A Tricoastal Woman: Rising Up

Become Ungovernable

Sign at the Oakland Women’s March

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.



A Tricoastal Woman: Rising Up — 8 Comments

  1. We’re having an Underground Safety Network again. It’s necessary for every neighborhood the way the Underground Railroad network that got well organized and efficiently function after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It’s already happening, and it’s happening for all the same reasons: that a part of the country is forcing actions and behaviors upon all the rest of us that 1) we don’t agree with; 2) don’t wish to be part of; 3) affects our economic and social well-being, as well as our own political, civil well-being.

    These can be violent or non-violent, as we see from looking at the history of escapees and those who aided and abetted, particularly after 1850.

    • It is visible and palpable here, what the immigration round-up is doing to our friends and neighbors. I wrote up here


      what I saw as of yesterday in a city where ICE is operating at fuller than ever force, including calling themselves NYC PD, to the furty of the mayor and the police themselves, not to mention the rest of us.

      Beyond what I put up on LJ, last night we went to the Blue Note, The Blue Note, this classic jazz club, lives on foreigners / tourists. Despite everything last night, though very full, it wasn’t packed, and it had been sold out.

      The difference in attendace after two more weeks of the D.C. cray cray, was visible. We were there two weeks ago Thursday (16th) with a party for my birthday. Not even standing room was left for Lisa Fischer. But last night, one day shy of two weeks, not the same, with the artist Donald Harrison, who always packs out the place. El V asked the manager if business had fallen off in the last two weeks, and he said it really had, and this was the condition for everyone around the city.

      Why come on a vacation to a country that will humiliate you, threaten and godessa knows what else.

      But that’s the objective here — to destroy the economy of these “sanctuary” cities, while the financial industry is happily involved in plundering all the federal government fund$ for them$elve$ — and happily aware they can keep doing this for year$. The only function of government as far as these ilks are concerned is anything that is repressive.

      • I’ve noticed that there are a lot of ICE raids here in California, where we have sanctuary cities (and state policies as well). But it’s not in the country’s interest to destroy the economies of NYC, LA, SF, et al. I bet people can organize around the economic issues and make some headway.

        I am worried about the fact that the customs and border patrol officers seem to think they have carte blanche to ignore the law and treat people abusively. That’s going to be hard to fix, given how far down it goes.

    • At the current time, I think it’s really important to focus on non-violent strategies for very pragmatic reasons: They’ll work better. We need to protect individuals, but we also need to build a strong enough movement to get the policies changed and to get rid of the people who are making it happen.

  2. Thanks for the post, Nancy. I just put a library hold on one This Is An Uprising, and I’m looking forward to reading it! I plan to read both of the books eventually. Your synthesis of their findings is very helpful. One of the things that has struck me is how quickly protests have arisen and how large they’ve been. It took years to ramp up this much resistance to the Vietnam war. Of course, we didn’t have social media in the 60s and 70s, but I don’t think that’s the only reason the Trump Era protests have been so large. If I’m remembering correctly, it took a long time to convince a large number of people that fighting a war in Vietnam was an error of massive proportions. In 2016 and 2017 already more than half of the voters oppose Trump. It will be interesting to see what happens next!

    • I think you’ll really like the books. Why Civil Resistance Works is an academic work, but I find it really useful to look at the details of their research so that I can see what they did. The analysis in This Is an Uprising makes it clear that these tools can be used deliberately and with good planning.

      Like you, I have been pleased by the quick response in opposition. I don’t think people are treating this crazy administration as business as usual, and that gives me hope that we will not only stop the worst excesses, but also build a more positive future over the next few years.