Nonviolence and Direct Action

A Guide to Protests and Campaigns

Nonviolence is a 'mansion with many houses'. It is holistic ethical philosophy of how humans could/should live in peaceful & respectful co- existence with each other and the natural world.

Nonviolence is also a powerful tool for social change.

Nonviolent social change is based on the understanding that the power of elites is unstable and ultimately dependent upon the support of key groups and the wider populace. When applied through 'direct action' or civil disobedience campaigns, nonviolence works because:

1. It dramatises an unjust situation so that it can no longer be hidden or ignored

2. It allows us to publicly expose underlying political and power relations, values and motives

3. It demonstrates people's deep personal commitment to an issue (or an area), and does so in a positive way, which is attractive to other people in the community.

4. It creates a dynamic that allows public support to swing away from governments or other power elites in the community (our 'opponents'), and towards the activist group (see below for further explanation).

5. If we clearly adhere to nonviolence, our opponents will not be able to discredit us by committing acts of violence or vandalism and trying to blame them on us. The public will believe us, not our opponents.

What does nonviolence look like in action?

· Nonviolent direct action campaigns succeed best when there has been a public preparation phase involving information gathering and education campaigns. This should be ongoing.

· Attention is focussed on values, structures and institutions, not attacking individuals or personalities.

· Attention is focussed on a positive, up-front approach to conflict resolution, and respect for opponents.

· Ongoing actions are often based around well- organised groups of people (affinity groups) which intervene directly to prevent, interrupt, or highlight an injustice.

· Affinity groups act together in a bold, calm and creative manner, being very open in their planning and actions.

· Affinity groups set the agenda in any given action: all aspects of the event are considered and planned for, and the aims of the action are clear.

· Groups use clearly defined roles such as peace keepers and police and media liaison people.

· Action groups need to stand firm and remain nonviolent in the face of repression.

· No physical or verbal abuse of opponents, and no acts of vandalism or sabotage.

How nonviolence succeds - the underlying dynamic.

One of the fundamental techniques of nonviolence is to create a clear contrast between the values, methods & motives of the activist group and those of the opponent group.

In a campaign or conflict situation, the public will tend to support people or groups who are:

(a) standing firm for the values & principles they believe in (especially if those values/principles are already widely understood and supported in the community e.g. protecting the environment; human rights)

(b) perceived to be open, vulnerable & peaceful, in contrast with undemocratic, unjust, violent or repressive actions by opponent groups

(c) consistently remaining nonviolent in the face of increasing use of force and sanctions by powerful opponent groups in society, such as government / police / big business.

In most nonviolent (direct action) campaigns, governments or other power elites will try to intimidate and overpower activists, and undermine campaigns, by using a variety of sanctions such as physical force, arrests, fines, jail sentences, harassment etc.

If the activist group is prepared for increasing sanctions/repression from government, and stands firm in the face of this, and if it continues to put out a strong clear message to the wider community, then the support of the community will increasingly be withdrawn from opponent groups and be more and more actively directed towards the activist group.

Crucially, nonviolence campaigns create a situation where people who are part of the opponent group will be most likely to shift their support to the activist group, thus further undermining the opponent group's sources of power.

Such dynamics lead to success for the activist group since power elites need access to a wide range of support roles in order to be able to 'have their way'.

Gandhi thought of nonviolence on three levels: self-improvement, a constructive program to create a new social order, and campaigns of resistance against oppressions.

Gene Sharp (1973/1980) has identified some 200 forms of nonviolent direct action. within three broad categories: protest and persuasion, (active) non-co-operation, and intervention.

Cummins (NZ) has charted the dynamics of nonviolent direct action.

Peter Robertson