History of Mass Nonviolent Action
The use of nonviolence runs throughout
history. There have been numerous instances of people courageously
and nonviolently refusing cooperation with injustice. However,
the fusion of organized mass struggle and nonviolence is relatively
new. It originated largely with Mohandas Gandhi in 1906 at the
onset of the South African campaign for Indian rights. Later,
the Indian struggle for complete independence from the British
Empire included a number of spectacular nonviolent campaigns.
Perhaps the most notable was the year-long Salt campaign in which
100,000 Indians were jailed for deliberately violating the Salt
The refusal to counter the violence of the repressive social system with more violence is a tactic that has also been used by other movements. The militant campaign for women's suffrage in Britain included a variety of nonviolent tactics such as boycotts, noncooperation, limited property destruction, civil disobedience, mass marches and demonstrations, filling the jails, and disruption of public ceremonies.
The Salvadoran people have used nonviolence as one powerful and necessary element of their struggle. Particularly during the 1960s and 70s, Christian based communities, labor unions, campesino organizations, and student groups held occupations and sit-ins at universities, government offices, and places of work such as factories and haciendas.
There is rich tradition of nonviolent protest in this country as well, including Harriet Tubman's underground railroad during the civil war and Henry David Thoreau's refusal to pay war taxes. Nonviolent civil disobedience was a critical factor in gaining women the right to vote in the United States, as well.
The U.S. labor movement has also used nonviolence with striking effectiveness in a number of instances, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free speech confrontations, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) sitdown strikes from 1935-1937 in auto plants, and the UFW grape and lettuce boycotts.
Using mass nonviolent action, the civil rights movement changed the face of the South. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated modern nonviolent action for civil rights with sit-ins and a freedom ride in the 1940s. The successful Montgomery bus boycott electrified the nation. Then, the early 1960s exploded with nonviolent actions: sit-ins at lunch counters and other facilities, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Freedom Rides to the South organized by CORE; the nonviolent battles against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 participants.
Opponents of the Vietnam War employed the use of draft card burnings, draft file destruction, mass de-. monstrations (such as the 500,000 who turned out in 1969 in Washington, D.C.), sit-ins, blocking induction centers, draft and tax resistance, and the historic 1971 May Day traffic blocking in Washington, D.C. in which 13,000 people were arrested.
Since the mid-70s, we have seen increasing nonviolent activity against the nuclear arms race and nuclear power industry. Nonviolent civil disobedience actions have taken place at dozens of nuclear weapons research installations, storage areas, missile silos, test sites, military bases, corporate and government offices and nuclear power plants. In the late 1970s mass civil disobedience actions took place at nuclear power plants from Seabrook, New Hampshire to the Diablo Canyon reactor in California and most states in between in this country and in other countries around the world. In 1982, 1750 people were arrested at the U.N. missions of the five major nuclear powers. Mass actions took place at the Livermore Laboratories in California and SAC bases in the midwest. In the late 80s a series of actions took place at the Nevada test site. International disarmament actions changed world opinion about nuclear weapons.
In 1980 women who were concerned with the destruction of the Earth and who were interested in exploring the connections between feminism and nonviolence were coming together. In November of 1980 and 1981 the Women's Pentagon Actions, where hundreds of women came together to challenge patriarchy and militarism, took place. A movement grew that found ways to use direct action to put pressure on the military establishment and to show positive examples of life-affirming ways to live together. This movement spawned women's peace camps at military bases around the world from Greenham Common, England to Puget Sound Peace Camp in Washington state, with camps in Japan and Italy among others.
The anti-apartheid movement in the 80s has built upon the powerful and empowering use of civil disobedience by the civil rights movement in the 60s. In November of 1984, a campaign began that involved daily civil disobedience in front of the South African Embassy. People, including members of Congress, national labor and religious leaders, celebrities, students, community leaders, teachers, and others, risked arrest every weekday for over a year. In the end over 3,100 people were arrested protesting apartheid and U.S. corporate and government support. At the same time, support actions for this campaign were held in 26 major Cities, resulting in an additional 5,000 arrests.
We also saw civil disobedience being incorporated as a key tactic in the movement against intervention in Central America. Beginning in 1983, national actions at the White House and State Department as well as local actions began to spread. In November 1984, the Pledge of Resistance was formed. Since then, over 5,000 people have been arrested at military installations, congressional offices, federal buildings, and CIA offices. Many people have also broken the law by providing sanctuary for Central American refugees and through the Lenten Witness, major denomination representatives have participated in weekly nonviolent civil disobedience actions at the Capitol.
Student activists have incorporated civil disobedience in both their anti-apartheid and Central America work. Divestment became the campus slogan of the 80s. Students built shantytowns and staged sit-ins at Administrator's offices. Hundreds have been arrested resulting in the divestment of over 130 campuses and the subsequent withdrawal of over $4 billion from the South African economy. Central America student activists have carried out campaigns to protest CIA recruitment on campuses. Again, hundreds of students across the country have been arrested in this effort.
Nonviolent direct action has been an integral part of the renewed activism in the lesbian and gay community since 1987, when ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed. ACT UP and other groups have organized hundreds of civil disobedience actions across the country, focusing not only on AIDS but on the increasing climate of homophobia and attacks on lesbians and gay men. On October 13, 1987, the Supreme Court was the site of the first national lesbian and gay civil disobedience action, where nearly 600 people were arrested protesting the decision in Hardwick vs. Bowers, which upheld sodomy laws. This was the largest mass arrest in D.C. since 1971.
Power itself is not derived through violence, though in governmental form it is usually violent in nature. Governmental power is often maintained through oppression and the tacit compliance of the majority of the governed. Any significant withdrawal of that compliance will restrict or dissolve governmental control. Apathy in the face of injustice is a form of violence. Struggle and conflict are often necessary to correct injustice.
Our struggle is not easy, and we must not think of nonviolence as a "safe" way to fight oppression. The strength of nonviolence comes from our willingness to take personal risk without threatening other people.
It is essential that we separate the individual from the role she/he plays. The "enemy" is the system that casts people in oppressive roles.
ACT UP Direct Action Guidelines
History of Mass Nonviolent Action
Nonviolent Response to Personal Violence
Affinity Groups and Support
Steps Toward Making a Campaign
Consensus Decision Making
Legal Issues/Risking Arrest
Legal Flow Chart: What Happens in an Arrest and Your Decisions
Legal Terms: What They Mean
see also the following:
The Demonstrator's Manual (crucial)
Marshal Training Manual
Getting Arrested: Why do we do it?