The fusion of organized mass struggle and nonviolence has a long history
and involves the refusal to counter the violence of a repressive system
with violence. A prime example of mass nonviolent action is the successful
nonviolent campaign for Indian independence from the British Empire, which
was led by Mohandas Gandhi. But there are many other examples. Techniques
of nonviolent noncooperation were used in Denmark and Norway to save Jewish
lives and resist Nazification of the school system. The Salvadorean people
have often used nonviolence, particularly during the 1960s and 70s, when
Christian base communities, labor unions, campesino organizations, and
student groups held occupations and sit-ins at universities, government
offices, factories, and haciendas.
There is a rich tradition of nonviolent direct action in this country as
well. American revolutionaries used tactics such as tax and tea boycotts
to mobilize thousand of colonists against the British. American peace
churches have a long tradition of noncooperation with military conscription
and taxation. Beginning in the late 1800s, the women's movement for the
right to vote carried on a century of silent vigils, mass demonstrations,
and hunger strikes.
The labor movement has used nonviolence with striking effectiveness in a
number of instances, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free
speech confrontations; the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)
sitdown strikes from 1935-1937 in auto plants involving 400,000 people; and
the United Farmworkers grape and lettuce boycotts.
Using mass nonviolent action, the civil rights movement changed the face of
the South. The successful Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 electrified the
nation. Then the early 60s exploded with nonviolent actions: sit-ins at
lunch counters and other facilities, freedom rides, freedom schools, voting
registration drives, jail-ins, and the 1963 March on Washington, which drew
250,000 participants. Civil rights activists developed many of the
nonviolent techniques used by peace and justice movements since that time.
Opponents of the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s employed the use
of draft card burnings, draft file destruction, mass demonstrations (such
as the 500,000 who turned out in 1969 in Washington, D.C.), sit-ins,
blocking induction centers, draft and tax resistance, and the historic 1971
May Day in Washington, D.C. in which 11,000 people were arrested for
Since the mid-70s we have seen increasing nonviolent activity by women's,
anti-nuclear power, environmentalist, anti-intervention, anti-apartheid,
and anti-nuclear weapons movements.
Nonviolent civil disobedience actions have taken place at dozens of nuclear
weapons research installations, storage areas, missile silos, corporate and
government offices, and other places necessary to the pursuit of the arms
race. Some 1,750 people were arrested on June 14, 1982 at the missions of
the five major nuclear powers during the 2nd UN Special Session on
Disarmament. In 1982, and again in 83, over 1,000 people were arrested for
blocking traffic at the Livermore Labs where nuclear weapons are designed.
In a series of actions in 1983, over 1,000 people were arrested at
Vandenberg Air Force Base for nonviolently disrupting the flight testing of
MX and Minuteman III first strike missiles. In 1983, American women set up
peace camps at Puget Sound, Washington and Seneca Falls, New York to
disrupt the production and deployment of Cruise missiles.
Many actions have been specifically directed against Trident. In 1975,
members of the Pacific Life Community planted a garden within the fence at
the first Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington. There have been
ongoing civil disobedience actions at the Trident manufacturing plant in
Groton, Connecticut. And from Pantex, Texas (where all nuclear weapons are
assembled), to Bangor, people continue to sit on the tracks to block the
white train as it carries nuclear warheads to the submarines. Protests
against Trident have also taken place in King's Bay, Georgia at the second
Trident base; Wisconsin and Michigan against the Project ELF communications
system; Sunnyvale, California against Trident II's prime contractor,
Lockheed; and the Knolls Atomic Power Labs in Albany, NY. Of the 14
Plowshares actions, enactments of the biblical injunction to "beat
swords into ploughshare," six have been aimed at Trident. On January
15, 1987, just under 200 people were arrested for blocking the first
Trident II test launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In his book
The Politics of Nonviolent Action,
Gene Sharp has categorized 198 methods of nonviolent action, which can
be broken down into three main types:
- protest and persuasions (e.g., leaflets, pickets, vigils,
- noncooperation: social (e.g., social boycotts, student strikes,
suspension of social activities); economic (e.g., labor strikes, tax
resistance, consumer boycotts); and political (e.g., election
boycotts, civil disobedience, draft resistance).
- intervention (e.g., sit-ins, occupations, alternative economic and
social institutions, obstruction, work slowdowns and sabotage).
Power itself is not derived solely through violence. Governmental power is
frequently violent in nature, but it is primarily maintained through
oppression and tacit compliance of the majority of the governed. Since
silence and passivity is interpreted by the government as consent, any
significant withdrawal of compliance will restrict or challenge
governmental control. Struggle and conflict are often necessary to correct
injustice. People's apathy in the face of injustice implicates them in the
moral responsibility for that injustice.
Returning violence with violence forces us to replicate structures of
oppression and injustice which we oppose. It is essential that we separate
the role a person plays from that individual. The "enemy" is the
system that convinces people that they have little choice but to play
oppressive roles or work in military industries. A nonviolent campaign
must focus on the issues and the system, rather than individuals caught up
in that system.
Nonviolent struggle is not easy, and should not be thought of as a
"safe" way to fight injustice. The strength of nonviolence comes
from our willingness to openly take personal risk without threatening other
people. Acting against injustice should be done in a way that exemplifies
our vision of a just and peaceful world.
Nonviolence provides us with more control over a situation. It eliminates
a major rationale for the use of violence by opponents. Supporters of the
opponents are drawn away and there are fewer casualties. Nonviolence makes
room for productive dialogue, allowing us to speak to the best in people,
rather than seeking to exploit their weakness to what we may think is our
advantage. We can put more pressure on people for whom we show human
concern. Violence creates desperation and resentment in opponents.
Openness and honesty are essential elements in our attempt to get the
general public to respect and trust us. Violence and dishonesty undermine
support and creditibility. Groups using nonviolence gain self-respect,
confidence, and power.