“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nonviolent action works best when you stay nonviolent.
It’s amazing to think that unarmed masses of people have defeated armed-to-the-teeth forces using humble techniques as strikes, occupations, boycotts and sit-ins. One way of understanding why this can happen is that nonviolent methods put the oppressor in a decision dilemma: either rain pain on a bunch of unarmed resisters, or capitulate. The former can turn public opinion toward the protesters and undermine the legitimacy upon which the oppressor’s power rests. If the resistance persists, escalating crackdowns can start to backfire, even to the point that the police or military refuse to participate. Eventually the sovereign has no choice but to capitulate.
This basic logic frays, however, as soon as the resisters start meeting violence with violence. If the opponent succeeds in portraying resisters as a threat to peace and order, it escapes the decision dilemma, reasserting its legitimacy by playing the part of protector, of securer, of stabilizer. Unless you can scrounge up enough guns to match the military’s firepower, your movement is toast.
Political scientist Erica Chenoweth and sociologist Kurt Schock examined the data of past resistance movements and found that having an armed flank dramatically reduces the ability of an uprising to attract widespread participation. Most people aren’t interested in getting martyred in a firefight, so they’ll stay home. Rather than merely representing one wing of a “diversity of tactics,” therefore, undisciplined violence in a movement tends to lessen the effectiveness of nonviolent mass movements see TACTIC: Strategic nonviolence. That’s why oppressors love to insert provocateurs into resistance movements to push them into violence and then discredit them.
Many people keep nonviolent discipline for mainly strategic reasons: they do it because it’s effective, rather than as a matter of principle. In practice, though, maintaining nonviolent discipline in the face of provocation can be difficult if you don’t consider it at least partly as an end in itself. Fortunately, almost everybody aspires to build the least violent society possible. To the extent that we build our movements as models of the world we’d like to see, nonviolent discipline should come naturally.
The practice of maintaining nonviolent discipline should never be confused with passivity or acquiescence in the face of injustice.
When a given nonviolent tactic doesn’t work, it’s tempting to conclude that nonviolence has failed and the only recourse is violence. That’s incredibly hasty. There is an enormous range of nonviolent tactics — Gene Sharp famously listed 198 of them,1 and that’s just for starters — varying from purely symbolic acts to direct action designed to disrupt the smooth operation of oppressive systems. There is no one-tactic-fits-all solution: when one nonviolent tactic isn’t doing the trick, try another, or more than one at once!