The global field of nonviolent struggle is vast and jaw-dropping. At any given time on this incredible planet, millions of people are engaging in some form of nonviolent action. If we pay attention, we can learn from them. Their stories can show us how to organize successfully, creatively and inventively. They can uplift our spirits and re-inspire us for the long haul of making change. They also offer hard-won lessons that we can use to make our struggles more powerful and effective. Here are nine campaigns from recent issues of Nonviolence News that offer pearls of wisdom for our efforts to wage nonviolence for peace, justice and change.
How to win big
21 Days. 20,000 Argentinian vegetable oil workers. $100 million strike-related costs per day. The take-away? 35 percent wage increases for everyone whose labor brings vegetable oil from grain to refinery to shipment.
By taking action in dramatic and courageous ways, you make visible the injustice and show your willingness to take risks for what’s right.
By organizing across multiple unions and sectors of agribusiness and shipping, the Argentinian workers leveraged an unstoppable ability to halt the industry. The gain was profound, raising wages up a third for all workers. What can we learn from this? Organize from cradle-to-grave, from seed-to-ship, with every single person whose hands cross paths with yours in this vast interconnected world we live in.
Rebellion of one
While mass actions have power in the dramatic immensity of numbers, smaller groups can still have strategic strength — not to mention a nimbleness that large groups can’t duplicate. Extinction Rebellion has launched a new climate justice tactic: a single-person roadblock, multiplied by thousands. Each person wears a sign with a simple and emotive message. They each have an incognito support team, hiding in plain sight among the passersby in the area. They remain sitting in the road until they choose to move, or are moved. It’s an intriguing direct action amidst the global pandemic’s restrictions. And they’ve handily put together a digital guide that can be used by anyone, anywhere. How could you use a Rebellion of One, multiplied by thousands?
Boycotts aren’t just for activists
Smart, strategic nonviolent campaigns use an oppose and propose approach to dealing with an injustice.
Restaurant supplier Aramark is under fire for social justice issues left and right — most recently, university students have been boycotting the dining halls supplied by Aramark because of the company’s use of prison labor. But Aramark itself is also boycotting an injustice. The food supplier has categorically refused to handle genetically engineered salmon, and plans to keep the frankenfish out of restaurants and dining halls across the United States. This action reminds us of how much power large systems hold and how important it is for them to take ethical action. What might happen if the systems or organizations you’re part of took action for justice?
Judges on strike
We often think of workers going on strike, but strikes are used by students, industries, banks and more. In Haiti, as the current president faced massive protests against his corruption and kidnappings, judges went on strike and brought the court system to a grinding halt. They were reacting to the president’s firing of three Supreme Court judges — an action he has no authority to do. The judges’ action is powerful, symbolic and tangible. Along with Aramark’s boycott of GE salmon, this story should spur us to reflect on the groups in our societies who don’t normally engage in nonviolent action. What would happen if these groups chose to leverage their labor in exchange for social change?
Go bold or go home
Across the world, climate activists are using bold action to stop the causes of the climate crisis. They are digging tunnels under fossil fuel infrastructure and locking down. They’re tree-sitting to stop forests from being razed. They’re trekking across Africa to protect the environment. Boldness is a prized quality for nonviolent action. By taking action in dramatic and courageous ways, you make visible the injustice and show your willingness to take risks as you stand up for what’s right. Boldness surprises people out of complacency. It energizes fellow activists to renew their efforts. It may even make us gasp, smile, laugh, or cheer. How might you use boldness to ignite your community to take action?
Oppose and propose
Smart, strategic nonviolent campaigns use an oppose and propose approach to dealing with an injustice. They oppose a problem and propose an alternative solution.
When we are willing to steadfastly pursue the goal of social justice even at the risk of getting arrested or hurt, it reveals to onlookers that we have a cause worth striving for.
After First Nation members blockaded a logging operation and stopped a clear cut, one woman launched an alternative enterprise to replace the destructive logging. She created a language revitalization and healing center that will support and employ the Indigenous community of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw. This center will be funded by an adjoining wellness eco-tourism lodge that operates in the summer months. By proposing an alternate source of income that requires a healthy forest, she is ensuring that the underlying causes that led to the logging will not recur. How can you use an oppose and propose approach in your own organizing work?
Refuse to obey unjust laws
Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” to describe refusing to obey unjust laws. Mohandas K. Gandhi articulated how to use it en masse to make those laws unenforceable until they were overturned. One of the most straightforward recent uses of civil disobedience happened in New Zealand recently when a Maori lawmaker ran up against an outdated dress code. The law mandated that all lawmakers had to wear neckties. The Maori man refused; it wasn’t his culture to wear what he called the “colonial noose.” He was thrown out of the building, but his refusal to comply with the unjust law led to the dress code rules being overturned. What unfair rules could we change in our workplaces (and beyond) if we refused to obey them?
Willingness to endure suffering
Activists are notorious for expanding the envelope of social permissiveness and oftentimes come from deep-rooted traditions, too.
I’m not a fan of suffering. For years, I couldn’t wrap my head around Dr. King’s Principle of Nonviolence that says, “nonviolence holds that voluntary suffering can be redemptive and transformative.” It wasn’t until I heard Kazu Haga rephrase this as “willingness to suffer for the sake of the cause in pursuit of the goal” that I understood what it meant. When we are willing to steadfastly pursue the goal of social justice even at the risk of getting arrested or hurt, it reveals to onlookers that we have a cause worth striving for. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this happened in Alaska when Inuit hunters traveled for two days on snowmobiles to set up a blockade in -30 Celsius weather to stop a proposed iron mine. Their willingness to brave the cold showed that they had a cause worth sacrificing for, and a concern that we should all listen to. What causes would you be willing to risk suffering for in pursuit of change?
Tradition meets direct action
Activists are notorious for expanding the envelope of social permissiveness. They tend to advance progressive causes and organize for radical change. Their opponents sometimes cast this as oppositional to “tradition” or “traditional values,” but activists come from deep-rooted traditions, too. Sometimes, they draw from these traditions to reassert a deeply-held value. Along the US-Mexico border, an architect is building traditional wood-fired stoves called hornos. These clay ovens allow migrants awaiting asylum to cook meals together. In this way, he is reasserting our common humanity, and reminding us that people seek shelter, share food and carry beautiful traditions along with them as they migrate from one country to another. How can you call upon beautiful traditions to remind your community of our common values?
These nine stories reveal how much we can learn from struggles happening right now, all around the world. We can apply all of these take-aways and tips to our own change-making efforts. The results might be astonishing. Instead of reinventing the wheel, let’s borrow good designs from our fellow activists and speed toward a world that is rooted in more justice, more peace, and more respect and dignity for all.
These stories were collected from Nonviolence News’ weekly round-up. You can find them and hundreds more at NonviolenceNews.org
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.