Why nonviolence is about changing situations, not other people

From Wet'suwet'en solidarity blockades to students boycotting school over segregation, movements are at their strongest when they disrupt the status quo.

In a recent newsletter, Metta Center Executive Director Stephanie Van Hook reminded me that nonviolence isn’t about changing other people.

“Nonviolence can change other people,” she wrote, “but if we think that is the goal of our efforts, we will not be effective. It’s about changing a situation or creating a new situation, and letting the new environment, which includes people’s attitudes and behaviors, change people.”

In nonviolent struggle, we often think of our campaigns as “forcing” an oppressor to stop harming us. But, nonviolence is really about changing our own behaviors — and those of friends, coworkers, colleagues and community members — in ways that challenge other people to adapt, respond and change, too.

All too often, it is our silence, complicity and cooperation that allows injustice and destruction to proceed. When we stop playing along, others — oppressors, bystanders, passive allies — have to reassess their behaviors. As Dr. King said, “We must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

Nonviolent action isn’t about forcing someone to get off your back. It’s about standing up straight. When we change ourselves in this way, the people trying to oppress us soon find that it’s not so easy — or so profitable.

With that in mind, let’s look at this dynamic in some of the stories from this week’s Nonviolence News.

Currently, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation is in conflict with the Canadian government and Coastal Link, a gas company trying to build a pipeline through the First Nation’s unceded territory. Tribal members have refused their consent, setting up a series of road blockades in the path of the pipeline construction. This meant the Canadian government had to make a choice: Will they respect First Nation rights and treaty laws? Or will they back the pipeline?

They chose to back the pipeline and arrested the resisters. When that happened, over a hundred solidarity actions erupted across Canada, including rail blockades, port shut-downs, highway closures, office occupations, student walkouts and more. Each one raises the costs — and the stakes — on the Canadian government for its support the pipeline. The Mohawk Nation’s rail blockades alone have disrupted over 200 trains. The solidarity actions are costing the Canadian economy billions. Canadians are faced with a choice: Is the disrespect of First Nation rights and a profitless, climate-destroying pipeline worth it? Many are saying, “no.”

The Wet’suwet’en decision to uphold their treaty rights is “straightening their backs.” They are showing that they will no longer allow colonizers to build destructive pipelines in their territory. Their choices are setting off a ripple — a tidal wave, really — of changing decisions throughout Canada.

Meanwhile, in the United States, New York City high school students are planning a district-wide boycott over segregation. The students say current admissions processes have created a segregated school system that divides rich and poor, brown/black and white, and college-prep and all others. For months, school boycotts have rotated from one campus to the next. By walking out of class, the students are changing the game. They are taking back their power by non-cooperating with the unjust situation. With the students on rotating strike, city officials can no longer ignore the problems or continue implementing small, insufficient changes. They must make choices in response to the fact that their students refuse to attend these unjust schools. The students’ boycotts have changed the situation in precisely the manner Stephanie Van Hook’s quote describes.

Let’s look at a third example: in Bristol, England, a city council planned to expand the local airport until climate protesters raised the stakes of that decision. More than 8,000 people objected to the expansion. Extinction Rebellion organized a three-day protest with dozens of activists symbolically burying their heads in the sand at a nearby beach. By refusing to stay silent on the issue, citizens helped their community reject the “business as usual” mentality. They gave the officials room to make decisions based on environmental and health impacts. Without public outcry, the airport expansion would have been perceived “sensible” or “wise.” Instead, the expansion was viewed as throwing fuel on the fire of the global climate crisis.

If you look closely, you’ll see this dynamic in every nonviolent struggle. People are showing that they’re done cooperating with oppressors. The days of normalizing injustice are over. Those profiting from harm must calculate anew the risks and costs of continuing their destructive choices. And perhaps, they will realize that they might now benefit from changing, too.

Rather than “forcing” or “making” someone else change, movements organize everyday people to make the first change, setting off a chain reaction of shifts and new decisions. It’s an empowering way to look at how change is made. It puts the power to transform our world squarely in our hands.

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

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