American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
After Seattle: Nonviolent Strategy and Tactics
Roy Morrison is a writer, cooperative organizer, and nonviolent activist whose book Ecological Investigations is scheduled for publication in late 2000. He was a charter member of the Clamshell Alliance and active at Seabrook in the late 1970s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those of us committed to social justice, peace, and the environment, the WTO actions in Seattle marked the dynamic emergence of a broad but still nascent coalition for social change, and a revitalization of mass nonviolent direct action.
The successful blockade of the WTO event, led by the Direct Action Network, skillfully employed clusters of trained affinity groups assigned to blockade locations. They acted with bravery and nonviolent persistence in the face of police violence and brutalization. However, reports from around the world characterize Seattle as a civil disturbance, not disciplined civil disobedience, and condone police violence by showing images of demonstrators smashing windows, trashing stores, and running wild. Indeed, an Earth First! newsletter published an ad from an anarchist group promoting a videotape of the Seattle riot. The Seattle action, a model of sophisticated nonviolent tactics, was compromised and politically damaged by window smashing and its consequences.
Upcoming mass actions are planned in Boston in late March at a biotech conference, for Washington at the IMF/World Bank in April, and at the national conventions. Police expect future demonstrations to resemble Seattle's mixture of street blockades and property-destroying demonstrators, and are preparing to respond with a more sophisticated and "successful" use of force. A number of serious questions need to be addressed by informed communities of nonviolent activists. The stakes are high. What's on the table is the viability of an emerging mass movement for liberating social change employing nonviolent direct action.
If we cannot resolve some of the questions being debated after
Seattle, then after a few more epic struggles, the nonviolent
spirit likely will be dissipated, and the momentum lost. In nonviolent
action it is often small things, our attention to detail, and
not merely the global forces of political economy, that can spell
the difference between success and failure.
Five Questions of the Moment
First, is police violence and brutality against nonviolent
demonstrators now to be an expected and increasingly accepted
feature of mass nonviolent direct actions? Second, how
can nonviolent activists respond to plans that violate their agreements
and nonviolence guidelines? Third, is the question of property
destruction best addressed as a strategic or as a moral issue?
Fourth, how can nonviolent actions be creative? Fifth,
how can coalition partners be persuaded to participate in mass
Nonviolence Is the Way
It's crucial that we strengthen the broad national and global support and sympathy for principled nonviolent action. This is the heritage bequeathed to us by nonviolent activists like Gandhi and King and hundreds of thousands of others who risked--and sometimes gave--their lives struggling for justice and liberation. Principled nonviolent action does not mean merely symbolic, choreographed, and orchestrated civil disobedience arrests. This is not to disparage the use and importance of such actions, merely to note that the power of nonviolence, even over empires, can embrace a multitude of dynamic tactics. And while these tactics can include the destruction of property, principled nonviolence, does not include running through the streets and smashing windows under the cover of a nonviolent blockade.
When police in Selma, AL turned loose their dogs and firehoses on disciplined, nonviolent civil rights marchers, there was a national and international outcry. The image of a single Chinese man standing in front of a tank that would not run him over is an enduring world symbol.
But when the police in Seattle turned to mass violence using the pretext that a few score of self-described anarchist demonstrators broke windows and trashed stores, there was no general outcry. Instead, there was much confusion--sympathy with the demonstrators, who were described as mostly nonviolent, but also considerable empathy for the authorities.
Nonviolence does not mean that demonstrators will not be hurt, nor that police will not be violent. Nonviolence as a political strategy has two generally reliable consequences. First, while there may be violence and death, the number of casualties will be far less than if violent tactics are employed. For example, compare the long and quite effective nonviolent campaign led by Ibrahim Rugova in Kosovo to the disastrous activities of the Kosovo Liberation Army and subsequent NATO airwar.
Second, a violent response to clearly nonviolent demonstrators
leads to unfavorable political consequences for authorities. Violence
against those perceived as nonviolent will likely call forth moral
and political outrage. Nonviolence keeps authorities on the horns
of a dilemma: Either they allow the action to proceed, largely
on its own terms, or they use force and risk unknown political
and economic consequences. Just a few instances of violence by
demonstrators obscures the action. If authorities can get away
with using the kind of violence employed in Seattle, the nonviolent
movement will wither.
Openness and Respect For Nonviolent Agreements
To assure the efficacy of an action, the health and safety of its participants, and the future of the nonviolent campaign and movement, it is necessary to respond promptly to those intending to act outside the nonviolent agreements and guidelines of the action. It's certainly appropriate to respectfully consider proposals for actions against property. But acts or stated intentions that violate an action's agreed-upon nonviolence guidelines, undertaken by groups intending to operate alongside, and, in effect, under the cover of the nonviolent activists, represent a threat to the campaign and its participants.
What happens during an action depends largely on policies and structures prepared in advance. To distinguish trained nonviolent participants from other groups, the use of arm bands, colored hats, buttons, scarves, action tee shirts, or similar paraphernalia is highly recommended. This is what the Clamshell Alliance did at Seabrook. Emphasizing this in the media and in communications with authorities will help prevent police brutality and make it more likely that police will pay a price for such brutality if it occurs.
To deal with unforeseen acts by police, counter-demonstrators,
provocateurs, or by groups or individuals acting outside guidelines,
the action needs to have structures on affinity group, "cluster,"
and action levels. This can include special training in conflict
resolution by affinity-group members and a core conflict resolution
staff alert for and trained to respond to the unexpected. This
is not a "peace police," but prudent nonviolent self-protection.
After fires were set in the middle of the night at both ends of
a Seabrook cluster encampment, it was clear that encampments needed
a night watch.
Property Destruction Is a Strategic Issue
Debates over property destruction as part of an action scenario
are best addressed as strategic and tactical questions and not
moral choices. The question for nonviolent activists is not the
sanctity of property, but the effects that the proposed property
destruction will have on principled mass nonviolent action. In
most cases, property destruction only makes sense for small groups,
such as the Plowshares activists.
You Can't Repeat the Last Action Success
Demonstrators learn from their successes. So do authorities. Tactics that were successful and novel, that confused authorities, captured the public imagination, and attracted thousands of new participants can't simply be duplicated or just made bigger and better. Some authorities are smart, creative, and able to plan effectively to remedy their past mistakes. Each action should be looked at with fresh eyes. The site and the physical, political, social, and economic circumstances determine tactics. Consider, for example, occupation, reclamation, grand march to civil disobedience, encirclement, and action at multiple sites. Avoid military thinking and find nonviolent metaphors, e.g., reclamation and community building, instead of mere occupation.
What's decisive in an action is soul force not physical
force. Examine opportunities to change the tactical shape of the
action. In the traditional action, the authorities are on the
inside and the demonstrators circle the castle, but by spreading
out the sites and focus of the action demonstrators can be on
the inside, moving back and forth between action sites. Since
our opponents' facilities are typically many, combining
an action site on the west side of town with one on the east side
can create dynamic new possibilities. That's nonviolent
The Participant You Need May Be the Next One Recruited
One success of Seattle was in forging a broad coalition of disparate groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Rain Forest Action Network and using the programs and energies of these groups to offer a week-long smorgasbord of conferences, street theater, rallies, marches, art, demonstrations, and nonviolent direct action. Over time, it's crucial to reduce the distance groups may place between themselves, their members and the action.
The labor, environmental, and religious movements contain many
activists who have extensive action and nonviolence experience.
These activists should be courted by organizers to participate
in the nonviolent direct action and to form interest groups within
their organizations to urge participation in nonviolent action.
For this to happen, the conduct of the actions must be meticulous,
disciplined, and principled. People of diverse backgrounds share
our concerns and are waiting for effective leadership. What we
do matters. We have more power than we know.
Web Resources on the World Trade Organization
Independent media: www.indymedia.org
Extensive WTO and Seattle coverage
WTO Watch: www.wtowatch.org/multimedia Lots of video clips
Regeneration TV: regenerationtv.org/news_wto.html Ralph Nader on the WTO and the protests, at an Independent Media Center news conferece
Video Activist Network: www.videoactivism.org
Whispered Media's new Public Service Announcement about the WTO, "How a Bill Becomes a Law"
International Forum on Globalization: www.ifg.org/tof4.html
Videotape of WTO Debate (anti: Ralph Nader, Vandana Shiva,
John Cavanagh; pro: Jagdish Bhagwati, David Aaron, Scott Miller;
moderator: Paul Magnusson)
"Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied."
--Arthur Miller, playwright