Posts Tagged ‘Nonviolence’

In fact, non-violent anti-racism tactics work

August 21, 2017

Demonstration in Boston Saturday.  Click to enlarge.  Photo: Al Jazeera

Kevin Drum made the point that non-violent tactics are the most effective way to fight violent racists—at least at this point in American history.

The truth is that white supremacist groups are pretty small. Their views are so obviously vile that they just don’t appeal to very many people.  Generally speaking, then, the answer isn’t to fight them, it’s to outnumber them.  If they announce a rally, liberals should mount a vastly larger counter-rally and…do nothing.  Just surround them peaceably and make sure the police are there to do their job if the neo-Nazi types become violent.  If antifa folks show up with counter-violence in mind, surround them too.

Nonviolence isn’t the answer to everything, but it is here.  The best way to fight these creeps is to take their oxygen away and suffocate them.  Fighting and bloodshed get headlines, which is what they want.  So shut them down with lots of people but no violence.  Eventually they’ll go back to their caves and the press will get bored.

Source: Mother Jones

This is exactly what was done in Boston on Saturday.

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Rev. William J. Barber II on peace and justice

October 19, 2016

The Rev. William J. Barber II is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and leader of a non-violent social justice movement called Historic Thousands on Jones Street.

The video above is his response on July 8 to the killings of black men by police in Baton Rouge and in St. Anthony,, MN, within a 24-hour period, followed by the killings of five police officers in Dallas.   The video below is from his address to the Democratic National Convention on July 28.

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Donald Trump and the limits of protest

March 23, 2016

I admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was alive.   I admire the thinking of Gene Sharp.  I think civil disobedience is justified when all else fails.

But I do not agree with the non-violent protests that shut down an Arizona highway near a Donald Trump campaign events, nor with other protests intended to prevent Trump from speaking.

Dr. King’s non-violent protests were strategic attacks on structures of power.  His protests succeeded to the extent that people in power concluded it would cost them less, in terms of damage to profits and reputation, to give in to his demands than to fight them.

They also succeeded to the extent that Dr. King was able to convince the larger American public that his cause was just, and his protests were disciplined and organized as to give his followers the moral high ground.

Dr. King had specific lists of demands.  His opponents always knew what they had to do in order to shut off the protests.

trumpblock20Protestors who try to shut down Donald Trump rallies do not hurt either Trump’s reputation nor his profits.  Instead they solidify Trump’s support, while inconveniencing and alienating the general public.

Those protestors are not defending their Constitutional rights.  Instead they are denying Trump his right of free speech and his followers their right to peaceably assemble.

Yes, I know the Constitutional rights of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and other groups have not been respected, and that Donald Trump himself is not a friend of civil liberties.  That does not mean that he and his followers are not entitled to hold meetings or that there is anything to be gained in trying to deny them that right.

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Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolence

January 19, 2015

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We Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of our national heroes, but the only thing we remember that he stood for is that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skins.

That’s important, of course.  But many of us tend to forget his strong advocacy of economic justice and, even more, we forget his strong commitment to nonviolence, or rather mass defiance as an alternative revolutionary violence.

I am not a pacifist, as Dr. King was.  I do not believe that war is always wrong.  But the stronger reason is that I do not have the moral strength to following his teaching.  I am unable to live up to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels to love my enemies, resist not evil and do good to them that hate me.

The amazing thing about Dr. King was that he was able, for a short time, to persuade large numbers of Americans to fight without violence and to win.

Considered purely pragmatically, the nonviolent techniques of struggle advocated by Gene Sharp and practiced by Saul Alinsky have been at least as successful as revolutionary violence.

Alinsky’s career in particular is evidence that successful use of nonviolent techniques did not require Christian love or the turning of the other cheek.

My impression is that many black Americans today regard Malcolm X as a more manly role model than Dr. King.  Yet Dr. King made governors and presidents bow to his will, while Malcolm X’s struggles were mostly with other African-Americans.

This statement is not completely fair to Malcolm X, because he was murdered when his work had only just begun while Dr. King was struck down after he had accomplished most of what was in him to do.

But the fact remains that the Black Panthers and other advocates of armed struggle were much more easily crushed than the followers of Dr. King.

The power of oppressive elites is the power to compel obedience.  Their power ceases when the oppressed cease to obey.  I admit that’s easy for me to say when I’ve never put myself at physical risk in any struggle, nonviolent or otherwise.  But I believe it’s true.

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It wasn’t easy being Gandhi

October 9, 2011

Saintly characters in fiction are said to be less interesting than wicked characters.  But in real life, it is good people who are more interesting.  I recently finished reading Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, the new biography by Joseph Lelyveld.  This book shows Gandhi to be much more complex and interesting than an Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

He did not begin his career as an ascetic old man in a loincloth with his spinning wheel, abstaining from meat and sexual intercourse.  Rather, as the photographs in the book show, he began as a dapper, well-dressed youth South African lawyer angered because he was not treated in the manner to which his education and social class entitled him.

His transformation into the elderly “half-naked fakir” (as Winston Churchill described him) reflect a long evolution, as well as many trials and errors.

He sought to merge his personal struggle for personal peace and unity with India’s national struggle for peace and unity, and there always was a tension between Gandhi the religious leader and Gandhi the political leader.  Through his asceticism, he captured the imagination of the Indian masses as no other Indian leader of his time did.  His methods of non-violent struggle helped prepare India’s masses for self-government, and won India’s independence with a minimum of bloodshed and hatred between Britons and Indians.  But the masses did not necessarily follow his other teachings, particularly on equality for the Untouchable caste and on Hindu-Muslim India.

Gandhi’s beliefs and methods were formed during his 21 years in South Africa.  Five of the book’s 12 chapters deal with those years.  It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed his system of non-violent struggle.  It was there that he became an advocate for unity of Indians across Hindu-Muslim lines and caste lines, in part perhaps because most white South Africans ignored these distinctions.

He is regarded as one of the fathers of post-apartheid South Africa, although he separated the struggle of Indians in South Africa from that of native Africans.  Lelyveld described his respectful but arms-length relationship with John Langalibele Dube, the Zulu leader.  Gandhi may have been a bit racist at that stage of his life, but his reluctance to get involved in the African liberation struggle was probably more a matter of practical politics.  His whole political life reflected the tension between what the sociologist Max Weber called the “ethic of responsibility” for practical success and the “ethic of ultimate concern.”

My view of Gandhi for many years followed George Orwell in his 1949 essay “Reflections on Gandhi.”  Orwell wrote that Gandhi’s saintliness was not an attainable or desirable human ideal.  It meant loving humanity, but not committing yourself to any particular human being—something Orwell regarded as an evasion of human life.   Gandhi demanded self-sacrifice from his family and followers as he did from himself.  He renounced sexual intercourse without considering how his wife felt about it; he expected followers to be willing to die rather than engage in violence.

Gandhi renounced industrial civilization.  He believed in village self-sufficiency.  He would not have approved of the modern India of call centers, nuclear weapons, and Green Revolution crops.  And his methods of non-violent struggle, Orwell wrote, while admirable, would not have worked except with democratic countries such as Britain in which the public opinion had an influence.

Like Orwell, I am unwilling to renounce the comforts of ordinary life, the blessings of industrial civilization or the right to self-defense, or to deny these things to others.  I think Gandhi himself said somewhere—although I can’t find the quote—that while nonviolent struggle is better than violent struggle, it is better to fight violently than to submit to injustice out of cowardice.

While I still basically agree with Orwell, I have come to a greater appreciation of Gandhi over the years.  Non-violent struggle often fails, but in the 20th century, its results compare well with violent struggle.   The protesters in Cairo were influenced by Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which was inspired by Gandhi’s methods.  I wouldn’t venture to guess the outcome; it could be that the Army and the old regime will hang onto power in the end.  But the possibility of a good outcome is better than from regime change by military force in Libya.

I want our industrial civilization to survive, but there is a possibility that it is not sustainable.  If so, Gandhi’s spinning wheel may be the path to the future after all.

The quest for sainthood is always hard of the family and friends of the would-be saints, but Lelyveld’s book shows it was not an evasion.  Gandhi struggled as hard to overcome himself as to overcome his adversaries.

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The realism of nonviolent action

March 31, 2011

There is a mindset that identifies violence with practicality.  People who think this way regard boycotts, peaceful protests and civil disobedience of an oppressor as woolly-minded idealism, and assassination, terror and military force as hard-headed realism.  They become impatient with negotiation and diplomacy when they fail to bring about immediate results, but believe in responding to the failures of military action with redoubled military action.

Gene Sharp, in 2009

I used to think a little bit that way myself.  I of course admired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but I thought they were special cases because they appealed to humanitarian public opinion in the British and American democracies.  To deal with a truly ruthless enemy, such as Hitler or Stalin, required armed force or even the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Gene Sharp wrote The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973 to challenge that kind of thinking.  I never read it when it first came out.  My interest was aroused when I learned that it was used as a tactical manual by Egyptian protesters who overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Sharp contended that nonviolent action was as effective and realistic a means of struggle as war.  He intended his book to inspire the study of nonviolent strategy and tactics what Clausewitz and other military thinkers did for the study war.  The introduction was written by Thomas C. Schelling, a noted theorist of game theory and military strategy who was noted for his cold-blooded logic.  He praised Sharp for his dispassionate and realistic approach.

Sharp was to nonviolence was Clausewitz was to war.  Like Clausewitz, he said strategy and tactics were aimed at the will of the opponent.  Although Sharp was a conscientious objector, he insisted that you don’t have to be a religious pacifist to favor nonviolent struggle; there are many pragmatic reasons for doing so, he said.

All oppressive institutions depend upon the obedience of the subjugated class; when that obedience is withdrawn, the oppressor is no longer powerful.  And in Sharp’s view, the nonviolent fighter can win over or divide the opposition while a violent fighter unites it.

Oppressive institutions fear nonviolent action more than violence, Sharp contended.  That’s why agents provocateurs always try to instigate violence.  Sharp said rulers prefer violent to nonviolent opponents because they know better how to deal with the former than the latter.  If nonviolent resistance were weak and ineffectual, why wouldn’t the informers and infiltrators encourage it?

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Egypt’s democratic revolt

February 1, 2011

President John F. Kennedy once said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.The Egyptian protest demonstrations, which the protesters call the Days of Anger, may not strike the average American TV viewer as especially peaceful, but compared to what they could be, they really are.  What is going on in Egypt is the opposite of terrorism.

The anti-Mubarak forces are not tearing police and soldiers limb from limb.  They are not setting off bombs in government offices or shopping centers.  There aren’t any suicide bombers. Bodies of policemen and government officials are not hanging from lamp posts. Given the history of revolution, these are not things that can be taken for granted.  For their part, the Egyptian army announced late yesterday that it would not use force against nonviolent demonstrators.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed how a determined, murderous minority could seize and hold power through use of unrelenting force and propaganda and suppression of internal dissent.  Various Third World “national liberation fronts” that sprung up after World War Two took the Bolsheviks as a model.  They killed as many people among their own constituents to keep them in line as they did of their enemy.  Nothing like this is going on in Egypt.

Che Guevara and Regis Debray in their books on guerrilla warfare said that a revolutionary struggle could be ignited by a tiny group of terrorists (they didn’t call them that), provoking an over-reaction by government and drawing the masses into the struggle. These were the tactics of Osama bin Laden.  They are not the tactics of the current mass protests in Egypt.

Mass protests, especially nonviolent mass protests, are inherently democratic.  Leaders of mass protests have to gain and keep the confidence of the masses.  Their political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun.  Rather it depends on stripping rulers of their power to make people obey out of respect for their authority and out of fear of their power.  It does not depend on killing police and troops, but on weaning police and troops from their allegiance.

Alex Madrigal of The Atlantic Monthly last Thursday published excerpts from a pamphlet distributed to Egyptian protesters that illustrates their nonlethal tactics.

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Violence, violent rhetoric and Dr. King

January 17, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we honor today, was the target of violence and violent rhetoric.  In 1956, his home was bombed.  He told of his reaction in Stride Toward Freedom.

kingml.testamentI could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”

I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided.

I would not have had the strength to do what Dr. King did.

Advocates of peace and reconciliation are sometimes described as weak and naive.  But after all, it was Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle, not the guns of the Black Panthers, that ended segregation by law in the United States.  It was Dr. King, not Malcolm X, who faced down police and Klansmen, who triumphed over governors and presidents.

Dr. King is the only 20th century American whose birthday is a national holiday.  And it is a true holiday.  We Americans, and not just black Americans, really do honor his memory.  But it is easier to honor him than follow his example.

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