As protests against corporate globalization resume following the trauma of September 11, it may be helpful to reflect again on the role of nonviolence in the global justice movement. The violence that led to one death and hundreds of injuries in Genoa last July prompted a great deal of soul-searching within the movement. Even before Genoa, many global justice activists were beginning to question the vandalism and streetfighting tactics that have emerged at globalization protests. The battles that erupted in Seattle, Prague, Quebec and other cities have frightened away potential supporters and tarnished the movement’s image, eroding the good will that is crucial to political success. The answer to this dilemma, an increasing number of activists recognize, is a return to Gandhian principles, and an unequivocal commitment to nonviolent discipline as the key to effective social action.
Some activists believe that nonviolent methods are too weak, that more militant forms of disruption are needed to bring about social change. They are right to emphasize the importance of disruption. During the civil rights movement and other historical campaigns for justice, disruptive tactics were crucial to political effectiveness. Sociologist William Gamson called this phenomenon the “success of the unruly.” But disruption does not necessarily mean violence. In Seattle, Quebec and other cities, street lockdowns effectively blockaded key intersections. Groups of civil resisters occupied major crossroads, immobilizing themselves and refusing to leave. They courageously held their ground in the face of police attack and managed to remain in the streets long enough to disrupt official proceedings. These effective disruptive actions had nothing to do with the trashing of stores and the throwing of bricks and firebombs.
The belief that nonviolence is meek or ineffective reflects a misunderstanding of the rich tradition of nonviolent resistance. In recent decades the Gandhian method has achieved worldwide success. In the United States nonviolent action helped to achieve historic gains for African-Americans, farmworkers and women. Nonviolent methods brought down the Marcos regime in the Philippines, undermined Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and helped to end apartheid in South Africa. In Serbia trained nonviolent resisters helped to overthrow the Milosevic regime. The power of nonviolence is real, and has proven to be far more effective as a method of social change than the resort to violence and destruction.
The effectiveness of social protest depends on attracting the support of third parties. As one participant in the Quebec demonstrations put it, “The movement is about winning the hearts and minds of the tens of millions of working families who must be persuaded to support necessary political change.” When nonviolent activists display a willingness to sacrifice and remain dignified and disciplined in the face of repression, they are often able to win sympathy and political support from bystanders. This is what nonviolence activist Barbara Deming called the “genius” of nonviolence, what farm labor leader Cesar Chavez termed its “chemistry”–the ability of dignified suffering to attract sympathy and political support. Violence, by contrast, turns off potential supporters and pushes third parties toward the sidelines or the other side. Streetfighting tactics jeopardize the moral integrity and political legitimacy that are necessary for political success.
The contrast between the anarchical images of vandalism in Seattle and Genoa and the dignified demeanor of civil rights demonstrators forty years before is striking. Students in Nashville in 1960 sat at lunch counters wearing dresses and suits, strictly nonviolent despite the blows and curses of racist thugs. Careful training and nonviolent discipline enabled them to withstand attack without retaliation. The civil rights protesters captured and maintained the moral high ground, and preserved their ascendancy over the segregationists who attacked them. By contrast, the actions of some demonstrators in Seattle and Genoa blurred the distinction between the movement and its repressive adversaries. Destructive acts created negative media images and provided an excuse for even harsher repression.