Tag Archives: Nonviolence

Book review: Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist by Tim Gee

Book review: Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist by Tim Gee
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 August 2019

Formed soon after the English Civil War, the Quakers – AKA the Religious Society of Friends – are perhaps best known for their commitment to working for peace.

Over a quick and very readable 60 pages Quaker and activist Tim Gee explores this tradition through the concept of pacifism.

Popularly understood as a passive “refusal to engage in violence”, Gee expands on this, noting it can more accurately be understood as an active, not passive, process, such as non-violently resisting oppression or challenging the ideological systems which underpin violence.

As these examples suggest, pacifism isn’t necessarily about avoiding conflict – conflict in many forms is, after all, arguably a driver of human progress, he contends – but making sure conflict is managed “in a way that respects human life.”

While violent action and resistance tend to be prized and elevated in our culture, Gee highlights Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s paradigm-shifting 2012 study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, they conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. Moreover, they note nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

The huge impact of the Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK on public consciousness and Westminster politics is further evidence of the power of nonviolence. “These protesters are quite unique because [they] are by and large peaceful,” Laurence Taylor, the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of protest policing for the Metropolitan force, recently admitted. “It is almost easier to deal with people who are being violent towards you, because you can use a level of force commensurate with that.”

Gee is particularly good at highlighting the intersectionality of pacifism – with brief chapters on its relation to race, “the violence of economic policy”, climate change and gender. “The crisis of violence needs to be understood as at least in part a crisis caused by the prevalence of patriarchy and the problems of toxic masculinity”, he notes.

With its useful set of references and a refreshing lightness and clarity to the prose, Gee’s book is a brilliant primer for anyone interested in pacifism and nonviolence. For those wishing to explore the topic further I would strongly recommend Gee’s inspiring 2011 book Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist is published by Christian Alternative Books, priced £6.99.

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 June 2019

The past year has been the busiest and most exciting of his life, Rupert Read tells me when we meet in London before his appearance at a Guardian event on Extinction Rebellion.

Last summer Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and senior Green Party figure, refused an invitation from the BBC to debate a climate change denier. He went on to lead a short campaign which culminated in a BBC memo warning staff of “false balance” when reporting climate change. “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday”, wrote Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs.

For the past few years Read, 53, has also been giving lectures, speaking with a refreshing – perhaps shocking – honesty about the climate crisis. “I think there is a very real possibility that the latter part of the lives of most people in this room is going to be grim or non-existent”, Read told first year students arriving at the UEA in 2016 to nervous laughter.

“When I started giving these talks… I was worried I would just demoralise people and turn people off”, Read tells me. “I was worried I would be attacked for being a defeatist. But actually that didn’t happen. From the beginning the overwhelming response has been positive. People found it liberating, people have found it exciting, people have really related to the honesty of it.”

After watching a similar lecture online given by Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, Read quickly became involved in the grassroots organisation. What has become known as XR has three demands: the government must tell the truth by declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency; the government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; and a citizen’s assembly must be established to lead the government’s response to climate breakdown.

On 31 October 2018 Read acted at the co-MC for the initial “Declaration of Rebellion” event in London, when a street was blocked in Parliament Square in London. “We didn’t really know if it was going to work, we didn’t know whether people were going to do it, we didn’t know how the police would react”, he says. “It was surprisingly easy, which is one of the things that is very interesting about large-scale nonviolent direct action. When you get a lot of people together it’s quite challenging for the police to deal with and stop”.

He also played a key role in the November 2018 “bridges action”, when thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters managed to block and hold five bridges in central London for one day. It was, Read explains, “proof of concept”, its success leading onto what he calls the “international rebellion” in April 2019. By now Read was part of Extinction Rebellion’s political strategy group and acting as one of the main spokespeople in the media.

During this action Extinction Rebellion occupied several key sites in central London – Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square – for an incredible eleven days. Over 1,100 people were eventually arrested.

“In the first few days the media were very, very hostile to us”, Read notes. “Then as we went on and we gradually grew and attracted more of people’s sympathy and support because of our persistence, because the message started to get through, that gradually changed. And then in the second week we were getting these massive transformational effects.” For example, writing in the Daily Telegraph former Tory leader William Hague argued “It is time to recognise that these young activists are indeed focused on the right issue. The solutions presented by protesters in London or by Green parties around the world may be ill thought-out, but the analysis is now hard to gainsay.”

More broadly, Read argues the April action achieved “a breakthrough in consciousness” on the climate crisis, with a YouGov survey earlier this month finding “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before”. This upsurge in anxiety was “undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion”, the pollster noted.

“The ground had been, in a sense, prepared”, Read says, highlighting the importance of the School Strikes for Climate and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, which aired during the rebellion.

“We achieved emotional resonance”, he continues. “A lot of our successful media coverage is, I think, based on the fact that we have allowed us to show and express our grief and our horror, and our fear, and our love in ways that were very unusual hitherto in the so-called environmental movement.”

Indeed, whilst others, such as Peace News, have been critical of what they describe as the group’s “apocalyptic organising”, Read argues the success of the April rebellion “has proved that it is false to claim apocalyptic messages and despair and climate honesty are demotivating.”

“In fact it is becoming clear they are hugely motivating, and hugely empowering, when they are done right, and when they are done honestly and when they are done in the context of taking action around them.”

Perhaps most impressively, the April protests led to Read and others, including student climate strikers, meeting Environment Secretary Michael Gove and other senior political figures including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

“That was all prepared way in advance”, he explains. “There were plans for how this would happen, who would do it, what kind of things we would do when we did it, who would we try to target for such meetings.”

“We urged him to tell the truth, we urged the declaration of a Climate Emergency”, Read says about the meeting with Gove, which was filmed and is available online. Gove didn’t do this, but he did admit there was an emergency in parliament and the Tories didn’t oppose the Labour motion to declare an emergency, meaning the House of Commons became the first national parliament to officially declare a Climate Emergency on 1 May 2019.

A few days after the interview Theresa May’s government accepted the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation the UK achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Read believes the difference between the 2050 target and Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 target is “probably the difference between a chance of a decent future and a near certainty of civilisational collapse.”

“Unfortunately the climate change committee report is essentially dead on arrival”, he says. Why? “It’s a report that is tailored to a sense of what is politically feasible and societally acceptable that no longer exists and has been transcended.”

“Between the time of them drafting their report and it actually being published – it was published immediately after the end of the [April] rebellion – that whole landscape has been transformed.”

Looking to the future, Read notes the group is planning for the next stage of the rebellion, likely to take place around 20 September 2019 – the date student climate strikers have asked adults to strike alongside them. This mobilisation “will probably mark the first step in the build-up to the autumn phase of Extinction Rebellion, which we intend to be longer and deeper than the spring phase.”

With the Metropolitan Police Commissioner recently telling London Assembly members her force would learn from the April protests, how do Extinction Rebellion intend to deal with the police? “The aim of many Extinction Rebellion actions is to create what we call action dilemmas – action dilemmas for the police, for the authorities”, Read replies. This staple of nonviolent struggle is about forcing a ‘lose-lose’ situation upon public authorities, in which they either concede the space and initiative to the protesters, or risk looking repressive if they try to deal with them too harshly.

“They are going to risk creating more sympathy for us if they end up locking people up who are clearly decent non-violent people who are doing this knowingly and accountably for a cause that more and more people recognise as just”, Read says.

Hopeful the group can attract significantly more people than it did in April, Read thinks the size and impact of the autumn mobilisation could be unprecedented: “If we could get 20,000 or 30,000 people willing to take direct action on the streets in a concerted fashion for a long period of time, who knows what we could achieve next time?”

Co-authored with Samuel Alexander, Rupert Read’s new book This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the End of Empire – and What Lies Beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 June 2019

The popular perception of Adolf Hitler is of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

In 2016’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the United States, challenges this simplistic representation, raises important questions about our understanding of the Nazis in power, while providing a hopeful analysis about the possibility of non-violent resistance in highly repressive societies.

Ian Sinclair: What is the central thesis of your book?

Nathan Stoltzfus: Hitler’s Compromises makes an argument about the nature of the Nazi state.   I do not question Hitler’s reputation as the most evil person, only the common image of him as a madman, carpet-biter foaming at the mouth. Hitler was able to achieve such monumental evil only because he used a range of tactics. While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed his “German-blooded race” with persuasion, enticement, cooptation, compromise – tactics scholars now associate with ‘soft’ dictators of the twenty-first century. Hitler aimed to shape the “German-blooded” people into Nazis – fellow perpetrators and ruthless enslavers and murderers of “racial” and war enemies, the “incurables” and outsiders. “We must be honest, decent, loyal and comradely to those of our own blood and to no one else,” Heinrich Himmler told his SS. “Whether other peoples live well or whether they die from hunger is important to me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture.” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels said, “We do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty or clothe the naked… We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.”

In Hitler’s cold, cost-benefit calculations, Germans could not be refashioned as Nazis by terror alone. Stemming political opposition with terror, Hitler then led by incentives – the familiar ones of material well-being and future prosperity, national prowess and domestic security. As the foundation of his 1000-year Reich that would pass on Nazism as a way of life, Hitler sought to refashion popular attitudes and social patterns. To build a total society to buttress a total state, Hitler had to annihilate some Christian norms. He aimed to change their hearts and minds rather than to merely control their outward behaviour by police force.

Hitler led a dance with his own people, pausing and even backtracking if the people stumbled or hesitated, so that they remained united about his authority over them. Hitler was willing to move laterally so that he could resume moving toward his goals while sidestepping frontal attacks.

These compromises worked in tandem with Nazi terror. Hitler did not compromise his ideology but he remained willing to compromise with his people, particularly when popular obstinacy was based in traditional habits and customs, up until late in the war when he became convinced that popular backing would not win the war.

Hitler’s compromises began with his decision to seek power the ‘legal way’. They continued in power with a recognition that he must win the people away from their non-Nazi traditions and into unquestioning obedience by awing them with his great feats, which all previous German leaders had failed to deliver. A key benefit for Hitler of his willingness to compromise was in maintaining the notion, widespread across Germany regardless of denomination, region, or class, that Hitler always made things right, as soon as he learned about injustices. Across Germany people maintained their belief that “if only Hitler knew” all would be well, blaming what they did not like on officials they thought were working against Hitler.

IS: Your analysis seems to contradict the traditional understanding of how Nazi Germany functioned?

NS: According to the earliest perspectives, the Nazi state ruled Germans of the Reich by terror; Germans were forced to cooperate against their will as the Gestapo crushed every sign of dissent from Germans. These interpretations, which still hold sway today, coincide with one-dimensional images equating monstrous evil with uncontrolled fits of rage and brutality. Scholars have come to acknowledge the role of popular support – when it buttressed Nazi terror tactics. Germans joined the party, denounced outsiders, stole Jewish property. These mainstream perspectives, however, have shied away from acknowledging the corollary popular influences on Hitler of mass popular noncompliance and public protest. Standard interpretations screen this out; they challenge entrenched common wisdom that resistance by ordinary persons was always futile (even the resistance of mighty military men failed). While support for Hitler can be written off as a response to terror, any indication that the regime was sensitive to collective, popular opposition in public raises questions about public responsibility for Hitler’s crimes. Also according to common beliefs, Jewish assimilation or integration did not aid Jewish survival. But history shows that 98 percent of the German Jews who survived without going into hiding or being sent to the camps, survived because they were married to non-Jews.

Hitler also did not rule by charisma alone but as a politician and strategist. Many wish to portray Hitler as monster rather than mortal. Demonization is comforting, suggesting that neither we do not share anything with Hitler and will not face a similar threat. Flat moral condemnations are easy and popular but do not sufficiently disclose the complexity of Hitler’s evil; he was able to do so much evil precisely because he knew how to manage and manipulate, throwing fits of rage for effect.

The grassroots perspectives on the influence of masses that grew in the decades following the war was illustrated by the bottom up approach of historians examining East German communism after 1989. It’s very possible that the established history of Nazi Germany would be different today had scholars and others approached it with the help of bottom up perspectives emerging during the 1970s and 80s. Many views on popular autocracy in our own era not only apply to Hitler’s rule but were defined by fascism – which recognized that the masses could no longer be left out by claiming to rule on their behalf.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples when the Nazi government compromised in the face of nonviolent resistance to its policies? 

NS: Hitler’s effort to centralize control over the Protestant Church foundered in 1934 – within months of the gory Night of the Long Knives purge. Two bishops (out of 28) mobilized their congregations in peaceful protests, resulting in strife among Nazi regional leaders and the house arrest of the two bishops, causing churchgoers to rise up in protests more fervently than ever. To stem this unrest and its danger of slowing his momentum, Hitler restored the arrested bishops to their dioceses, sidelining his plans. To stem Christian influence, some Nazi leaders replaced crucifixes in Catholic schools with pictures of Hitler. This sparked nonviolent Catholic revolts, leading in more than one case to restoration of the crucifixes. Mass unrest and public protest by a Catholic bishop also caused Hitler to halt and then radically alter the way he carried out “euthanasia” of the “incurables” and “useless mouths.”

The defining example of defiance by street protest and Nazi compromise is the Rosenstrasse Protest by non-Jewish women that persuaded Hitler to release rather than deport their Jewish husbands in early 1943. Many Germans compromised step by step, accepting or perpetrating Nazi crimes, but the personal lives of intermarried persons forced them into a series of increasingly demanding steps of defiance, beginning with Hitler’s first days in power and culminating in a street protest that thwarted Goebbels resolve to declare Germany free of Jews in March 1943. Again Hitler relented, releasing some 2,000 intermarried Jews from the deportations.

Cases of social dissent and mass noncompliance so visible the regime could not ignore them were common enough that by November 1943 Goebbels wrote in his diary that the people were already sure that they could use public protest to assert their will on the streets: “The people know exactly where to find the leadership’s soft spot and will always exploit it.”

Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany is published by Yale University Press.

The Awesome Power of Non-violent Action

The Awesome Power of Non-violent Action
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 June 2019

Speaking on the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast recently, Jamila Raqib discussed the widespread ignorance that surrounds non-violent struggle.

“It’s not very well known. We don’t really highlight the history. We think that progress and human rights are won through violence. We think that it [violence] is the most powerful thing you can do,” she explained.

Raqib is as well-placed as anyone to speak about non-violence. Since 2002 she has worked at the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), set up in 1983 “to advance the study and use of strategic non-violent action in conflicts throughout the world,” according to its mission statement.

Moreover, she worked closely with the legendary Dr Gene Sharp — often called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” — until he passed away last year.

“There is thousands of years of rich history that I don’t think people are very aware of,” Raqib, the AEI’s executive director, says about non-violence.

“We are not aware of our own societies that have used these means, and we are not aware of how they have been used globally.”

Part of the problem is that the mainstream media rarely frames examples of strategic non-violent struggle and activism for what it is. However, successful non-violent action is happening all the time: you just need to read the news with this in mind.

For example, before April 2018 the Guardian reported that “the ruling Republican party’s stranglehold” on Armenia’s political system “appeared intact.”

Presumably confident any public response could be contained, the president of the former Soviet republic, Serzh Sargsyan, moved to install himself as prime minister after term limits had forced him to step down from the presidency.

This move proved especially controversial because “the constitution was amended to give more power to the prime minister and transform the presidency into a ceremonial role,” the Guardian explained.

A non-violent movement quickly grew in response, with thousands of people protesting for days in the capital Yerevan, blocking streets and staging sit-ins.

The leader of the opposition, Nikol Pashinyan, was imprisoned, but the demonstrations continued. With groups of soldiers joining the opposition in the streets, Pashinyan was released.

Sargsyan resigned on April 23 2018. “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong,” Sargsyan announced. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demands.”

On May 8 2018 Pashinyan became prime minister. “We took down a powerful man with no help from outside, with no violence,” a pensioner in Armenia told the Guardian.

Earlier this year a similar set of events took place in Algeria. In February the autocratic president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced he would seek a fifth term in office after two decades in power.

Again a protest movement grew in response, with peaceful mass demonstrations occurring every Friday, centred on the capital, Algiers.

“In the face of fully armoured riot police, Algeria’s young and old have been seen distributing flowers to security forces during the marches, chanting passionately ‘Pacifism, Pacifism’,” noted Ahmed Mitiche, a graduate student in the Centre for Middle Eastern & North African studies programme at the University of Michigan in The New Arab last month.

As in Armenia, the impact of this civil resistance has been huge. On March 11 Bouteflika announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

The protests continued, and on April 2 Bouteflika was forced to step down, with Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of parliament, installed as interim president.

“By keeping protests peaceful, and forcing the army to support them — it was an intervention by the army chief of staff, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, that finally persuaded Bouteflika to go — Algeria’s reformists have already achieved more than most of their predecessors in the 2011-12 Arab spring revolts,” the Guardian’s foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall noted.

In Sudan, people have been taking to the streets since December 2018. “The trigger of the revolt was the increase in bread prices after the state cut subsidies at the behest of the IMF,” Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at Soas, recently explained in an interview with Jacobin magazine.

These grievances soon evolved into demonstrations against the 30-year rule of authoritarian president Omar al-Bashir.

In an attempt to quell the protests, Bashir declared a state of emergency in February. This gave security services “expanded powers to search buildings, restrict movement of people and public transport, arrest suspects and seize assets or property during investigations,” Reuters reported in March.

Bashir also “announced a raft of other measures, including setting up emergency courts and prosecutors across the country. Activists say more than 800 people have been tried in the courts.”

Despite the crackdown, the non-violent protests continued, with Bouteflika’s resignation in Algeria in early April seeming to energise the Sudanese opposition.

Days-long sit-ins and protest camps attended by tens of thousands of people were held outside Bashir’s official residence and military headquarters in the capital Khartoum.

News reports noted that when forces loyal to the president fired live rounds at the protest camps, soldiers protected the protesters — giving them shelter, firing shots in the air and blocking the approaches to their protest camps.

On April 11 Bashir was placed under house arrest, replaced by the defence minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf as transitional leader. However, “the protesters rejected Ibn Auf’s leadership because he was the head of military intelligence during the brutal campaign to suppress the Darfur insurgency in the 2000s,” The Guardian reported. On April 13 Ibn Auf was forced to resign, as was Salah Gosh, head of the unpopular National Intelligence and Security Service.

Today, the pro-democracy movements in Sudan and Algeria are in an ongoing power struggle with the military. Though the future of both nations remains uncertain, the power of non-violent struggle is clear.

Protesting violently is “foolish,” Sharp told me, when I interviewed him in 2012. Why? “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence — and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence — why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons?”

Though they weren’t on the same mass scale as the demonstrations in Armenia, Algeria and Sudan, the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London have nevertheless had a huge impact on British politics.

Explicitly non-violent — Roger Hallam, a lead strategist, has repeatedly cited as influences the US civil rights movement and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s seminal book Why Civil Resistance Works — the group’s occupation of several locations in central London wrongfooted the authorities.

In particular the willingness of so many activists to seek arrest meant “the police are genuinely confused,” as Labour Party environmental adviser Alan Simpson explained in the Morning Star.

The Guardian confirmed this uncertainty, noting “anecdotal evidence from those on the ground suggests police are approaching the protests with a light touch.”

The report went on to highlight the College of Policing’s guidelines on public-order policing, which advises “commanders need to set the policing style and tone at the start of an operation and be aware of the potential impact on public perceptions.”

Along with David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change — The Facts and the ongoing school strikes, Extinction Rebellion has significantly shifted the debate about climate change in Britain.

Within days of the protests, Extinction Rebellion activists held meetings with Tory Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

“They are a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say: ‘We hear you’,” Corbyn said about the Extinction Rebellion protests as he introduced a motion asking Parliament to declare a “climate emergency.”

Labour’s motion won a historic victory — on May 2 2019 the British Parliament became the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has ditched its planned cuts to aviation tax and is reportedly considering withdrawing its support for a third runway at Heathrow.

The climate-change bug has even reached the Tory Party, with the Guardian reporting: “The 60-strong One Nation group of senior Tories” is “urging contenders for their party’s leadership to put the battle against the climate emergency at the forefront of the contest.”

“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,” Attenborough warned recently.

With the climate emergency creating such high stakes for humanity, it is more important than ever that people understand the immense power of strategic non-violent struggle and activism.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

Book review. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus

Book review. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June0July 2019

Think of Adolf Hitler and invariably an image is conjured up of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

The latest study from Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the US, challenges this simplistic representation, raising profound questions for historians, citizens and activists alike.

Citing a huge range of German- and English-language sources – there are nearly 100 pages of references – he argues that, contrary to popular understanding, Hitler and the Nazi party elite showed a ‘willingness to compromise with the German people when the political stakes were high enough.’

This accommodation took a variety of forms ‘ranging from his delaying a policy until the people were ready to accept it to redirecting a course already taken in response to popular dissent, to simply not punishing those who publicly opposed a regime policy.’

A series of case studies make up the core of the book, including chapters on Hitler’s push to achieve power legally through the electoral system (with all the political compromises, incentivising and persuasion that come with this), and on the Nazi party’s struggle to subdue and overcome oppositional forces within the Protestant and Catholic churches.

Stoltzfus describes how the Nazi’s policy of (involuntary) euthanasia – established in secret in 1939 to minimise public concern – was significantly curtailed in 1941 after a public outcry led by Clemens August von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Munster.

Along with this important U-turn, two street protests stand out.

In 1943, in the city of Witten, around 300 women successfully demonstrated against the local Nazi chief who had manipulated the women’s food rations to force them to relocate to the countryside.

In the same year, hundreds of non-Jewish women protested in Rosenstrasse after their Jewish husbands had been rounded up in Berlin, their likely final destination a death camp. In reaction to the days-long demonstration most of the men were released, the defiant women saving ‘some two thousand German Jews from death in the Holocaust’, according to Stoltzfus.

Though it deals with some of the darkest events of the twentieth century, Hitler’s Compromises is ultimately a hopeful book, highlighting how there is political space for dissent, however limited, in even the harshest of dictatorships.

Moreover, for peace activists, Stoltzfus provides compelling evidence that nonviolent action was successful in forcing the government’s hand on a variety of issues in Nazi Germany, important victories that deserve to be better known – and remembered in any discussions about the effectiveness of nonviolent activism.

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
25 April 2018

The recent death of American nonviolence guru Gene Sharp and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King provide a good opportunity to reflect on the key role nonviolent action has played in winning progressive change.

Sharp, whose extensive writings have influenced many of the campaigns that have overthrown governments across the world, repeatedly emphasised the importance of planning and strategy in carrying out effective nonviolent action. Indeed, strategy is “probably more important in non-violent struggle than it is in military conflict”, he told me when I interviewed him in 2012 for Peace News newspaper. For Sharp, those wishing to understand nonviolent struggle needed to research the topic in depth – reading, at a minimum, his lengthy studies on the subject – rather than basing their opinion on “superficial impressions”.

Even though his birth is marked by a national holiday in the US many people – including myself have a very superficial understanding of the US Civil Rights Movement King led in the 1950s and 1960s. This ignorance is frustrating because the movement is one of the best known and most successful nonviolent campaigns in recent history.

Like Sharp, King and the wider leadership of the Civil Rights Movement were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians, with a good knowledge of the theory behind nonviolent struggle, especially the movement Mahatma Gandhi led in India which forced out the British imperialists.

Two fascinating documentaries highlight the detailed understanding and use of strategy and planning by the movement that rocked the Deep South in the post-war period. Though they have largely been forgotten they are both available on Youtube.

Released in 1999, A Force More Powerful tells the story of the movement to desegregate the city of Nashville, Tennessee in 1959-60. Having spent three years in India studying the work of Gandhi, Methodist minister James Lawson was invited down to Nashville by King to train local Black students and citizens to fight for their civil rights.

Lawson set up and led a series of evening workshops in a small church near Fisk University where, he explains, he “took the whole group through a holistic view of nonviolence – its history, its roots in the bible, its roots in Christian thought, the methods of nonviolence.”

After considering the situation, Lawson remembers the group decided to target the lunch counters and restaurants in downtown Nashville and start to research the issue. To prepare for the struggle the workshops included role play with activists ‘sitting’ at lunch counter while being racially abused and physically attacked, and low-key, small scale ‘test’ sit-ins were conducted.

For Lawson, successful nonviolent action necessitated “fierce discipline and training, and strategizing and planning” which “can’t happen spontaneously, it has to be done systematically.”

The sit-ins began in February 1960, and following mass arrests, violence against the activists and a series of escalations by the movement including a consumer boycott by the Black community, the city has agreed to desegregate lunch counters by May 1960.

“We were warriors. We had been prepared”, notes one activist in the documentary. “This was like a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point [military academy].”

Despite many successes, the Civil Rights Movement did not simply steamroll over the racist establishment in the Deep South but suffered many difficulties and defeats during the period, all of which had to be recognised and learned from.

The late-1980s 14-part US documentary series Eyes On The Prize tells of one such setback. Like Nashville, Black people in Albany, Georgia had been campaigning to end segregation. In late 1961 the local leadership of the Albany Movement invited King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the city to energise the campaign.

Keen students of Gandhi, the SCLC understood a central strategy in the successful campaign in India had been the staging confrontational nonviolent protests with the understanding the oppressor would react violently, creating media-friendly drama and sympathy for the nonviolent protestors. Movement organisers “expected the same reaction” in Albany that they “encountered in most southern communities: police brutality”, the documentary’s narrator explains. However, they didn’t reckon with Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who had researched SCLC’s ideas about nonviolent struggle. “Pritchett was a thoroughly professional law enforcement officer who had the acumen to realise police brutality or violence from white mobs, would draw newspaper reporters to Albany and create sympathy for the movement”, Professor Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 book Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. “Pritchett trained his men to employ a ‘nonviolent approach’ toward demonstrators.”

With the internally divided movement fighting for the broad goal of ending segregation in the city, King began serving a 45-day sentence in July 1962, determined to stay in jail, as this would draw attention to, and increase support for, the cause. Conversely, Pritchett “understood that it was better to have King outside than inside jail” and secretly arranged for King’s bail to be paid, according to Fairclough. Having been forced out of prison, a depressed King left the still segregated city in August 1962.

Writing in his autobiography, King admits “The mistake I made there [Albany] was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”

Having learned some heard lessons in Albany, King and the SCLC decided their next target would be Birmingham, Alabama, a Klu Klux Klan stronghold and powder keg of racist oppression. Though there are, of course, many factors behind the success or failure of any campaign, one central factor in Birmingham was likely the presence of Commissioner ‘Bull’ Connor – “the antithesis of the calm, professional Laurie Pritchett… a vain, short-tempered, publicity-seeking bully, with a notorious reputation for racial extremism”, writes Fairclough.

“We knew that when we came to Birmingham that if Bull Connor was still in control, he would do something to benefit our movement”, Wyatt Tee Walker, the first executive director of the SCLC, is quoted as saying in US historian David Garrow’s 1986 book about the SCLC, Bearing The Cross.

Beginning in early 1963, the initial protests made little impact, receiving criticism from some Black businesses and a number of local (white) clergymen. In response the leadership of the movement escalated the campaign. King was jailed for several days, and – controversially – Black school children were mobilised, with marches organised. With tensions mounting, events came to a head, with Connor turning water canon and police dogs on the protesters. The violence gained national attention, the news coverage shocking the American public and wider world. “It was a masterpiece of the use of media to explain a cause to the general public of a nation”, local attorney David Vann explains. The campaign continued, with thousands more arrested, and desegregation was eventually won in May 1963.

The movement employed similar strategies in Selma, Alabama, focusing on one goal – winning a strong voting rights law. The 1965 campaign was dramatised in the award-winning 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.

In one gripping scene showing the movement’s leadership discusses the campaign, King (played by David Oyelowo) explains the problems in Albany – that the SCLC made many mistakes, while Pritchett didn’t: “There was no drama”, and therefore no media coverage, he says.

One of the central aims of the Selma campaign is to the attention of an inattentive President Lyndon Johnson, King continues. The only way of doing this “is by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night”, he argues. “And that requires drama.”

Turning to the young activists who have been coordinating the campaign in Selma so far, King asks about local sheriff Jim Clark: “Is he Laurie Pritchett, or is he Bull Connor?”

Told Clark is like Connor, one of King’s SCLC colleagues shouts “Bingo!”

 

Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?

Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 April 2018

Writing about the recent death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch made an extraordinary claim about the ending of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994.

“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it”, she argued. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Fellow Guardian writer Owen Jones tweeted in support: “Apartheid was brought down by revolutionaries, not peaceful protest. Brilliant piece by @afuahirsch.”

Despite these dismissive assertions by two of the most influential voices on the British Left, in reality “nonviolent action proved to be a major factor in the downfall of Apartheid”, as Stephen Zunes, a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Journal of Modern African Studies in 1999.

Professor Lester Kurtz, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University, summarises the key events in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Founded in 1912 the African National Congress (ANC) protested non-violently against white supremacist in South African for several decades with few gains. Frustrated by this failure Nelson Mandela and others established and led an armed resistance (Umkhonto we Sizwe), which was also unable to bring down the oppressive system. “In the end a concerted grassroots nonviolent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate”, Kurtz explains. Writing in 1987, American theologian Walter Wink argued the 1980s movement to end Apartheid was “probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history.” If you are looking for a short and accessible account of the campaign check out the brilliant 2011 book Counter Power: Making Change Happen by grassroots activist Tim Gee.

That Hirsch and Jones could get it so wrong highlights the tragic failure of proponents and scholars of nonviolent action to educate progressives and the wider British public about the rich and impactful history of nonviolent struggle across the world.

Yes, there is a certain level of awareness about famous instances of nonviolent resistance such as the campaign Mahatma Gandhi led that helped to end British rule in India, and the Civil Rights movement in 50s and 60s America. Yet our knowledge of even these struggles is often sketchy and superficial. More broadly, many associate nonviolence with passivity and moderation. Hirsh incorrectly assumes one cannot be both nonviolent and “willing to break the law… and be killed”. In practice the key to successful nonviolent campaigns is their ability to confront and coerce centres of power – in short, to seek out conflict. Writing about the portrayal of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King in the 2014 film Selma, Fast Company magazine’s Jessica Leber notes the nonviolent campaign he led “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition.”

For anyone wishing to understand the power of nonviolence the seminal text is 2011’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by US academics Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. The book does two important things: First it shows that campaigns of nonviolent resistance have been twice as successful as their violent counterparts in achieving their goals. And second, the huge database (comprised of 323 campaigns between 1900 and 2006) that their findings are based on provides the bones of what is effectively a secret history of successful nonviolent struggles.

Who knew about the mass nonviolent campaigns that overthrew dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador in 1944? Or that people power put an end to President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986? Large scale nonviolent struggles also brought down Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1990 and played a key role in the ousting of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Mali, Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi have all experienced successful nonviolent struggles against dictatorships. The campaigns that won independence from the British in Ghana and Zambia were largely nonviolent, as was the protests that toppled Tunisian Ben Ali’s government in Tunisia and kicked off the so-called Arab Spring.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in 2016 Chenoweth and Stephan highlight an important historical shift: “The success rates of nonviolent resistance peaked in the 1990s, but the current decade has seen a sharp decline in the success rates of nonviolent resistance”. They suggest a few reasons for this change, including the likelihood state opponents of nonviolent campaigns may be getting smart to nonviolent strategies and tactics, and cleverly adapting their responses to minimise the movements’ challenges to the status quo.

This is certainly concerning. However, Chenoweth and Stephan highlight that though their effectiveness has waned, nonviolent campaigns are still succeeding more often than violent campaigns.

And with violent resistance turning out to be so disastrous in Libya and Syria, it is more important than ever for nonviolent action to receive the recognition it deserves.

Want to find out more? Search Swarthmore College’s extensive Global Nonviolent Action Database https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/ and read Peace News https://peacenews.info/.