Practicing nonviolent resistance in the time of COVID-19

We may be physically distanced, but we can stand united through nonviolent action during this pandemic.

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Amid a growing global environmental crisis and major concerns about democracy worldwide, 2019 saw a wave of mass mobilization all around the globe, expressed through the means of nonviolent resistance. The global climate movement certainly had its most active year in 2019, with climate strikes and marches in 185 countries, involving millions of people. Also, 2019 witnessed a wide range of large-scale pro-democracy movements and those protesting against inequality and economic hardships — from Algeria to Hong Kong, Chile to Lebanon, Israel to Belarus, to name just a few.

While the most robust strategies of nonviolent resistance often include disruption, it seems that nonviolent activism itself was severely disrupted by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has crippled almost the entire planet since starting in the early months of 2020. Due to the pandemic, physical (social) distancing became a necessary precaution to prevent transmission of the virus, in addition to partial or full lockdowns.

The virus and countermeasures have also caused one of the biggest economic crises the world has seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s, with many countries’ economies sliding into recession. Looking at its effects, the pandemic has exposed many aspects of structural and cultural violence in our societies, many of which might not have been as obvious before. This shows that the fight against injustice has arguably become more important than ever.

This article looks at how nonviolent action has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic and what, given the lack of a cure and/or immunization, nonviolent action in time of a pandemic could and should look like. 

Not every method of nonviolent resistance relies on physical contact

Perhaps, when they hear the terms “nonviolent action” or “people power,” most people envision massive demonstrations or marches — methods of protests that cannot be done without defying physical distancing and lockdown policies. Fortunately, these two tactics are not the only in the arsenal for nonviolently expressing aspirations and grievances. Gene Sharp, one of the most prolific researchers on nonviolent action, identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, which he divided into three categories: 1) protest and persuasion, 2) noncooperation, and 3) nonviolent intervention. So, when the virus closes a number of doors, a number of other doors became more widely open and nonviolent activists should be creative about using methods that do not require physical proximity.

Activists should think more creatively about how they can communicate their commitment and seriousness while being miles apart, separated by a screen.

One way is to move the resistance online. Given that large amounts of people are working from home and spending more time in front of their screens throughout this pandemic, we might find new opportunities to reach and engage people who do not usually come to participate or support in-person demonstrations and marches. Greta Thunberg, along with thousands of students from all over the world, moved their school strike for climate online. In doing so, they managed to bring in more diversity, putting a spotlight on young climate activists from the Global South and indigenous communities. In Indonesia, Kamisan — the longest-held picketing action — has also moved online. Establishing themselves as trending topics in the country or worldwide, these movements continuously widen their reach throughout the pandemic.

But not only well-established nonviolent movements used the web to organize. For example, in the United States, K-Pop fans organized via the social media platform TikTok to disrupt President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by registering for millions of tickets and not turning up, leaving the venue half-empty in the end.

Of course, not all methods of nonviolent actions can be perfectly and effectively moved online. Nonviolent resistance always has a performative element where display of personal sacrifice increases the possibility of moving the opponent closer to our goals. This is often difficult to emulate through online means. The public seems to be more likely to believe that we are serious when they see us standing for hours in the heat or dead cold in front of the parliament building rather than clicking a button on an online platform. Activists should therefore think more creatively about how they can communicate their commitment and seriousness while being miles apart, separated by a screen. We should certainly not reduce nonviolent action to only online activities.

A time for reflection and organizing

Obviously, a pandemic poses some, if not major, restrictions on many mass-based activities that nonviolent movements frequently use. Depending on the issue we advocate about, maybe the pandemic provides a well-deserved pause to do those things that sometimes get undone in the heat of the busy day-to-day struggle.

As people finally coming around to reading those books they always wanted to read or knitting that sweater that has been unfinished for years, the lockdowns and slowdowns imposed by COVID-19 might allow activists and movements to reflect on past achievements and failures, including which methods worked and which not and why, strategize and plan for post-COVID-19 activism, and think about how the pandemic and its negative effects might impact their strategy and tactics going forward in the future. It might also allow time for documenting past achievements, for writing and research and for outreach to supporters and recruitment of new supporters.

If you do it, do it safely

Active nonviolence comes with a commitment to not use and prevent violence. This might be based more on ideological or on pragmatic reasons, but no matter which rationale is taken, activists should have that basic principle in mind when planning and executing nonviolent activities. While activists do not condone violence against “opponents,” nonviolent activism often relies on displaying the proponents’ willingness to endure the risks of being harmed, injured or even killed by the opponent. Adding COVID-19 to the equation certainly provides a complex challenge if we want to interpret these principles and stances in the era of a global pandemic.

In the early weeks in most lockdowns, activists largely refrained from any mass-based public nonviolent action, compliant with regulations that often limited, if not forbade, public gatherings. Then, as anti-lockdown crowds took their protests to the streets, in some instances it was health workers who took it upon themselves to defend public safely and the necessity of preventive and lockdown measures.

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When activists finally restarted activities, some got very creative and used puppets, chairs or other props to show numbers. In Kiev, Ukraine, mannequins symbolizing patients with rare diseases were put in front of the Health Ministry to ask for better support for high-risk groups during the pandemic. Similarly, in Indonesia, activists put mannequins in front of the parliament building to protest a controversial Omnibus Law. German restaurant and café owners protested against the lack of government support by putting empty chairs on town squares in a number of cities in Germany.

Other groups decided to ditch their props and use their own bodies. They were nevertheless very serious about keeping physical distancing during the protest. For example, in Israel, protesters demarcated six feet for distancing with chalk marks during anti-government protests in April. Meanwhile, in Poland and Lebanon, protesters stayed in their cars during protests, enforcing enough distance between them.

But the most notable instances of nonviolent resistance throughout the pandemic are arguably those organized around the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Given that many of these protests included thousands of people and were met with police repression, it was almost impossible to implement proper distancing, and there has been a debate if these protests might or might have not contributed to spreading COVID-19.

Activists should seriously weigh the benefits and risks of using mass-based nonviolent methods in the middle of a pandemic.

While preliminary evidence seems largely negative, which might be due to the fact that most demonstrators wore masks and the protests were also taking place outdoors where transmission of the virus is likely lower, we should still be wary that public mass-gatherings might be posing some measure of risk in regard to the health and lives of protesters, bystanders, security forces and the wider public given what we know about the transmission of COVID-19 so far.

We obviously face some difficult ethical questions here, particularly given the basic principles of active nonviolence. While the people going to the street clearly seemed to have weighed the importance of standing up to racism and injustice as more important than their own health, they also have some responsibility to their fellow citizens, which they might have endangered by participating in mass gatherings. There is thus at least some moral taint on participating in mass-based nonviolent action in the middle of a pandemic.

Even if one thinks that — given the toll of racism and discrimination on black communities and the real window of opportunity for changing these conditions — much of that risk might be justifiable, which I do, activists should seriously weigh the benefits and risks of using mass-based nonviolent methods in the middle of a pandemic.

If activists decide that the benefits of engaging in public large-scale nonviolent resistance largely outweigh the risks, given the spirit of nonviolence they should make sure to prepare and enforce anti-COVID-19 safety-measures, such as keeping physical distance, enforcing the wearing of masks and providing means to wash and sanitize for participants.  

The fine line between constitutional rights and public health concerns

In the middle of a pandemic, there are certainly strong public health concerns to not allow major public gatherings, which would extend to marches and demonstrations. Nevertheless, basic freedom rights do not cease to exist just because of a pandemic. This was highlighted by a verdict of the German Constitutional Court, which in the height of the German COVID-19 lockdown allowed a protest in the German town of Giessen to go ahead, arguing that coronavirus restrictions were not sufficient grounds to ban all protests. The court particularly highlighted that the town council had not sufficiently considered the measures organizers put in place seeking to ensure that the demonstration would comply with coronavirus health guidelines when rendering their decision.

Of course, this is only one legal opinion in a single country, but we can argue that there is a case to be made that acts of nonviolent actions should be allowed in public even in the middle of a pandemic. Still, organizers should attempt to take all necessary steps to minimize the risk of virus transmission.

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There are also other major concerns when it comes to COVID-19 and rights. There were reports that a few governments used the COVID-19 pandemic to arrest nonviolent activists. One prime example was Algeria, where the government has attempted to stop ongoing antigovernment protests and, according to news sources, has intensified arrests against dissidents, independent journalists and young bloggers since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Pandemic lockdowns might also have allowed repressive regimes, armed groups and/or criminal organizations to target human rights and environmental activists.

In Colombia, for example, it was reported that 28 activists — including human rights defenders and community leaders — have been murdered after lockdown measures were imposed. We can thus see that lockdown measures might make some activists more vulnerable to repression and outright violence given that it might be easier to identify their whereabouts due to restrictions on mobility.

A number of governments have also used the pandemic to pass laws that limit the rights of people to engage in nonviolent action or might make it easier for activists to be arrested and/or persecuted (for example, Hong Kong’s national security law or the Philippines’ anti-terror law). Others have used the limitation on public engagement and protest to pass unpopular laws and policies. Knowing they would not face or only face limited protests, for example, the Trump administration used the pandemic to weaken environmental regulations even more. Indonesia also passed a controversial mining law in the middle of the pandemic.

When governments want people to comply with lookdown measures, they should make sure that activists are protected and not subjected to additional threats. Governments also should not use the lockdown to minimize people’s right or pass unpopular or contested measures. Aside from the general problematic implications of these laws and policies as such, this behavior is also procedurally very problematic. Restrictions because of the pandemic limit public participation and input in law-making processes and also limit public debate about such laws and measures.

In terms of public health and safety, governments should probably refrain from fast-tracking and passing controversial legislation in the middle of a global pandemic. If they do not, they have little reason to be surprised if people risk their health to protest such measures, and governments have no moral high ground to prohibit or limit such protests.

No double standards

We have seen in recent years that the political right — and even the far right — has become adept at using nonviolent measures effectively to promote their own causes (for example, the 212 anti-Ahok protests in Indonesia or the creative use of nonviolence by the Austrian far-right identity movement).

If a protest against wearing masks does not try to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and thus increases the risk of disease and death for vulnerable groups, is it really nonviolent?

Again, in the case of COVID in several countries including the United States, the first out of the gate when it came to mass-based active nonviolence, were people contesting government COVID-19 measures such as lockdowns, economic closures and public health measures like the mandated wearing of face masks. Many countries have seen these kinds of protests where participants were often deliberately not wearing masks or keeping social distance.

These kinds of protests have often been criticized or condemned by commentators as well as public health professionals, while on the other hand, the Black Lives Matter protests were largely commented upon positively and welcomed. Is this discussion hypocritical and is such differentiated judgment warranted?

In principle, I think we should not have double standards when it comes to nonviolent action. In a democracy, people should be allowed to freely express their opinion, even if or particularly when we do not agree with their opinion or even might find their opinion stupid, dangerous or repugnant. There might of course be some limits set to this in terms of hate-speech or inciting violence, but different societies have different standards when it comes to setting the limits to expression. Thus, nonviolent action no matter from which direction should be an allowed part of the contested politics in a democratic civitas. But aside from this principle, there are a number of criteria that we can use to distinguish between different forms of nonviolent resistance.

First, we can distinguish the cause and discuss whether some causes are more just or justice-seeking than others. In the case of anti-mask protests and Black Lives Matter, we can thus argue which of the causes seems more urgent and just. We can ask ourselves if a protest against wearing masks that does not try to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and thus increases the risk of disease and death for vulnerable groups is really nonviolent. People may of course disagree upon which of the causes is more legitimate in terms of the added risk that mass protests in terms of COVID-19 face, but at least this gives us one criterion for distinguishing between these two causes.

We can easily put this in terms of a discussion of means and ends. While the means might be the same, the ends that protesters seek might be very different. Both Gandhi and King believed very strongly that the means and ends cannot be separated and would not have agreed that nonviolent measures could and should be used successfully for ends that are increasing direct, structural or cultural violence.

Second, we can distinguish and discuss the way nonviolent action is conducted, which is the realm of means. While both progressives and people on the political right might use nonviolent methods such as marches, vigils and demonstrations, they might do so with a different mindset. Many nonviolent activists believe in nonviolence as a principle for action, while it seems that people from the political right using nonviolence often only see nonviolence in pragmatic terms, having studied the effectiveness of such methods in the past. Thus, as they do not necessarily believe in nonviolence in principle, sometimes the use of nonviolent action by the right wing comes with a thinly-veiled threat of violence.

One striking example this year were the anti-lockdown protesters in the United States who entered the Michigan statehouse armed with assault rifles. Of course, enforcement of nonviolent discipline is also not always easy and guaranteed when it comes to progressive causes. Property destruction and looting have at times accompanied anti-globalization and also recently Black Lives Matter protests, and these instances have also at times hurt the public image of those movements. Still, I think we might be able to argue that on average a higher percentage of progressives see nonviolence as a principle than protesters on the political right. (It would be interesting to see some studies about this issue in the future.)

There is, I think, an interesting discussion to be had if governments and security forces react with different levels of repression against nonviolent actions from different actors. Often nonviolent movements turn to violence in the face of repression and agent provocateurs. For a discussion, see Jonathan Pinckney’s article from 2016.

Thus, when we discuss these different forms of nonviolent action, we should be careful not to use double standards by arguing that nonviolent action by liberal and progressive actors is always good and by illiberal and reactionary actors is always bad. However, we need to make a more detailed argument about the different causes for which those actors stand and how they nonviolently make their case. At the core of nonviolent philosophy, active nonviolence is about the unity of means and ends, so by using nonviolent means for causes that foster exclusion, discrimination and division, the use of nonviolent action by right-wing actors might be tainted in that sense, rather than their use of nonviolent methods in principle.

Looking ahead

As the months have passed, people and societies have adjusted to the pandemic and so have nonviolent movements and activists. As many countries have come out of lockdown, mass-based nonviolent actions have also become much more frequent and we have seen some kind of return to normal.

This does not mean that the effects of COVID-19 on nonviolent action have ended. As long as there is neither a cure nor a vaccine, nonviolent activists should be vigilant and prudent in minimizing health risks when planning and performing nonviolent actions.

The epidemic might also provide a window of opportunity for transforming societies to become greener and more just in the future and to build upon the solidarity that many societies have shown throughout the lockdown. Amid the global climate emergency, which has not disappeared because of the pandemic, and the rising threats to democracy and democratization in many countries, nonviolent action is needed now more than ever.

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search

Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.

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