World March for Peace and Nonviolence - Brooklyn Bridge, NYC - 11/30/09 Copyright by Asterio Tecson, AttributionNoncommercialNoDerivativeWorksSomerights reserved.
Part One of
A Discussion Series by R.W. Nye
No matter how upset you may be with the arrogance of those in positions of power in our government, the undue influence of corporations-as-people, the flagrant overreach of the Executive Branch in invading every last vestige of our privacy, and the increasing use of brutal police tactics in some localities, don't go meditating violence. That would be playing into the hands of our well-armed law enforcement people, who are just waiting for you to make their day.
Instead, there are a great number of nonviolent techniques that can be much more effective in mounting a resistance to an unjust and corrupt government. You won't get results overnight, but with patience and diligence, bravery and determination you can achieve long-term lasting change without committing any act of violence. You can achieve amazing results through nonviolent political action without hurting anyone or engaging in the destruction of property.
The cookbook for this sort of resistance is a three-volume work entitled The Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Professor Gene Sharp,published at Harvard in 1973. This classic text explains the theory of nonviolent resistance and “political jiu-jitsu” whereby ordinary folks can transform repressive regimes by undermining their pillars of support.
Inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi, A.J. Muste, Henry David Thoreau and others, Professor Sharp studied examples from history to analyze how people have empowered themselves through nonviolent political action to exert pressure against the powerful. This work and Sharp's other writings such as From Dictatorship to Democracy have been used worldwide by popular resistance movements in countries ranging from Serbia to Egypt. His foundation, the Albert Einstein Institution, (www.aeinstein.org) offers many of his publications for free download. They are available in several languages.
Volume 2 of the trilogy is devoted to specific methods of nonviolent action “designed to operate against opponents who are able and willing to use violent sanctions” by creating “a special, asymmetrical conflict situation, in which the two groups rely on contrasting techniques of struggle, or 'weapons systems'--one on violent action, the other on nonviolent action.” It is this volume that I will initially discuss.
Sharp enumerates 198 distinct methods of nonviolent action and briefly discusses each. My purpose in this series will be to present and discuss his techniques in a way useful to 21st-century Americans.
I will discuss these specific methods in the order in which Sharp presents them, grouped together as he grouped them. Eventually, I will review Sharp's theory of how and why these techniques are effective when used in a persistent and disciplined manner.
THE METHODS OF NONVIOLENT PROTEST AND PERSUASION
FORMAL STATEMENTS include:
1. Public speeches Sharp cites several examples of dramatic public speeches delivered to audiences of university students and—from the pulpit—to religious congregations, in opposition to Adolf Hitler and his supporters. The speakers assumed great personal risk to their lives and freedom.
Great orations, over the centuries, have become landmarks in history. Very recently, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was observed. Robert F. Kennedy's 1966 “Ripples of Hope” speech in South Africa is still frequently quoted.
In our own state of Michigan, USA, and in most other states, people have the right to address most deliberative government bodies. Unfortunately, these bodies frequently impose draconian time limits on this right. Sometimes these limits can be overcome by making prior appointments to reserve longer time intervals. Even when restricted, this is a valuable right and we should make regular use of it.
2. Letters of opposition or support These may be private letters addressed to a certain person or body, or “open letters” intended to influence the public as well as the recipient. Writing to one's representative in Congress is a time-honored American tradition, and in the age of email has never been easier.
Politicians, mindful of future elections, tend to pay attention to their mail and email. They will usually answer a well-composed, respectful communication. The reply is often proforma and brief, but if they have received a large volume of communications on a given subject they may take the matter seriously enough to act as a large number of their constituents wish, provided that corporate lobbyists haven't already persuaded them to do otherwise.
Appointed officials, too, may be sensitive to the winds of change. They can sometimes be influenced by written communications when they have discretionary authority in a given matter.
Never underestimate the ability to exert influence by means of written communications.
3. Declarations by organizations and institutions
Government officials tend to take seriously any declaration they receive from organizations and institutions representing large groups of people. When these bodies enjoy a large degree of prestige or popularity they become hard to ignore.
Americans who belong to labor unions, professional associations, and other bodies may have means of leveraging influence by working to have such organizations deliver declarations in opposition to repressive or wrong-headed government policies.
4. Signed public statements
In contrast to declarations, these are “directed primarily to the general public, or to both the public and the opponent, and released with the signatures of supporters.” These may be offered to the public to sign. “The signatures may be those of persons from particular organizations, occupations or professions, or of people from various parts of the society.”
5. Declarations of indictment and intention
As examples, Sharp cites the American Declaration of Independence, as well as the South African “Freedom Charter” adopted in 1955 against apartheid. Ideally, such documents “are seen to be of such a quality or to meet such a response that the document itself becomes influential in influencing people's loyalties and behavior.”
6. Group or mass petitions
Group petitions have been used since ancient times. Thanks to the Internet, it has now easier than ever to circulate petitions electronically signed by large numbers of people. When a large number of people are passionate on a given issue, such petitions can be carried out and presented with amazing speed. A petition containing a large number of bonafide signatures can be a blockbuster in urging the adoption or prevention of a specific action.
In many states, petitions may serve as the basis for legislative initiatives, recalls of public officials, and referendums on existing legislation. Such petitions allow citizens to participate in democracy in a more direct fashion than merely voting for people to represent them.
(COMING NEXT: PART TWO: COMMUNICATIONS WITH A WIDER AUDIENCE)