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Strategic nonviolence

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Common Uses

To create a framework for broad-based direct action conducive to building large, inclusive, diverse and effective movements.

For over a decade, questions of violence, property destruction and confrontational tactics generally have tended to be debated under the frame diversity of tactics, but the time has come to seek a new frame. Diversity of tactics becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating positions and coming to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for “anything goes,” and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actions.

A framework that might better serve our purposes is one of strategic nonviolent direct action. Within a strategic nonviolence framework, groups make clear agreements about which tactics to use for a given action. This frame is strategic — it makes no moral judgments about whether or not violence is ever appropriate, it does not demand we commit ourselves to a lifetime of Gandhian pacifism, but it says, “This is how we agree to act together at this time.” It is active, not passive. It seeks to create a dilemma for the opposition see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma, and to dramatize the difference between our values and theirs.

Strategic nonviolent direct action has powerful advantages:

We make agreements about what types of action we will take, and hold one another accountable for keeping them. Making agreements is empowering. If I know what to expect in an action, I can make a choice about whether or not to participate. We don’t place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support.

In the process of coming to agreements, we listen to each other’s differing viewpoints. We don’t avoid disagreements within our group, but learn to debate freely, passionately and respectfully.

We organize openly, without fear, because we stand behind our actions. We may break laws in service to the higher laws of conscience. We don’t seek punishment, nor admit the right of the system to punish us, but we face the potential consequences for our actions with courage and pride.

Because we organize openly, we can invite new people into our movements and they can continue to grow. As soon as we institute a security culture in the midst of a mass movement, the movement begins to close in upon itself and to shrink.

Though a framework of nonviolent direct action does not make us “safe,” it does let us make clear decisions about what kinds of actions we put ourselves at risk for. That said, we can’t control what the police do and they need no direct provocation to attack us see PRINCIPLE: Take risks but take care.

A framework of strategic nonviolent direct action makes it easy to reject provocation. We know what we’ve agreed to — and anyone urging other courses of action can be reminded of those agreements or rejected.

There’s plenty of room in this struggle for a diversity of movements and a diversity of organizing and actions. Some may choose strict Gandhian nonviolence, others may choose emphatic resistance. But for movements that embrace it, strategic nonviolent direct action is a framework that will allow broad-based movements to grow in diversity and power.

Key Principle at work

Escalate strategically

Activists tend to become increasingly radicalized through greater exposure to repression and injustice. Young activists, especially, will increasingly seek more “hardcore” ways to challenge the structures they oppose. These tendencies are valuable and should be honored and supported, but not all “hardcore” actions are equally effective. By charting a course of strategic escalation, we make space for the more radical among us to grow, without leaving behind the more cautious in our midst.

Starhawk is an author, activist, permaculture designer, and one of the foremost voices in earth-based spirituality. Her twelve books include The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and The Earth Path, and her first picture book for children, The Last Wild Witch. She has lived and worked collectively for thirty years, and her book on group dynamics is just out: The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups. She directs and teaches Earth Activist Trainings,, which combine a permaculture design certificate course with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism.

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