The Power of Nonviolence

The Power of Nonviolence

The movement can seize the moral high ground and win support for change.


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.

Activists have complained about the biased media coverage they received in Genoa and other cities, but such bias should come as no surprise. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, the major news organizations reflect the interests of the powerful corporations that own them. They rarely portray social movements fairly or accurately. The media are inevitably attracted to controversy and mayhem. If a hundred people are sitting in peacefully at a street corner while five are smashing windows nearby, the cameras will cover the latter. Vandalism and streetfighting divert attention from the movement’s underlying message of concern for the poor and the environment. The image conveyed is of lawless rampaging rather than a commitment to global justice. This diminishes rather than increases support for the movement’s goals.

Globalization activists face hard choices now as they contemplate the future of the movement. Many have called for a greater commitment to nonviolence. The Mobilization for Global Justice, one of the leading US groups in the antiglobalization movement, issued a “visions for action” declaration last August stating: “We envision a nonviolent world; we will use means consistent with this vision.” But the mobilization statement also said: “These are not philosophical or political requirements or judgments; there are many ways to resist corporate globalization.” This phrasing reflects a rather tepid commitment to nonviolence and suggests a tolerance for destructive tactics that seems contrary to the declared goal of upholding nonviolence. Within the global justice movement as a whole, there has been a reluctance to mount more concerted efforts to disown vandalism and streetfighting. It’s impossible to control the actions of everyone who participates in a demonstration, of course, but more vigorous efforts to insure nonviolence and prevent destructive behavior are possible and necessary. A 95 percent commitment to nonviolence is not enough. The discipline must be total if the political benefits of the nonviolent method are to be realized.

The first essential step, according to nonviolence trainer George Lakey, is to “fully commit to strategic nonviolent action explicitly.” Movement leaders must insist upon a strict code of conduct among those who participate in global justice protests. Last summer an ad hoc group of US-based activists proposed a Nonviolent Declaration that would specifically renounce all forms of violence. The proposed declaration pledges that “we will not harm people or property” and will “treat everyone with goodwill and respect.” Supporting such a nonviolent declaration does not mean abandoning civil disobedience or urban lockdown tactics. On the contrary, these and other forms of disruptive nonviolence can and should be encouraged. But attacks against the police are unacceptable under any circumstances and must be actively opposed.

The question of property damage is more ambiguous. Some forms of damage, such as hammering the nose cones of nuclear missiles, may be morally appropriate if conducted in a Gandhian spirit of respect for the adversary. Deming wrote of the need at times to “shock” people but at the same time to provide reassurance against harm and to act in ways that encourage more and more people to join us. This is a far cry from the hit-and-run tactics and random trashing of cars and stores that have marred globalization protests. The indiscriminate vandalism that occurred in Genoa and other cities should have no place in a movement that espouses global justice.

The choice of nonviolence should not be left to chance. It must be integrated into every element of the global justice movement. It should be publicly proclaimed as the movement’s guiding principle and method. The legitimate search for assertive and disruptive methods can and should proceed, but this must not be confused with vandalism and violence. The most radical and effective forms of social action are those that heighten the contrast between the just demands of the global justice movement and the brutal actions of the police. Only by preserving nonviolent discipline can the movement occupy and hold the moral high ground and win political support for necessary social change.

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