Striking nursing home workers, 2010 (courtesy of District 1199/SEIU)

Nonviolent direct action and the good kind of trouble that changes the world

The new book "Good Trouble" documents dozens of cases of ordinary people embracing the strategy of people power on a local and national level.
Striking nursing home workers, 2010 (courtesy of District 1199/SEIU)

Some years back, a close friend of mine was arrested and forcibly removed from the factory floor at a Maine shoe company. Peter was a machine operator who had organized a union at his plant. At the time, a referendum was on the ballot to shut down the state’s only commercial nuclear power reactor. Peter’s local had gone on record supporting the measure.

He tacked a notice on the union bulletin board, reminding people to vote. The factory manager ordered him to take the flyer down, but Peter refused.  When the manager removed it, the union activist took the notice out of the manager’s hands and put it back up. Peter was suspended but refused to leave the factory and was arrested.

In solidarity, two shop stewards came to work wearing No Nukes shirts. Both women refused to leave the plant, and they were arrested too. Then 150 shoe workers defied the boss and pinned No Nukes buttons onto their work clothes. “It was at that point that the company caved,” Peter recalls. “We three were paid for our time off and we won free speech on the job.”

Peter and his co-workers could have filed a grievance and proceeded through the contractual steps which could have dragged on for weeks. Instead they took nonviolent collective action, escalated it, and won.

The power of nonviolent resistance

Although nonviolent direct action, or NDA, is frequently dismissed in activist circles as ineffective and purely symbolic, there are literally thousands of examples, and quite literally millions of ordinary people, embracing the strategy of  “people power” on a local and national level. My book “Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action” documents, for the first time, dozens of these examples utilized by a wide range of people, especially communities of color who are fighting for economic, social, environmental and racial justice.

Organized nonviolent resistance is a method of struggle outside of institutional methods (laws, courts, petitions, voting), without the use of injurious force or threat to others.  It is open and direct conflict that exposes oppression.  It is protest, resistance, or intervention to stop injustice and win control over our lives.  Such resistance, wrote sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, gains real leverage by causing “commotion among bureaucrats, excitement in the media, dismay among influential segments of the community, and strain for political leaders.” 

Focused mostly in urban settings, “Good Trouble” documents the work of public housing tenants to protect their kids from a hazardous river, welfare moms who set up a tent city to stop benefit cuts by the Governor, and a neighborhood that forces a restaurant owner to clean up his rat-infested property.

Other events demonstrate how the use of NDA has exposed injustices and forced the powerful to make significant changes: young Black and white activists who challenge racist hiring practices by blocking United Parcel Service (UPS) trucks; anti-war veterans who occupy a cathedral during mass to expose church investment in weapons production; and an inmate sit-down strike triggered by inhumane jail conditions.

And there’s more: urban high school students publish an independent newspaper despite escalating discipline; university students lock college trustees in a conference room until they approve Black student scholarships; displaced families occupy hotels and state offices; homeless men take over city hall to expose the lack of an inclusive housing policy; the lesbian community refuses to cooperate with a federal grand jury witch hunt against underground activists; gay rights advocates face down a bar owner who discriminates against “nonconformimg” patrons. These are just a few of the creative, militant and effective uses of strategic nonviolence collected in the book.

So what’s stopping us?

If active nonviolence is so powerful, why isn’t it utilized more often? Why can’t we mount massive protests that stop “business as usual?” Why do the Puerto Rican, Hong Kong, and Sudan democracy campaigns, and the European student climate strikes attract millions of people, not just for one rally but as a sustained presence that disrupts governments and forces real change?

In fact, we can and we have: in the U.S. workers have done so many times. With labor strikes — most recently by teachers, supermarket workers, and tech companies — organized workers have mounted successful actions that are nonviolent at their core. The conscious, collective withdrawal of cooperation is one of NDA’s main tenets, and for two centuries U.S. workers have used it to win better lives.

The Maine shoe factory story is just one example of many, where union (and nonunion) workers take charge of their work lives, to make the boss do the right thing or stop him from doing wrong. In my healthcare union, we have a practice of ”walking in” on the employer to press for immediate action. It’s an effective, time-honored tradition. Workers learn what it’s like to engage in an action together; it sets the stage for going on strike when necessary.

The campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline and the Standing Rock occupation, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for Fifteen and a Union have shaken the ground beneath a complacent power structure and pointed to the efficacy of this powerful tool. As BLM co-founder Alice Garza has stated: “Every successful social movement in the country’s history has used disruption as a strategy to fight for social change.”

New legislation threatens movement tactics

The more effective a strategy is, of course, the harder the government will push back. In seven states, laws have recently been passed to criminalize protests: Stiffer penalties for  unlawful assembly or traffic blocking; unlimited use of force by police; increasing property obstruction from a misdemeanor to a felony; equating protest with terrorism. Besides those eight, six other states are now considering similarly drastic laws, euphemistically citing the need to “protect critical infrastructure.” In five more states the legislation has failed, for now, according to the Guardian.

Legal repression is not new.  In the first decades of the 20th century, cities and states passed ridiculously broad sedition laws to stop labor organizing and groups like the Wobblies from reaching out to workers. For instance, six such laws were passed in the State of Connecticut, banning the waving red flags, wearing union buttons, or speaking contemptuously of the government. The legislation indemnified the state’s national guard or a militia for killing a person engaged in an unlawful assembly. In the 1940s the Smith Act was used to prosecute socialists and communists for advocating unlawful actions.

In 1977, the federal criminal code overhaul known as Senate Bill One provided three years in prison for planning a protest threatened property damage, and expanded government eavesdropping and wiretapping.  The 2001 Patriot Act (now the USA Freedom Act) serves a similar function: indefinite detention of immigrants, surveillance without probable cause, forcing libraries to disclose patrons’ book checkouts and banning them from informing a target of the government inquiry, and much more.

Truth be told, the vast majority of the working people have never even attended a peaceful protest, let alone engaged in civil disobedience. Deep grassroots education, organizing at the local level, and recruitment for bold action are critical measures needed to get people into the streets and keep them there. Civil disobedience requires “skin in the game” and generates a more intense level of popular resistance. Reminding people of their history is part of building that resistance.

As Congressman John Lewis has said: “I’ve been in trouble all my life. Good Trouble.” It’s time to put this tool in every community’s tool box.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.