Monday, October 24, 2011

Does Nonviolence Work? Notes from OccupyOakland October 24th

by Miki Kashtan

On my third visit to OccupyOakland, I co-led two workshops hosted by Nichola Torbett, founder of Seminary of the Street. In both of them I collaborated with Nichola and with Kazu Haga, an Oakland-based Kingian Nonviolence trainer. The conversations that emerged in these workshops, along with a recent post by Sharif Abdullah about vision implementation, form the basis of what I am writing below.

Effectiveness of Nonviolence vs. Commitment to Nonviolence
Although only one of the people who came to either workshop expressed an active disagreement with a commitment to nonviolence, her presence was sufficient to spark a profound conversation about the topic. Throughout the two workshops we kept coming back to a fundamental distinction between the question about whether nonviolence works and whether or not we are committed to nonviolence as a matter of spiritual or other belief system. Part of what was so poignant about the position of this person who wasn’t fully committed to nonviolence was precisely how much in her heart she was committed, and came to shift her perspective primarily based on an analysis that led her to question the effectiveness of nonviolence. The more I read about nonviolence, the more I discover that movements tend to choose nonviolence because of their belief in its strategic value, not necessarily because of a principled disavowal of the use of violence in certain circumstances. It’s a pragmatic choice, not a values-based choice.

Full commitment to nonviolence on the basis of values, whether spiritual or secular, means maintaining a nonviolent stance even if it doesn’t seem to work, even if the goals never materialize, even if the movement is crushed by force. This is an extremely challenging position to take. I cannot imagine asking this of anyone whose life has been affected by trauma, severe deprivation, pervasive discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or any other kind of structural ongoing violence. Those are the classic conditions that breed violent uprisings, terrorist activity, or, in less extreme situations, anger or even hatred. The level of internal resources necessary for such a commitment to nonviolence, especially in the face of potential or actual repression, cannot easily be available under such conditions, because those conditions erode the human spirit.

Why Nonviolence Works
If there is any chance that nonviolence will be proclaimed as a strategy, especially in Oakland, especially in response to the police, it rests on being able to show that nonviolence works. Thanks to Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, whose work I already quoted last week, we now have information at our disposal that can make this case. Anyone who likes to check things out for themselves can find the information in their book, and much of it summarized in an article.

The basic finding is that of 323 violent and nonviolent movements they analyzed between 1900 and 2006, 53% of the nonviolent ones succeeded as compared to only 26% of the violent ones. What’s even more telling is that when the movements were repressed, the nonviolent movements were 6 times more likely to succeed.

The primary reasons for the success of any movement, whether violent of nonviolent, is popular support and the ability to undermine the sources of support of the existing regime. No matter how repressive any regime is, coercion alone is never enough to maintain the status quo unless the armed forces remain supportive and the population remains fragmented and disengaged. As the case of Egypt demonstrates, when the population rescinds its implicit willingness to go along with the regime, and when the armed forces shift loyalty, even a very established repressive regime crumbles.

If sympathy for the movement and de-legitimation of the regime are essential conditions for success, that provides clear understanding of why nonviolent movements fare better, and especially why their response to repression adds to their relative success. A movement that manages to maintain a nonviolent stance in response to repression is much more likely to achieve both of these conditions. It’s harder for most people to support a regime that cracks down on nonviolent resistors than a regime that appears to be responding to violence initiated by a movement.

Nonviolence and Vision Implementation

Here is where common misperceptions of nonviolence are responsible for much of the negative attitudes towards it. As Kazu demonstrated during our workshop, a world of difference exists between non-violence and nonviolence. The former is what so many people associate with the latter: it’s a negation of violence, and it encompasses within it passivity, a non-response to what is happening. Nonviolence, on the other hand, as conceived by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., is fierce and loving. It is an active force that stands up for truth, justice, and love. Kazu reminded us that being able to accept repression while fighting for a vision of a different world often requires much more courage than fighting back. Because of the astonishing lack of knowledge of the history, principles, and tactics of active nonviolent resistance, many people aren’t even aware of the heroic measures taken by nonviolent activists throughout the last century. The Danes, for example, were able to save almost all the Danish Jews under Nazi Occupation, a feat unheard of in any other country, because they adopted a nonviolent resistance stance towards their occupation instead of passivity or armed resistance.

This is where Sharif Abdullah’s contribution to our understanding of nonviolence is so critical. His term - vision implementation - describes a core aspect of the active and revolutionary aspect of nonviolence. Visionary nonviolence goes way beyond acts of protest and paves the road to the future by utilizing creative actions that are, in his words, highly illegal and highly moral. Setting up camps on “occupied” areas where aspects of the vision of a possible world are a daily lived reality is definitely a form of vision implementation.

Sharif is also calling the occupy movement to step beyond the internal vision implementation within the camps into acts that take the vision into the wider population and can increase support for the movement at the same time. What he recommends is different from demonstrations and marches. “Protests only go so far: to be effective, it is necessary to show people what the change in society, the change in POWER, looks like.”

Back to the Beauty
When the workshops were over, I went back to the camp, and walked around once again, sitting and listening, talking to some people, and watching what to me is a magical snapshot of possibility. I tried to find the agenda for the general assembly meeting for that night, and couldn’t, so I didn’t stay. I talked with one of the media people, who was responsible for twitter and facebook presence. Her enthusiasm and deep optimism is what I am left with. We both celebrated how far from all white the camp was. Not quite fully representative of the population of Oakland, and at the same time much more so than is usually the case. Two weeks into the occupation, and under order of eviction that some believe is going to lead to a police raid sometime this week, services are solidifying and growing. The number of cities the world over who have their own Occupy movements is growing steadily. Yes, I wasn’t as satisfied with the process used at the general assembly meeting, and I am still mulling over how to integrate the responses to my post. It’s clear to me that I wasn’t fully walking my talk in what I wrote: I didn’t provide sufficient clarity of vision in what I wrote. I am mulling over, still, how to integrate the responses to that post. Until then, here’s where I am in this moment: despite the imperfections, I still have my sense of humility intact, and endless curiosity. My biggest hope is that we will never again see business as usual.

However lengthy this post is, it’s still only part of what I wanted to write about. I’ve yet to address the discussions of the idea of “loving your enemies”, another rich conversation that took place while I was at OccupyOakland. I have also been reading and reflecting on the comments to my post about the GA process and I hope to write something useful in response about the GA process and governance more generally. And in the coming days I anticipate getting there again. Stay tuned for more.