Why I believe in Nonviolent direct action:

This is about nonviolent direct action, but it’s also my ‘remember to vote’ post! If you haven’t already, you should go out and vote this Tuesday at your local polling place!

Fortunately, we live in a democracy, which means we get to vote on a few laws directly, and most laws indirectly through the election of legislators who represent our interests. This is a great thing.

However, sometimes there are issues that don’t seem to get solved just by voting. I think of the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage as major historical examples.

Our current position on the rights of women and African Americans are almost universally recognized as progress, and yet neither would’ve stood a chance in a vote of the time.

Both required massive nonviolent campaigns, waged over many years to change the minds of the people in power.

So, what is nonviolent action, and how does it achieve its goals when the vote isn’t working?

The simplest form of nonviolence is a conversation.

Photo credit: Laurie Pink

Just like when we have conflicts in our personal lives, sometimes the most productive way of getting someone to change their mind is to talk to them. If you have a problem with the local political scene, go and speak with your local legislator. If your problem is with a company or group, ask to speak with the group’s/company’s leadership. This isn’t rocket science, nor is particularly radical.

If you aren’t satisfied after your conversation, it might be time to organize a campaign.

In order to create a nonviolent campaign, you need to have a specific goal, and a strategy designed to achieve that goal.

There are thousands of examples of campaigns throughout history, and a fascinating diversity of tactics. Swarthmore college professor George Lakey has put together an online database, searchable by country, specific tactic, and how successful the campaign was in achieving their stated goals.

My mom is a part of the activist group Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). EQAT is currently trying to get PNC bank to stop funding mountain top removal (MTR) coal mining. They’ve occupied branches of PNC, set up caution tape around a PNC exhibit in the Philadelphia flower show, and taken a 200-mile walk between Philly and Pittsburgh to dramatize the issue. PNC has issued a statement saying they won’t fund companies who make most of their income through MTR, but EQAT continues to pressure them to make a full sector exclusion, refusing to fund any company that practices mountain top removal coal mining at all.

I am also particularly inspired by the story of a group opposed to the US shipping weapons to East Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. They brought small boats to harbors all over the eastern seaboard, dramatizing the issue by practicing maneuvers to physically block the cargo ships from docking. They were able to inspire the local longshoremen to refuse to load the weapons. Eventually, the international Longshoremen’s association shut down all US ports to shipments of weapons for Pakistan.

Both of these are examples of the kind of conflict that nonviolence action is best at addressing; nonviolence is excellent at bringing a sense of urgency and importance to an issue that might otherwise be ignored. Why nonviolent campaigns, rather than writing letters, op-eds, or lobbying congress?

Photo credit: Laurie Pink

Nonviolent action is the most direct form of democracy. It’s like a super-vote saying, “I believe in this so strongly that I’m willing to spend time, money and energy on it.” Nonviolence at its best, dramatizes the issue, forcing politicians and the general public to engage in discussions about a problem that might not otherwise get recognized as significant.

An op-ed piece in the local newspaper is much more effective when people already care about the issue. If people are concerned about something, politicians are forced to take a stand, and a letter-writing campaign can be critical in determining which way they will vote. That’s why letter writing and lobbying are great in conjunction with a nonviolent campaign.

Nonviolent action gives us a tool for making change that doesn’t revolve around election cycles or political funding. It mitigates some of the power difference between giant companies and local groups, and it allows people to participate in politics in a direct and impactful way.

This Tuesday, it’s almost certain that approximately 50% of this countries voters will be bitterly disappointed in the results of the presidential election. It’s important that we remember, not matter what the results are, that there are more ways than just the election of a new president to create change in this country.

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3 Responses to Why I believe in Nonviolent direct action:

  1. “50% of the country”

    50% of voters* :p never forget that a lot of people simply give no fucks about politics!

    I understand this is a very basic overview you’ve done here, but I still dislike this feeling to me like a brochure/sales pitch. At least to me, it’s very important to recognize the limitations of direct action.

    At the least, I feel like it’s important to discuss what sorts of things to think about when wanting to organize a direct action:

    -why is this person/corporation/entity doing something I don’t like?
    -who do I want to draw the attention of with my action? the entity itself? the general public?
    -am I aiming to get press coverage?

    and however else. Presumably I could c/p the list from Rules for Radicals here :p

    I find discussion of more ‘ordinary’ direct actions very fascinating when juxtaposed with the paradigm-shifting success that is Occupy Wall Street, a nonviolent direct action with only the vaguest of goals, that I would say was successful precisely because it refused to define itself as a constituency with specific positions on issues. Another approach that breaks the traditional rules is Voice of Choice, which organizes not physical but electronic actions directed at dissuading small groups of individuals (it’s not bullying, they promise! 😉 ).

    • Fixed the line about 50%. Thanks for that, and I agree that there is a lot more to discuss. I feel like I’ll revisit this post later on and cover some more specifics.

      The Occupy movement is interesting to me? Was it/is it successful? What metrics can be used to measure it?

      As always, I definitely appreciate your feedback!

      • The Occupy movement reshaped the national discourse. Its impact cannot be effectively measured in a scientific way – the best we can do off the top of my head is measure what and how financial issues were discussed prior to the protests and afterwards. Before, deficit reduction was all anyone had to talk about. Instead, income inequality is a thing that people can and will talk about.

        Each time that a source of influence discusses the 99% and the 1%, it is a mark of the success of Occupy.

        The fact that the conservative media felt compelled to come up with their own counter-meme of ‘we are the 53%’ is, I think, a statement as to the power of the movement. And it was that same use of a specific percentage that moved Mitt Romney’s taped comments regarding the 47% from a gaffe that he could wave away as welfare queens to an indictment of military servicemen, the working class, and the rest of the half of America that was justifiably offended by said comments that led to even more negative attention being directed towards the rich.

        Now, if this were a movement that had cost millions of dollars or something, it would be fair to ask if the impact of the movement would have been better spent elsewhere. When the movement had almost no up-front costs and contributed to the formation of countless other direct actions, such as eviction defense, and positively contributed to the perception of our cultural inequalities for MILLIONS of Americans, I think it’s impossible to call it anything other than a gigantic success.

        If you had told me in advance that a few thousand people that could be falsely pigeonholed as dirty hippies would dominate the mainstream media for several months and have a lasting effect and whether and how classism was discussed, I would have called you delusional. But that’s just how much discontent with our societal structure was hidden in the general public, and its emergence can I think only be seen as a positive.

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