Activism Today: From Protest to Revolution

Activism Today: From Protest to Revolution

FOR SOME YEARS I have been giving a talk called “State of the Art” where I lay out what I see as qualitative changes or growth points in the worldwide practice of nonviolence. There’s also been quantitative growth, to be sure: since Richard Deats published his survey in the early 1900’s, where he found that the number of persons who had experienced some kind of major nonviolent action in their country reached “3,300,100,000, a staggering sixty-one percent of humanity!” the spread of the technique has not slowed, so that Erica Chenoweth can call it the “technique du jour” for civil uprisings. But I have been more interested in qualitative changes, especially in the mysterious process of group learning, and came up with these five encouraging developments:

• New communities or demographics have been drawn into the fray: women, indigenous people. Particularly encouraging developments took place at Standing Rock, where U.S. veterans apologized to the Sioux nation and even interposed themselves between them and the security forces threatening them.
• Indigenous communities have been able to form a worldwide association, the Via Campesina, that brings them out of isolation and into much greater awareness of their collective power without much sacrifice of their traditional lifeways.

• Learning across movements, a critical capacity that had lagged far behind military science, now looks to best practices and transmitting lessons learned around the world. I often cite CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, as an institution dedicated to transmitting lessons from the successful Otpor rebellion that brought down Serbian President Slobodan Milośevič in 2000.
• (Other) new institutions, particularly Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) and its flagship organization, Nonviolent Peaceforce.

• Research: an entire scholarly field of research, focused largely on what is called Civil Resistance, is bringing a virtual flood of books and articles that for the first time in history offer rigorous study of the conditions for and effects of nonviolent resistance. In this category, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works has been particularly eye-opening, and widely read.

Two new developments, not grass-roots ones, can be added to this encouraging mix: UCP has made inroads into high-level discussions at the UN, and more remarkable still, Pope Francis delivered a stunning message in the Fiftieth World Day of Peace address on the first of the year called “Nonviolence, a Style of Politics for Peace.” “In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order,” he writes, “may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.” As Pace e Bene activist John Dear quipped, perhaps without much exaggeration, this is the first time nonviolence has come in for such official endorsement by the Catholic faith since the Sermon On The Mount. We have reason to hope that this will eventuate in a papal encyclical, which has great authority among the nearly one billion faithful.

Today we are experiencing what has been called, I think rightly, an authoritarian coup d’état. I have yet to hear of a single nonviolent activist planning to give up; on the contrary, forces are rallying and there is a badly needed enhancement of sophistication in movement culture itself. Awareness is spreading that we need to move on from one-off protests (what nonviolence scholars call the “effervescence of the crowd”) to lasting movements that can effect concrete change (in terms of Metta’s “Escalation Curve,” move from phase one to phase two). Our determination and persistence is the answer to their ruthlessness ⎯ as long as we remain nonviolent. Encouragingly, the nonviolent atmosphere of the women’s march (probably because it was a women’s march) was so powerful that, though the usual provocateurs were present they could not do anything. People are also realizing that:

• We have to shift from reactive, or defensive actions to proactive or nonviolently offensive ones.

• We need training. Right now 180 federal employees are taking civil disobedience training! What a statement!

• We need to experiment with new forms of organization, like the “core teams” that served Earth Quaker Action Teams so well in their successful struggle to stop mountaintop removal.

• We need a longterm strategy. We need more voices calling for this.

• It may be controversial to say this, but some are saying that the “cul de sac” of identity politics has not served us well. It’s been a distraction at best and a divisive element at worst. We’re all in this together.

These are really great developments, but a couple of things still need to happen. We need widespread recognition that being “against Trump” is not enough – it may even be making things worse. We must recognize that this presidency emerged from our culture: not just our political culture, but the culture of materialism, of commercials (where do you think the “post truth” era came from?) and the Old Story of separateness.

We are on track to emerge from this chaotic era with a robust, sustained culture where people are always poised to offer nonviolent resistance against attacks on our democracy. If we can pull that off, we’ll be glad we went through all this.