
Once again, George, you are spot on. I am so glad you brought up the use of humor. As you have said so many times in your training workshops, “it is important to make fun of the monster.” It is easier to gain allies if people can laugh at the beast. I look forward to your next installment. I hope you can introduce the concept of campaigns. Something that both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King used effectively. We also have to use your Global Nonviolence Database as well as your 5 Stage Strategic framework to weave a more complex, creative, humorous series of campaigns that are more than just marches, rallies, sit-ins but campaigns involving boycotts, setting up parallel institutions(businesses, credit unions, state and municipal banks and governments to take power away from the oligarchs. Gandhi set up spinning and looms for India to take away cotton from being exported to Britain who in turn sent it back as cloth, clothing and thread. He also defied British rule by extracting salt from the sea, rather than buy salt and have to pay tax on it to the British. Likewise one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s early and successful campaigns involved the Montgomery Bus Boycott spurred on by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. I think we need more information and training on economic boycotts and the establishment of alternative businesses and banking to boycott and by pass Wall Street. Instead of “What if they had a war and no one came.” It should now be “What if Wall Street rang the bell and no one came to buy and trade stocks.” We need to learn how to conduct campaigns, not just demonstrations and civil disobedience actions. We need to withdraw our consent and our money from them and put it into Main Street.
This article makes some very problematic statements. “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.” There’s so many things wrong with this type of ahistorical sentiment. For one, the dominance of the stereotype of blacks as violent thugs is relatively new. In the south in the 50s and 60s whites tended to view blacks as being stupid, subservient, and cowardly. This is why even the slightest resistance from blacks was seen as such a shock, because blacks had stepped off the sidewalk and went in the back door for decades and held their heads in shame when whites harassed them the whole time. The archetype of “the brute” was only really used in dominant culture when blacks were not completely dominated, when they were the stereotype of the “sambo” sufficed. Also, the idea that the southern civil rights movement exclusively utilized non-violent tactics is ridiculous. It is true that that was the public line of the SCLC, but even SNCC, a group with the phrase “nonviolent” in their name, didn’t take that position. It has even been stated that Martin Luther King employed armed guards and had several firearms inside his home during the Montgomery bus boycott. When you look at the boycott of downtown Nashville, for instance, you have to understand that the boycott was enforced through militant means, blacks who were seen shopping downtown had their shopping bags taken from them and the merchandise was thrown on the ground. The armed Deacons for Defense provided security for the March Against Fear. Kennedy continued to tell MLK that he would send in the national guard to help desegregate Birmingham while King marched his followers into lines of police to get their asses whooped, but did absolutely nothing about the situation until the riots that followed a racist attempt on King’s life. To pretend that the primary objective of the civil rights movement was to appeal to white america, that their main concern was making sure that they didn’t “play into the stereotype of blacks as violent” is as good an example of white supremacy as I can think of. Much of the Civil Rights movement, particularly the rank-and-file participants, were far more concerned with getting equitable treatment than making their struggle palatable to the people who hated them. The whole line of “our oppressors will see how scared we are to fight back and will have sympathy for us” was the SCLC line, it was not a line that represented the broader sentiment in the black community at that time. You can even look at the differences between SCLC and non SCLC marches for an example. While Dr King had children getting beaten by racists in the south and did nothing about it, blacks who marched in Cicero, Illinois threw rocks right back at the racist white crowd who attacked them. Even the NAACP was clearly divided on these issues, look at the Monroe, NC chapter. And of course we can’t ignore the importance of the less talked about civil rights struggles in Watts in 1965, and in Detroit, Newark, and Plainfield in 1967. This ahistorical, revisionist reading of the civil rights movement does far more to promote a legacy of white supremacy than to help us actually learn from these struggles. I highly suggest that anyone who is interested in actually learning about the civil rights movement watch the 14 part documentary “Eyes on the Prize”.
Although he mentioned the civil rights movement rather briefly in this article, Lakey has written quite a bit on the site about violence and nonviolence in the mid-century civil rights struggles. Here are a few examples:
Great piece. I’m struck with two points though:
• First, the case for strategic nonviolence is, to me, unassailable. However, it presumes that everyone in the streets (or elsewhere) waging a fight share the fundamental belief that revolution comes through mass mobilization. What we’ve found in Oakland (and Bay Area more generally) is that there are fundamentally different political analyses of what change is necessary and what will bring about that change. A good summary of this difference of analysis is captured in this blog post by someone who went on to create Occupy Bay Area United, a group that split off from Occupy San Francisco early this year: http://is.gd/2aESJ6
• Second, perhaps it is shorthand to suggest that, literally, the 1% direct use of police provocateurs, or perhaps I am simply naive, but it strikes me that police have personal and political motives of their own to portray protestors as violent. That is, rather than a well-crafted policy or approach of the 1%, police are necessarily compelled to frame, entrap or otherwise portray protestors as violent because police legitimacy rests on the public’s perception that they are using sanctioned violence against others appropriately. If protestors are perceived to be acting violently, then the police are using their sanctioned violence appropriately. I’m not suggesting there are never higher forces at work directing the use of police provocateurs, but that there are also dynamics at play at a much lower level that have more to do with the norms, culture, incentives and conditioning of police.
If those of us in the streets (and union halls, churches, cafes and other organizing venues) don’t recognize these two issues, we’ll continue to wage part of our fight with each other. Perhaps that’s inevitable, and thus the point of the article is, in part, that those of us who share the analysis George lays out so well, stay focused on what it will take to bring many into streets. And that if we can do that through Stage Four, we’ll have a better chance of winning.
Member, Occupy Oakland Nonviolent Caucus @oonv
A few thoughts on Nostalgia (yeah, those were the days): (1)Karen has it right, the camera goes to the most exciting (violent)points. My rule is that a mvment is always perceived as if it were identical to its most violent aspect.(2)In the South in those days (if not still), the stereotype of black males was not exactly thug, but rapist. The sit-in students (1960-61) undermined that; and their religious demeanor got over to a much wider audience both white (and we did want white allies if for nothing else but financial support!)and the average black churchgoer (because the African-American church was an essential ally and would only support the students as long as they were nonviolent). (3) We know that SNCC workers during Freedom Summer (1964) were sometimes (unofficially) armed, especially when they were hosted by armed black farmers. SNCC abandoned its nonviolent approach around the time of the Meredith march in 1965 when it adopted the black power slogan. The armed Deacons did provide support, true. (4)With the adoption of the black power slogan, a number of the founders quit; white liberal and labor union support for SNCC diminished; Hoover went nuts around this, and the press went ballistic: anti-white, etc. etc. SNCC officially advocated armed self-defense for the black community soon after. Whites were excluded in late 1966. It was not possible for “the public” (the media, the government)to distinguish “armed self-defense” (the Deacons, armed farmers, Monroe NC etc) and black power from the idea that SNCC was now a dangerous revolutionary organization. And, under intense repression, so it became! Isolated, infiltrated, suffering splits, abandoned by many of its former leaders, it was done. The FBI closed its files in 1973.
For more on this, see my article in New Politics Summer, 2012, “Mobs, Vigilantes, Cops and Feds: The Repression of SNCC” (www.newpol.org). Let’s keep talking.