Notes from Class: A History of Peace Movements

This is a question-answer assignment from a thought-provoking class I finished recently, “A History of Peace Movements and Non-violent Protests”. I joke with friends that the class was essentially a training camp to become the next Gandhi or Martin Luther King. (Goals, right?). But it really changed my perspective on what defines power, and the amount of agency regular people have to actually cause social change. It borrows mostly from the textbook, This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, definitely recommended.

Explain why the “paradox of repression” resulted from the tactical choices made by Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1950s-1960s US civil rights movement.

The paradox of repression is that force, intended to suppress non-violent movements, instead strengthens them. In other words, “when the opponent representing the status quo uses force … to repress its nonviolent opponents, the repression often ironically weakens the regime’s authority and strengthens the opposition.”1 Especially for non-violent victims, the use of force tends to increase sympathy and emphasize the unjustness of an oppressor.

This paradox was well understood by Martin Luther King and his organization the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in their planning and execution of “Project C” in 1963. Project C was a series of civil rights marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time considered one of the most racist cities in America. It is considered one of the most critical events that contributed towards the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

MLK’s idea was to create a situation so confrontational and crisis-packed that the ugliness of racism and repression would be exposed – and to have this ugliness captured in the media.2 MLK predicted that the racist police commissioner Bull Connor would be heavy-handed in his response to the protests, and was correct. The media captured “police dogs snapping at unarmed demonstrators and water cannons being opened on student marchers.”3 Core members of the SCLC, Walker and Cotton, responded quite unusually. “They were jumping up and down, elated. They said over and over again, ‘We’ve got a movement … They brought out the dogs. We’ve got a movement.”4 The effects of the paradox bolstered the movement in spades. Media attention captured audiences all over the world, including the support of President John F Kennedy.

Explain why Gandhi’s civil resistance movement in India (and the 1930 salt march) exemplifies the “two hands of nonviolence”.

The “two hands of nonviolence” is a concept originated by Barbara Deming. It defines the power of non-violence as having two pressures – defiance, and respect for an aggressor’s life, which work in combination. The defiant hand says “Stop what you are doing … I refuse to cooperate … With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing.” At the same time another hand is outstretched, signifying “No, you are not the other; and no, I am not the other. … I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

Gandhi’s civil resistance movement exemplifies the “two hands” concept. The defiant hand is clear to see. A cornerstone of India’s independence movement was non-cooperation with the British, the most famous and influential example being Gandhi’s 1930 salt march. Gandhi chose to not co-operate with unfair taxation by the British, and actively led others to do the same. Still, Gandhi did not vilify or dehumanize the British. In fact a key success of the movement is that he “forced the British to negotiate as equals.”5 He famously said, “Do not be angry at the British, the British haven’t taken India from us, we have given it to them.”6 Besides cleverly emphasizing the power of the Indian people, this quote shows that Gandhi urged compassion and understanding for his enemy – the second hand.

Is social change a product of changing historical conditions or a result of the skills and agency of movement participants? Using the Occupy movement as a case study, explain how we might go about resolving this debate.

Historical context involves the economic, social, religious, political, and technological conditions that exist at a certain time. These large, over-arching forces play a role in defining elements of everyone’s lives. However historical forces are often overestimated in relation to human agency, which arguably plays a larger role in social change.

The media tends to mischaracterize the successes of social movements as a matter of luck or the times. In reality, successful social movements depend largely on careful planning. The Occupy Movement is such an example. Occupy was a social movement born in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, in opposition to the inequality between the “99% and the 1%” and a lack of real democracy. It shifted the conversation at the time from the federal deficit to wealth disparity America and “helped re-frame or re-emphasize the populist messaging that President Obama ran and won on.”7

The variety of tactics Occupy employed illustrate the amount of work and planning organizers put in to make their movement successful. Organizers used the tactic of disruptive sit-ins in order to pressure the government, intentionally working from outside the political system. This is because they observed how ineffective political efforts by other movements had been. They readied make-shift media teams, and livestreamed protests to the internet to capture any repression from police in order to “shape the narrative.”8 Occupy produced a set of hand signals protesters could use to communicate, and established prefigurative communities within encampments, making decisions based on direct democracy of the participants.

Occupy still depended on historical context in some ways. The Occupy organizers did not plan for their movement to escalate and spread globally on Twitter. But this is not to forget, historical context itself is not immutable. People acting with agency in past generations are the ones who determined the context of today. John Perry Barlow spoke from the heart of early internet pioneers when he wrote “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”9 The technology that allowed the Occupy movement to spread so widely did not appear but was designed by people who intended it.

People can be conscientious objectors because of (1) long-standing religious and/or philosophical beliefs, OR (2) a new realization/conviction about a particular war or a particular situation of injustice. What was it about the February 2003 movement to stop the Iraq War that seemed to galvanize both kinds of conscientious objectors?

Conscientious objection is defined by the US military as “A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.” The Iraq War was uniquely objectionable for a number of reasons.

The political rhetoric of the time was unusually see-through. The United States and Britain claimed an invasion of Iraq was necessary in order to subdue the threat of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. However, the popular suspicion of the time was the invasion had more to do with Iraq’s large oil reserves. An external United Nations inspection of Iraqi nuclear facilities by Hans Blix found that Iraq possessed no nuclear weapons, and was complying agreeably to restrictions.10 When George Bush and Tony Blair pushed ahead with the war, their lack of an excuse sparked massive protest. The 2003 protests against the Iraq War were the largest non-violent protests in history, consisting of approximately 15 million people across 75 countries, including Antarctica.11 Celebrities such as Damon Albarn, Danny Glover, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu publicly spoke out, agreeing that motivations behind the war were nefarious. One conscientious objector stated, “when you sign your life on the line for your country and swear to defend it, the only thing you ask for in return is that it be for a good reason, and I didn’t feel it was for a good reason.”12

Defecting had, in some places, become respectable rather than a sign of cowardice. Opposing the war became cool; Canadian band Metric in their song “Succexy” critiqued Bush and the war. Vietnam War protests were also still recent history. Objectors were reminded of horrible, unnecessary violence such as the My Lai massacre, napalm, and Agent Orange. Activists argued the preemptive actions of US and Britain were immoral and illegal according to international law.13 The clarity of the injustice of the war inspired the powerful protest chant – “Not in our names. Not in our names.”

Some religious objectors would argue that violence is never justified, but in this case of the Iraq War indeed the majority of the public agreed violence was unjustified to a high degree. The blatant disregard for public opinion by political leaders and unjust pretense of the war galvanized both religious and new-found objectors in ways which other wars had not.

Write an essay about the power of non-violent action, in reponse to the following quote by Jonathan Schell:

“The cooperative power of nonviolent action is new, yet its roots go deep into history, and it is now tightly woven … into the life of the world. It has already altered basic realities that everyone must work with, including the nature of sovereignty, force, and political power. In the century ahead it can be our bulwark and shield against the still unmastered peril of total violence …. Whether one calls this power cooperative power or something else, it has, with the steady widening and deepening of the democratic spirit, over and over bent great powers to its will. Its point of origin is the heart and mind of each ordinary person. It can flare up suddenly and mightily but gutter out with equal speed, unless it is channelled and controlled by acts of restraint …. This power can be spiritual in inspiration but doesn’t have to be. Its watchwords are love and freedom, yet it is not just an ideal but a real force in the world….It is powerful because it sets people in motion, and fixes before their eyes what they are ready to live and die for.”

– Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World (New York: Henry Holt, 2003).

Jonathan Schell gives an emphatic endorsement of the power of non-violent action. Non-violent action is a means of achieving social change through tactics such as protests and civil disobedience. It has been utilized by movements from Gandhi’s Salt March to Martin Luther King’s Project C.

First, what does Schell mean by power? There are many views of what defines it. One view is that power comes from the barrel of a gun. This view becomes problematic however, since there are many examples of dictators being overthrown by non-violent movements. (The 2003 uprising against Milosevic in Serbia and the 2011 Arab Spring.) Dictators, with command over armies, were overthrown by people without weapons. Another view is that power belongs to policy makers and the people ‘on top’. One can argue the degree to which money and political influence give individuals power, however it is clear they do not provide a complete picture. Politicians famously bend with the wind of popular opinion. This tendency is what caused Bill McKibben to mock Bill Clinton as “the greatest weathervane who ever lived,” when Clinton flip-flopped his stance on gay marriage equality.14 Businesses are dependent on customers just like politicians are dependent on voters – neither can survive without them for very long.

A better definition power comes from Hannah Arendt – “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” In her definition power is related to the cooperation of people, rather than held by individuals. People with power are empowered by those that choose listen to them. This is what Gene Sharp was getting at when he wrote “obedience is at the heart of political power.”15 Sharp proposed that hierarchical social systems would stop functioning, and indeed be destroyed, if people refused to cooperate.16 Of course, it is not always so simple. Mark Engler and Paul Engler help to clarify how power is experienced through the concept of “pillars of support.” Most people do not interact with their leaders directly, but instead through institutions such as their profession, religion, labor group, or school. Engler and Engler argue each of these institutions acts as a pillar holding up a regime. When the people of a pillar act together to refuse cooperation, the pillar is smashed and the regime comes closer to toppling.17

Non-violent action works by tapping into this collective definition of power. It attempts to “clearly reveal to the public how the power-holders violate society’s widely held values,”18 thereby convincing people to revolt together.

Gene Sharp thought of non-violence as tool which could be “employed strategically,”19 and which held practical value even for non-pacifists. Some of the tactics he identified include picketing, sit-ins, boycotts, blockades, and strikes. Engler and Engler propose that the most successful non-violent movements make use of three key ingredients: disruption, sacrifice and escalation. Disruption ensures that even “those without money or influence” can air their grievances and not “simply be ignored.”20 Sacrifice “helps to address two of the great problems of disruptive protest: the risk of public backlash and the danger of swift and severe repression.”21 Meanwhile escalation ensures that authorities are forced to act in response.22 A dilemma is created where authorities cannot afford to stand by, but upon cracking down on a movement encounter the “paradox of repression.”

The mechanics of non-violent movements all work toward a common goal – to influence popular opinion in order to bring about social change. Because of this, the measures of success of non-violent action are not necessarily specific legal gains but shifts in polls and conversation, which are difficult to track reliably. As Michael Signer wrote, “it’s hard to thank any single individual for altering history; more often, the ship of state alters course only because tides are vastly shifting underneath.”23 Non-violent action is at its essence an attempt to shift the tides.

Schell was correct in stating that the roots of non-violent movements go deep into history. Non-violent strategy can be traced back far past MLK and Gandhi to noncooperation by the plebeians of Rome in 494 BC.24 It was advocated by Thoreau and Tolstoy.25 The successes of non-violent action are numerous and immense. The end of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor and workplace safety laws all owe to non-violent social movements.26 Apartheid South Africa, the People Power movement in the Phillpines, the ouster of Pinochet in Chile, the 1989 revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, the “color revolutions” in Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine, uprisings in Burma in 1988 and 2007, Iran in 2009 and the Arab world in 2011 add to the extensive list.27 In addition to “altering the realities” of sovereignty and power, non-violent action has altered social reality. As few as thirty years ago, LGBTQ individuals in America faced heavy discrimination. In “1990, three-quarters of Americans saw gay sex as immoral … something no country in the world then permitted” and “When Vermont Supreme Court ruled to allow civil unions in that state in 1999, Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer called the decision ‘in some ways worse than terrorism.’”28 Today these attitudes have completely changed, in no small part due to the marriage equality movement.

Schell writes non-violence can be a shield against the “unmastered peril of total violence.” Many activists reject the use of violence from ethical and moral standpoints. Yet, there are some who believe violence may be a justified means, especially in contexts such as sabotage and self-defence. In the absence of moral concerns, there are many strategic problems in using violence in social movements. Non-violence relies on an appeal to the sympathy and understanding of the public to convey its message and gain support. Violence works against this mechanism by making causes less sympathetic. Erica Chenoweth “found that nonviolent movements worldwide were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.”29 Moreover, there is another concern: “the minute activists become violent, they enter onto the preferred terrain of the status quo, which is adept at out-gunning its adversaries.”30 Knowledge of the strategic follies of violence is what caused Gandhi to instruct salt marchers “to not even raise a hand to fend off their blows.”31 He argued that “for a member of a mass protest movement to resort to violence … was to ‘cooperate with the Government in the most active manner.’”32 This is what Schell meant by “channeled and controlled by acts of restraint.”

Non-violent movements possess the immense capacity for social change, due to their ability to tap into the collective nature of power. Movements may very well “mightily gutter out” as quickly as they begin – non-violent strategy is not all-powerful, nor has it been perfected. However, Schell would certainly agree with Gandhi’s sentiment: “We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.”


  1. Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz, The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements, 111.
  2. Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Non-violent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (New York: Nation Books, 2016), xiii.
  3. Ibid., xv.
  4. Ibid., 22.
  5. Ibid., 128.
  6. Steve York, A Force More Powerful, 2000.
  7. Engler and Engler, This is an Uprising, 168.
  8. Sweta Vohra and Jordan Flaherty, The History of an Occupation: Fault Lines, 2012.
  9. John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 8 February 1996.
  10. Amir Amirani, We Are Many, 2015.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Victoria Carty, “The Anti-War Movement Versus the War Against Iraq”, International Journal of Peace Studies, 2009.
  14. Engler and Engler, This is an Uprising, 106.
  15. Ibid., 91.
  16. Ibid., 13.
  17. Ibid., 91-92.
  18. Ibid., 122.
  19. Ibid., 3.
  20. Ibid., 145-157.
  21. Ibid., 152.
  22. Ibid., 156.
  23. Ibid., 97.
  24. Ibid., 13.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., xxi.
  27. Ibid., 25.
  28. Ibid., 88.
  29. Ibid., 109.
  30. Ibid., viii.
  31. York, A Force More Powerful.
  32. Engler and Engler, This is an Uprising, 241.