At the end of the week in 1970 in which nonviolent protestors were killed by National Guard troops at Kent State and Jackson State universities, I took part in a large antiwar march in Austin. Nixon had expanded the Vietnam War, rather than ending it – no surprise to those of us who knew Tricky Dick was more than just a cute rhyme – and demonstrations were happening all across the country.
There had been several small protests that week in Austin. The city had denied organizers’ request for a parade permit. By the end of the week, thousands of us were camping on the main mall at the University of Texas. (I find it hard to believe now, but I slept on concrete in a thin sleeping bag and wasn’t even stiff when I got up. Ah, youth.)
On Friday morning, we had a number of speeches in preparation for the march. We still didn’t have a parade permit, and the number of people on the main mall (which is a large space) was growing. We started off to march toward downtown with instructions to stay on the sidewalks.
The odds that people would stay on the sidewalks was small, of course, given the number of people and how angry we were. When we started off, we definitely thought there was a possibility of arrest – or worse.
At the last minute, word came that a federal judge had ruled we could march in the streets. It became a joyful march as well as a strong protest.
In my memory there were twenty-five thousand people in the streets of Austin that day. It doesn’t sound like a huge number now, but at the time, that was close to ten percent of the city’s population. Not all the protestors were students, but at the time the university had about thirty thousand students.
It was powerful. It was exhilarating. Was it effective? Not directly, obviously – the war didn’t end until after Nixon was gone. But did all those waves of protest back then lay a groundwork for other social change?
My guess is that they did.
Actually, this is something of an educated guess, because I’ve been reading a couple of books on the subject of what is now being called civil resistance – nonviolent actions aimed at changing a governmental policy, or even a government. One thing I learned was that some actions that looked as if they achieved very little often turned out to be the tipping point that made a movement succeed.
The first of the two books is a serious academic study that looks at the success or failure of both civil resistance and violent resistance movements between 1900 and 2006, Why Civil Resistance Works, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. One of the things that makes this book particularly interesting is that Chenoweth came to the subject with profound skepticism about civil resistance. She thought it sounded good in principle, but expected that violent actions would turn out to be more effective.
Her research and analysis showed she was wrong. Civil resistance actions over that period of time were about 75 percent successful, while violent ones were only about 25 percent successful.
The second book, This Is an Uprising, by Mark and Paul Engler, cites the first, but also provides a detailed analysis of what civil resistance is and what makes it work. Among other things, it distinguishes it from classic organization-centered organizing, such as that done by unions and community organizations like those started by Saul Alinksy.
Despite having spent time in various protest activities over my life, I learned a lot from this book. One thing it does is emphasize that the moral component of much traditional nonviolent activism is not necessary and, in fact, may cause problems because of the more intense level of commitment taking a stand for a moral or religious reason may require.
I didn’t know about the work of Gene Sharp, a scholar who began as a traditional pacifist – he went to prison for refusing the draft during the Korean War – but later moved away from “principled nonviolence” to a more pragmatic, though still nonviolent, approach.
Nor did I understand that a lot of actions that seem spontaneous – and are, in fact, covered in the media as if they’re spontaneous – are actually the result of planning and organization.
Here are several other things I learned from these books and some related reading:
- Nonviolent civil resistance doesn’t just work against democratic governments. It has been very successful against very repressive states. It’s time to retire that myth.
- One of the reasons that civil resistance works better than violent rebellion is that it brings more of the population into the action. More people are reluctant to commit to violent action and groups that engage in violent action must be more careful about who they let in.
- Setting your own standards for success is crucial, especially when dealing with a regime that will not give you any credit.
- According to Chenoweth, if you can get about 3.5 percent of the population taking part in a civil resistance movement, your chances of success are very high.
- A key element success is convincing people – especially security forces – not to do their job of stopping the movement. This usually comes toward the end.
- Effective actions require discipline on the part of participants.
There is one other point to emphasize: civil resistance is not risk-free. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement is a great example. People were killed and badly injured, and, of course, massive numbers were arrested.
But the movement was successful. It may not have fixed every problem caused by racism – Black Lives Matter is unfortunately all too necessary these days – but it changed a lot of things.
None of this is easy, but it is doable. Civil resistance isn’t a quixotic ideal, but rather an extremely practical way of achieving democratic goals.
And it’s not something you do alone; it only works if lots of people get involved. There are lots of groups out there to work with. Pick one or more and get to work.