The Parameters of Nonviolent Action: WHAT MAKES AN ACTION NONVIOLENT

The War Stops Here
By Daniel Berrigan

I think that over the years, from the Catonsville Nine to Plowshares, I recall the main discussion being twofold:

  1. Spiritual preparation: Time was given to spiritual preparation, to the venting of fear and second thoughts and consequences to family, friends, work undertaken. We realized that everything would change with the action and gave that time and gave time for one another.
  2. The search for symbols: We spent time together searching for symbols that would speak to us and speak publicly, symbols that would not inspire fear or revulsion.

So wanton thoughtlessness and mere destruction were out, from throwing trashcans to throwing bombs. The use of homemade napalm on draft cards and the pouring of blood of nuclear warheads seemed to speak to people. We did these actions with trepidation and wonder about how they would be received. And they were well received and started whole movements, so the Catonsville Nine set off a whole series of draft board raids, and the Plowshares Eight was the first of more than 60 disarmament actions.

Our apologies, good friends
… for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,
the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We
could not, so help us God, do otherwise....
We have chosen to say, with
the gift of our liberty, if necessary of our lives,
the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth
stops here, the war stops here.
                —Dan Berrigan on the burning of draft files at Catonsville, 1968

Daniel Berrigan is a poet, a Catholic priest and a founder of the Plowshares movement.

Breaking a Store Window Violent? Nonsense!
By Kadd Stephens

The subject of property destruction within movements for freedom and social justice seems to be marred by a rather irrational approach to really examining the tactic. As with any tactic, one must evaluate its utility as it applies to the particular goals one is pursuing, with considerable seriousness and sophistication. However, such evaluation changes (quite literally) nothing about the character of property destruction, in terms of violence and nonviolence.

First, it is crucial to examine the very nature of property: The concept in question is a social construction that exists only in the realm of (mostly Eurocentric) semantics and culture. Its value is tied not to anything inherent or living, but to the power it confers on those who control it. It retains no inherent dignity, and realistically speaking, one can no more “violate” or “victimize” a piece of property than one can sell the sky. Pursued to its logical end, the bourgeois-liberal affections for this constructed value that have seemingly shaped this debate would find us placing the violation of natural life within the realm of banality we typically reserve for the proverbial “spilled milk.” To be sure, our struggles would be rendered quite groundless if we were to capitulate to this irrational affinity.

When we read of Joshua blowing his horn, and the walls of Jericho “crumbling down” (as the old spiritual tells it), we are not inclined to balk at such a shocking display of callous irreverence for the value of property (although the slaughter that ensued might cause us to raise an eyebrow at the apparent disregard for human life therein). But let’s face it, those who smashed Starbucks windows in Seattle did not then proceed to “lay waste to everything inside, man and woman,” as did Joshua’s followers. Similarly, we would think schoolteachers foolish and historically irresponsible to emphasize the value of the tea disposed of during the Boston Tea Party, over the spirit of the patriots who disposed of it. When we apply this lens to the crusade for the rights of property, which seems to have reared its head within our movement(s), the implicit shift in priorities begins to take on an almost pathological character. Nike’s right to an immaculate storefront takes priority over the tens of thousands of workers exploited beyond the reaches of our imaginations within their factories. McDonald’s right to colonize the entire planet takes priority over the health problems our children will face, when every inch of rainforest has been leveled to graze an industrialized and bloated (not to mention horribly exploited) methane-producing cattle population. The absurd scenarios produced by these ethical acrobatics are likely limitless.

This is not to suggest that targeting property is a universally viable or even preferable tactic. Nor does it do away with the reality that attacking property is, indeed, an attack of sorts—and entails a very real aggression of sorts, which oftentimes serves to alienate sectors of the population critical to the success of any movement. While our “tactical toolbox”should be as diverse and dynamic as possible (not to mention subject to relevant scrutiny), the values central to the struggles within which we apply those tools must not be jeopardized in the process, or appropriated by institutions, ideologies, or the propaganda of wealth and power.

Kadd Stephens is an anarchist active in Washington, DC.

Hearts, Minds and Property Destruction
By Mandy Carter

In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, I was a staff member of WRL/West in San Francisco. I was attracted to the War Resisters League because of its commitment to Gandhian nonviolence and nonviolent direct action.

Then new, controversial tactics emerged in the antiwar movement, like pouring blood on—or burning—draft files. The rationale was that if you shut down a draft board, even if for a few days or weeks, it would help stop the war machine for that long. Others in the movement practiced “do it but don’t get caught”: During a “Stop The Draft Week” in Oakland, some protesters turned over cars, slashed tires and committed other acts of physical destruction. They never stayed around to be accountable for their actions.

We at WRL/West had a different view. We took the long-term view that the way to “shut down” a draft board or an induction center was to cut off all the men so that there would be no one coming through these places.

And the folks doing nonviolent civil disobedience were accountable. We got arrested, went to court and told the judge that we knew exactly what we were doing and would do jail time rather than pay a fine and leave, all in the effort to underscore our commitment to end the war in Vietnam. (We did jail time rather than just pay a fine and go home. In the civil rights movement, bail wasn’t an option because folks didn’t have the money—it was “jail, no bail.” Even when we were getting arrested during the antiwar movement, the rationale for “jail, no bail” was that in addition to countering the institution of war, we were also countering the institution of incarceration.)

That debate continues to this day. Instead of destruction of draft boards or induction centers, it is now weapons systems, or stores of multinational corporations such as Starbucks and McDonald’s. Both of the aforementioned had their windows and signs destroyed during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Last year in Vancouver, at the protests against the Organization of American States, demonstrators hurled rocks and debris at the police.

When I think back to my introduction to the movement, I am very grateful that the first two groups I got involved in were the American Friends Service Committee and the War Resisters League. Both are longtime, pacifist-based national/international organizations. They gave me the philosophical underpinning that has stayed with me for the past 32 years and counting.

I think a key reason why we have the “do it but don’t get caught” and the physical destruction segments in our movement is because of a lack of an introduction, or philosophical underpinning for folks when they are getting involved in the movement. (Where are the role models?) Another possible reason is that it is more “sexy” or “romantic” to be doing those kinds of actions. But history has shown us time and time again that we must be in it for the long haul and that it’s not about taking shortcuts. So I still am committed to nonviolence and nonviolent direct action. I am still committed to the change of hearts and minds and the changing of public policy. Thank you, WRL!

A former staffer at WRL regional offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Durham, NC, Mandy Carter has committed civil disobedience for economic and racial justice and against war and the draft across the United States and in Europe.

Civil Disobedience and Riots
By Sachio Ko-Yin

Let me begin by stating my respect for the Black Bloc participants. Those whom I know, at least, are my fellow anarchists, and are so sincere in their desire to end the corporate globalization! But although in our discussions our mutual call for justice is clear, so is our philosophical divide when it comes to pacifism.

When several dozen people destroy property in a frenzy (and my impression is that some Black Bloc actions have been frenzied), ready to flee the scene, I would say that is distinct from civil disobedience. I would rather call it rioting. So the question comes: Do I regard the riots in Seattle, for example, as nonviolent? And how do they differ from Plowshares? I will answer as honestly as I can. I’m very open to discussion on these points.

I think of violence and nonviolence as a spectrum between two absolutes, so this action may be closer to the nonviolent pole, or that one a little further away. Some pacifists are uncomfortable with property damage. For myself, if it causes no harm to person or creature, even potentially, nor targets an individual, I see it as a great tool when such horrors as weapons of mass destruction or beneficiaries of so-called free trade are invisible. But because it’s so challenging to a property-conscious society, our emphasis on nonviolence and non-hatred has to be so much stronger, to the point of open ceremony, out of reflection rather than rage.

I think throwing a brick through a Starbucks’ window could be a form of civil disobedience, if it were ceremonially done and you waited in nonviolence to proclaim your purpose to the powers that be. But in the context of riots, a brick takes on a different characteristic.

So here are my concerns about riots. (Black Bloc friends, I hope I don’t offend you!). The issue is not property damage so much as what I perceive as a kind of group hysteria of anger, what comes across as a hatred of police as individuals, and unwillingness to be accountable for one’s actions.

Closer to the nonviolent pole I would put the Gandhian ideas of “means becoming ends,” of operating out of reflection rather than in fast-paced battle, of love for the opponent, and of treating police with dignity while decrying the injustice they protect. (And we should decry their brutality to the rioters!) Civil disobedience allows for dialogue after the action in that we do not mask ourselves or run away, but speak with the very persons who would jail us. There is a chance for moral persuasion to occur, which would be lost if we never came out of the shadows. So the difference between Plowshares and riots is the difference between riots and any civil disobedience. Of course they have elements in common, but their approaches are fundamentally different.

My particular friends in the Black Bloc agree with this analysis. They believe that ends and means are different. They settle for tactical nonviolence, but given the right historical circumstance, armed struggle would be justified for them. So I don’t think it’s unfair to say their ideology is not nonviolent. As for their actions? Someone can do civil disobedience with hatred in their hearts, but the overall tone of civil disobedience is one of action out of reflection, and peace. And even if there are pacifists in the Black Bloc (as I’m sure there are), the dominant tone, at least to me, is one of blind rage; even if there were no injuries, the potential for injury is ever-present. A riot is a time bomb of emotion. I would never want children to play inside a riot. But if children played jacks beside a Plowshares action, I think they would be extremely safe.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented the Black Bloc in any way. I hope to learn more about their point of view.

Sachio Ko-Yin was a founding member of WRL’s New Jersey local, the Root and Branch Collective, and has served on the WRL Executive Committee. Since he finished a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the Minuteman III Plowshares action of 1998, he has co-founded the Autonomous Arts Collective, an anarchist group in Lewisburg, PA.

Between Sticks and Swords
By Virginia Baron

Imagine a continuum of human progress that might run from violence to nonviolence, from unspeakable brutality to acts of compassion. Where would stone-throwing intersect the line? Somewhere between sticks and swords, I suppose, certainly well before the categories of noncooperation or negotiation on the path leading to Gandhian transformation.

And yet, during what has become known as the “first Intifada,” North American activists liked to assert that Palestinian stone-throwing was harmless enough to be categorized as nonviolent. It was true that in relation to the Israeli army response of rubber bullets (lethal if fired at close range), bone-breaking and beatings, stone-throwing looked tame. But even the Palestinian shebab, the masked youth who expressed their anger in this ancient, pre-Biblical, but still available method of attack, never claimed to be acting nonviolently. They were revolting against an occupation they wanted to shake off with the means at hand.

Today, in the second Intifada, Palestinians have taken up rifles, mortars, car bombs, along with stones, in their desperate quest for liberation from an unjust, dehumanizing and illegal occupation. The Israeli army has responded with tanks, rockets, F-16 fighter jets, in what the international community has labeled “excessive force.” The war has reached a deeper dimension of violence on both sides. In addition to military violence, there have been further Israeli expropriations of land, home demolitions, collective punishment by closures, and countless other intimidations and humiliations. Despair is rife inside both communities.

Perhaps sometime in the future, historians will look back and shake their heads in regret that a movement that took shape during the first Intifada was allowed to be defeated before it spread. Recriminations will be made. But what is important is to learn the lessons of the nonviolent outburst that transformed the town of Beit Sahour on the West Bank.

Their near-total boycott of Israeli goods, their vegetable gardens and livestock-raising directed toward self- sufficiency, their town-wide refusal to pay taxes, their noncooperation in numerous actions such as turning in identification cards to the Israeli military government, their continuing dialogues with Israelis and foreigners, their underground schools and social service committees, their overall nonviolent resistance to the occupying force—all that represented a rare example of solidarity. The power of Beit Sahour’s nonviolent resistance became legendary, so legendary that the occupying military force put its foot down hard, but not before the PLO let it be known there was no support for this town’s nonviolent leadership. Caught between the occupier and the government-in-exile, the movement was not allowed to succeed.

The people of Beit Sahour paid a heavy price. They were willing to pay it. They did not run from the consequences of their resistance. I would like to think the actions and loyalty this town developed in those days were a precursor of the future state. The townspeople wonder now if all the sacrifices were worth making. But they have traveled too far on that continuum toward nonviolence and learned too much about commitment not to keep moving ahead and setting the pattern.

(Note: Beit Sahour will be cooperating in Nonviolence Resistance Camps throughout the West Bank the summer of 2001.)

Virginia Baron, President of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, has traveled in, and written widely about, the Middle East.

Nonviolence and Unconditional Love
By Melissa Jameson

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men and women.”
                —From The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr.

I have been a supporter of Plowshares for several years, starting when our WRL local did support work for the Pax Christi Spirit of Life Plowshares in 1993, and most recently participating in active support for the Minuteman 3 Plowshares. The property damage with which I am most familiar is done in relatively small groups, with tremendous preparation, against weapons that indiscriminately kill and have the potential to destroy all life on the planet. Since the globalization of destruction began with the development of the atom bomb, I think these weapons are ultimately at the root of so much, and should not exist. I also think that action directed at removing them should be thoughtful and measured. Accountability for one’s actions is key.

This lends itself to the possibility of transformation through consciousness-raising, of dialogue with one’s oppressor, of this idea of unconditional love. Staying at the scene of the crime to continue the dialogue begun by one’s action is in keeping with the idea of humanizing your oppressor, and that continues all through the process of court and prison. Although there were many people in our local community who did not agree with the Plowshares action done by a local resident, because the manner in which the action was carried out was open and thoughtful, the reasons behind it were clear. This opened the door for much conversation about disarmament, the military and love. Statements written by the actors were distributed and they were willing to speak to anyone about their motivation. The court process allowed even further dialogue, and our support committee continued the conversation locally begun by the symbolic disarmament many states away.

I think the parameters of nonviolent action are the limits to which one can stretch one’s imagination to include a transformation that truly builds the new society in the shell of the old. I would rather not focus on whether one form or property damage or another is violent, but on why we do what we do, and how we get there from here. Since one of the tenets of nonviolence is at least the recognition of the humanity of one’s opponent or oppressor, actions that do not allow that, for me, would not be a way I would choose to express myself. If nonviolence means without injury, then nonviolent action would have to mean things that do not bring harm to another living being. If means and ends are intricately, intimately linked, and we are seeking a nonviolent society, then the society we seek to build should be mirrored through our actions.

Melissa Jameson is the Director of the WRL National Office.

Stopping the Runaway Train
By Lelia Spears

If there were a train without brakes headed straight for my family and I could devise a way to disarm it, to slow it down or stop it in its tracks, I would do it in a heartbeat.

I feel the same way about war. The idle machines that are hacked at in Plowshares actions represent trains without brakes headed for thousands of people.

I have great respect for those who uphold their convictions that way. In my view the destruction of violent property is actively nonviolent. At the end of the day, if a “violent” action prevents greater violence—damaging slaughterhouse equipment, say—then whether it is actually violent at all comes into question.

Just as I had gotten that far, my father cut right through my argument by asking whether I was comfortable with property destruction committed by abortion opponents. I was immediately uncomfortable because in my mind any property destruction at a clinic would be violent.

Lesson #1: I evaluate whether I am comfortable with the when-where-who-what-why-hows of property destruction on a case-by-case basis.

It is fact that clinics providing abortions make living conditions safer for women—although whether I agree or not, the people at the Pentagon and their supporters also feel that the tools of destruction are creating safety in the world. Beyond defending clinics, however, I also perceive a threat to the safety of the people that come to the clinic—I’m afraid of the abortion opponents’ next step. Because violence, even only against property, is perceived as escalatory, how can we as activists assure others that our violence against destructive property is not going to escalate to violence against humans? People do perceive a personal threat of violence after witnessing, for instance, someone breaking a sweatshop merchandiser’s window. (In the case of Plowshares actions, because most of the sites where they happen are so remote, that perception is greatly reduced. I think that aspect of the Plowshares actions is strategically convenient and, unfortunately, not plausible in most other actions.)

At last September’s protests in Prague against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails at the police. I know that this is not a new tactic or topic of conversation, but many of my fellow activists found this violence amusing and exciting. I was not amused. I agree that police function as tools of the ruling class. But police are not the same as a missile—they’re not destructive property deserving harm. If the next step from property destruction is violence against people, then I do not want even to start. Just as I would not harm the attack dogs at protests, I have no interest in harming fellow human beings—even those who have shown their own abusive tendencies.

I accept the destruction of property as a tool in an activist’s toolbox, but because I personally do not consider it the most communicative tactic I feel it should be reserved for times when all other means of expression have been exhausted.

Lelia Spears is a student-activist at American University in Washington. She works with AU Queers and Allies, AU Animal Rights Effort and the social justice group the Movement and has been a core organizer of the National Conference on Civil Disobedience/Organized Resistance (NVA, May-June).

Rules? Which Rules? And Whose?
By David McReynolds

The question of which actions are nonviolent can become terribly theological and pointless. For instance, if I had a gun and saw someone with a machine gun about to shoot a room full of people, wouldn’t it be more nonviolent if I killed the person than let the room full of people be killed? But, of course, what was a pacifist doing with a gun in hand in the first place?

Rules are tricky. I’ve never been fully at ease with the Plowshares actions—and my unease hasn’t been a secret—since I believe honesty is part of nonviolence. Yet when WRL sent groups to Moscow’s Red Square and the White House lawn to issue simultaneous calls for disarmament in 1978, we didn’t tell the Soviets (or the White House) in advance, so I have broken my own rule. (And boy! Did I feel nervous that day walking into Red Square!). Perhaps in the end it comes down to what style you are comfortable with. I am happiest if the arrest fits the old Gandhian mode, in which you notify the police before you break the law and quietly submit to arrest after you’ve broken it. (I don’t believe in going limp; that has always seemed to me a violent act against a possibly out-of-shape cop who might have a heart attack trying to toss me in the police wagon).

What bothers me about property destruction is partly just the destruction—I’d rather be on the side of creating. I can understand being so angry that I’d pick up a brick and throw it through a window. But I can’t understand coming to a demonstration with a brick in my shoulder bag just in case I get so angry.

The other thing is what’s called accountability: The Plowshares folks have been very clear that, while they don’t notify the authorities in advance, they will wait for arrest after their symbolic smashing is done. If someone says in advance, “I’m going to smash a MacDonald’s window and then stand there and be arrested,” that’s very different from putting on a black mask, breaking the general rules the organizers have worked out and running up to smash the window and then running away. Not only is that a very poor approach to abolishing capitalism, which is much more complex, and will take weeks and weeks, and even months of months of hard work, but it alienates the public, which is, I think, our real target.

It also divides the movement itself, if it breaks an agreement on what the limits of the action are going to be. If folks are going to engage in window-smashing, they ought to set their own time and place for it, and not mix it up with a demonstration in which most of the people aren’t into that.

In the end, when I watch masked demonstrators smashing windows and thinking that that is nonviolent action, it seems to me there is a thin line between deep conviction and murderous fanaticism. Nonviolence is an effort to stay on the loving side of that line.

David McReynolds served on the War Resisters League staff from 1960 through 1998. His own approach to nonviolence will appear in a pamphlet (based on essays published in WRL’s other regular publication, the Key List), to be published by the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute.

Context Is All
By Joanne Sheehan

Is hammering on a nose cone nonviolent? Is breaking a sweatshop window nonviolent?

The parameters of nonviolent action are influenced by the situation and our approach and attitude. I don’t think those questions can be answered out of context. In trying to, we oversimplify the definitions of nonviolence—and we focus more on property than principles, which is perhaps the very criticism I have of those who vehemently disagree with both these actions.

There is no simple answer as to how to define what is a nonviolent action, because there is no simple definition of nonviolence. But we still have to make personal decisions regarding our own actions and find ways to come to consensus about organizing nonviolent actions.

Here are some characteristics of nonviolent action I’ve learned in three decades of committing, organizing and training for civil disobedience:

Nonviolent actions are most powerful when done in the context of a nonviolent campaign. Nonviolent campaigns are developed to accomplish specific goals. A nonviolent campaign is a process through which people come together with a common vision, common goals and creative strategies employing a diversity of tactics (including educating, training, developing allies, negotiating, building alternative institutions, legislative and electoral action, demonstrating, doing civil disobedience, all moving to resolve the injustice.) Such a campaign is more than a group of projects strung together over a period of time; its power comes in the creative combination of these components and in the strategic thinking and commitment of the participants.

A nonviolent campaign should take people through processes of empowerment. It should be personally empowering, involving people discovering and exercising their own power against oppression, exclusion and violence and for participation, peace and human rights. Groups working on a campaign develop a collective power, learning how to be organizers and becoming political strategists in the process. A progression of campaigns can move us toward social empowerment that leads to the social transformation we are working for.

Campaign-building gives us more opportunity to define the situation, rather than simply react, and thereby develop a nonviolent approach based on nonviolent principles.

How do we define nonviolent principles? The War Resisters’ International Statement of Principles, rewritten three years ago, has particular meaning for me because it was written by an international group using a consensus process. Describing our commitment to nonviolence, the statement says:

WRI embraces nonviolence. For some, nonviolence is a way of life. For all of us, it is a form of action that affirms life, speaks out against oppression, and acknowledges the value of each person.

Nonviolence can combine active resistance, including civil disobedience, with dialogue; it can combine noncooperation—withdrawal of support from a system of oppression—with constructive work to build alternatives. As a way of engaging in conflict, sometimes nonviolence attempts to bring reconciliation with it: strengthening the social fabric, empowering those at the bottom of society, and including people from different sides in seeking a solution. Even when such aims cannot immediately be achieved, our nonviolence holds us firm in our determination not to destroy other people.

But those principles make no mention of property destruction, although I think they are a foundation for individuals and groups to work out their own relationship to the question. For myself, I believe that some property has no right to exist, including nuclear weapons, with their capacity for destruction. But if we choose to destroy that property, I think we need to be extremely responsible and premeditative in order to maintain a commitment to nonviolence. And we should be prepared for the consequences.

Plowshares actions are carefully organized by small groups of people. Would it be possible to organize hundreds or even thousands of people to bang on a nose cone and maintain a commitment to nonviolence? Only if it was a well-trained group committed to nonviolence and prepared for the brutality that the destruction of such weapons might rain upon them. Nonviolence guidelines for actions such as A Day Without the Pentagon often include “no property destruction,” not because the organizers believe that property destruction is not nonviolent, but because it is not a tactic that can be carefully organized in a mass nonviolent direct action.

I have a more difficult time defining breaking a window as a nonviolent action, especially in a mass action. Some of my tactical and philosophical questions include:

  • Is there a difference between breaking the window of an actual sweatshop and breaking the window of a store—like Niketown or Starbucks—that sells the sweatshop goods?
  • Is breaking windows in the midst of a mass “nonviolent action” exactly what the police want us to do, so that police force can be “justified”?
  • Who is affected when a window is broken? Who is hurt? The corporation or the workers?

Will it put the kind of pressure on the adversary that will move them?

I also think we need to look at gender issues here. Is there a macho element to property destruction? Do these actions marginalize women? Are women an important part of the decision-making processes?

Do we look at the parameters of nonviolent actions differently depending on whether we see nonviolence as a philosophy or a tactic? Is this a generational issue? If so, does that mean the new generation of activists is moving away from nonviolence as a philosophy?

Finally, we need to ask, what is our power? Where does our power lie? Do such tactics as window-breaking (and, for that matter, Plowshares actions) extend and broaden it? It is understandable how people would feel powerful destroying something they see as wrong, but is it a tactic that moves us toward social transformation?

Those are all questions that need serious discussion, always remembering Barbara Deming’s definition: “Nonviolence is an exploration, one that has just begun.”

WRL New England staffer Joanne Sheehan is the Chair of War Resisters’ International. Her first movement work was with the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives doing defense committee work for the draft board raids in the early ’70s.