The 1 percent would have us believe that violence must be the answer for meeting our defense and protection needs. That’s because in most places the 1 percent runs the state, which has the big guns. From that point of view it would be silly to fund major research and development programs that advance the frontier of what nonviolent action can do, since nonviolent civil resistance is not a form of power the 1 percent can control.
For the 99 percent, then, it has been guesswork: What are the limits of nonviolent community defense? To find out, people have worked to develop new possibilities and try them in the real world. Some very far-fetched ideas get generated that way.
A working class neighborhood in North Philadelphia, for instance, gets inspired by a new possibility invented across town — Mantua Against Drugs — and organizes to defend itself against the drug trade. The leader is a mom who receives threats. She becomes afraid that the local drug lords will go after her children. She confesses her fears to a neighborhood meeting. Her neighbors organize to take her children to and from school to protect them. Her children remain safe.
This kind of thing probably happens on a grassroots level all the time, though it goes unreported in a United States obsessed with guns. I once led a workshop for American University graduate students on nonviolent intervention and, despite my best efforts, the concept seemed exotic and puzzling to most of the students.
Finally a young woman said, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about — I do that almost every Saturday night!”
Faces whipped around to stare at her. “What do you do?”
“I work in a fairly rough bar,” she said. “I work my way through school as a bartender. Almost every Saturday night two fairly drunk guys have an argument that escalates and starts to get physical. I just step in between the two and get others to help me separate them. Nobody hurt. No problem.”
Stepping in-between — in a police state
In the early 1980s, Peace Brigades International volunteers went to the U.S.-backed police state of Guatemala to support the democratic movement there. They didn’t know just what actions they would take. They met families whose members had been “disappeared” — abducted by the police or military.
Nineth Montenegro de Garcia was desperate to find out what had happened to her 25-year-old husband Fernando, a labor leader. She met Peace Brigades International volunteer Pablo Stanfield, who suggested that she might get a group of like-minded people together.
Nineth did so, and led the group to the Roman Catholic archbishop to see if the mothers could meet in the church. She wanted the protective embrace of the church because Guatemala has a long history of assassinations of people like her who initiate action. She knew the archbishop’s decision wouldn’t be easy. Next door in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero had recently been killed for standing up to his government.
The Guatamalan archbishop said no. So Edith Cole, Pablo and the others in the Peace Brigades International team invited Nineth’s group to meet in the team’s office.
Thus began, almost by accident, the first systematic program of unarmed bodyguarding that I know of organized by an international, non-governmental organization. Volunteers went with Nineth anywhere she felt unsafe — the supermarket and all. Peace Brigades members started to call it “protective accompaniment.” Nineth stayed safe, and her group, the Mutual Support Group, became a force.
Peace Brigades International grew and was able to place a team in El Salvador in 1987. The goal was to see if volunteers could keep alive members of the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Disappeared, trade unions and other threatened organizations. Thousands of human rights workers were assassinated by the U.S.-backed Salvadorean dictatorship, but Peace Brigades International volunteers were sought after by local people under threat. No Salvadoreans were killed while under accompaniment. In at least two countries, this technique seemed to lend some protection.
Should I join a team in Sri Lanka?
In 1989 a group of friends raised funds to give me a sabbatical. I was worn out by seven years of strenuous coalition organizing and had no institutional affiliation to fall back on. I knew a couple leaders in Peace Brigades International, who asked what I was going to do on my sabbatical that would be “really different.” They had a suggestion: Become an unarmed bodyguard in the island nation of Sri Lanka.
The country’s human rights lawyers were being assassinated by hit squads, they said. Local police were sometimes complicit with the killings. The local bar association’s president urgently appealed to Peace Brigades for protection. Would I become a member of the first team?
I prayed over it, talked with family and Quakers in my Meeting, and said, “Yes.” Peace Brigades International told me to make my will.
In Sri Lanka’s capitol, Colombo, I met my teammates, from Spain and the United Kingdom. A greenhorn, I was relieved to learn they had worked with Peace Brigades in Central America and were experienced.
The first lawyer we accompanied lived an underground life. His problem was that it wasn’t safe to meet clients in his office, so he needed us to take turns sitting in the outer office so that, if the hit squad came, we could intercept the killers and give him time to escape out the back.
The second threatened lawyer lived in a different city, where law offices were safe but homes were not. Lawyers in that city had been assassinated when they had answered their front door, thinking a distraught parent was there seeking the lawyer’s help in finding an abducted family member. On opening the door, the lawyer would be murdered in his vestibule.
I had learned my job well enough by then to be the one to interview the second lawyer. Peace Brigades International’s interview questions included making sure that the one to be accompanied understood that he or she would not use weapons in self-defense. We team members were not volunteering to be killed in the cross-fire. The second lawyer readily agreed.
I was curious: “Why do you so quickly agree to lock away your gun and pledge not to use it?”
“It’s obvious,” he said. “I don’t really stand a chance against a hit squad with my gun. Your presence is much better protection than a gun could be.”
“By the way,” he continued, “my biggest need is for you to sleep here in my house and, when the doorbell rings at night, to answer it.”
On my first day he told me to get in his car and join him in a visit to a colleague for tea. We entered a comfortable villa where the family assembled in the living room. We conversed in English over tea and biscuits.
To my surprise, my lawyer shifted the conversation to me. I was from the United States, he said, and worked with an organization which had an extensive international network, and I was carrying a letter from my senator saying I was a solid citizen and should not be harmed. I grew embarrassed when my presence seemed to take over the conversation, so when he and I were back in the car I asked him what that was about.
“Well,” he said, “this lawyer we visited happens to be friends with the chief of police, so by this evening the chief will know all about you. That is my protection.”
From his response I learned one way that unarmed bodyguarding can work. The police chief, probably the controller of the hit squads, will know about me and know he needs to check with the government before implementing an assassination where I — an international — might get in the way and get killed. The government will have an opinion about whether that risk of my death should be taken. The government needs foreign aid and doesn’t want to spotlight its outrageous human rights record in the eyes of donor countries like the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States.
Varieties of non-violent self-defense
When we’re up against violent threat it’s easy to imagine that those using violence are simple-minded and have only one goal. The truth is that many decision-makers are complex and ambivalent. Antje Mattheus encounters a motorcycle gang in Hamburg and finds a leader who cares more about showing off his control of the group than the momentary thrill of assaulting her and her friend. Barbara Smith defends her neighborhood against the drug lords and finds that their wish to be rid of her is balanced by their wish to continue to live where they grew up. In my clumsy way I alert my neighbors and make a scene the perpetrator doesn’t want made.
It turns out that nonviolent action, like violence, can raise the cost of continuing a behavior we want to stop, like assassinating human rights lawyers. Intervening nonviolently can also make an alternative more viable, like allowing moms to work for democracy in a police state. In hundreds of stories found in the Nonviolent Action Database, grassroots communities found ways to use nonviolence to defend something important to them.
It’s far from clear that nonviolent action can be creatively applied in all of life’s complex situations. But who, except for the 1 percent, would want us not to try?
The military is currently putting the breaks on the drive to war in Iran, says a former colonel and diplomat, but concerned citizens need to step up.
Two Iraqi peace activists discuss their commitment to peace and undoing the violence wrought by the last two U.S. wars in their country.
Waging Nonviolence is a leading publication on social movements around the world, and we’re looking to expand our coverage and work with new writers.