Blog Posts

Czechoslovakia’s two-hour general strike

30 April, 2012

A general strike can be one of the most potent noncooperation methods in the repertoire of nonviolent resistance. It is a widespread cessation of labor in an effort to bring all economic activity to a total standstill. Although it is easy to broadcast the call for a general strike, it is exceedingly difficult to implement for the maximal impact that it potentially exerts. What’s more, a general strike must be called prudently, because it loses its effectiveness if weakly executed.

The Occupy movement’s calls for a general strike in the United States on May 1 make me think of an instance in which a general strike was brilliantly carried out and with great effect, in Czechoslovakia in 1989 — for only two hours.

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Why we need Sharp’s Dictionary

9 April, 2012

Anyone who has researched, taught, written or published on the subject of nonviolent struggle appreciates the headaches of vocabulary. Gandhi himself suffered the pains and perplexities of language, as in this passage from Satyagraha in South Africa:

None of us knew what name to give to our movement. I then used the term “passive resistance” in describing it. I did not then quite understand the implications of “passive resistance” as I called it. … As the struggle advanced, the phrase “passive resistance” gave rise to confusion and it appeared shameful to permit this great struggle to be known only by an English name.

The English word nonviolence is not much better. It is ambiguous and multifaceted. My students, for whom English is often a second, third or fourth language, frequently complain that the word “nonviolence” says what it is not but does not tell us what it is. The ability of average people to study this subject with linguistic precision, however, has lately taken a quantum leap with Oxford University Press’s publication of Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, by the scholar of nonviolent struggle (and Waging Nonviolence contributor) Gene Sharp.

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What ‘KONY 2012’ is — and is not

19 March, 2012

Still from "KONY 2012" representing an inverted pyramid of people-power acting on elites.

A student recently asked me about the now-famous online video “KONY 2012.” The man its name refers to, of course, is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group alleged to have forced more than 60,000 children into fighting in armed conflicts in central Africa. As of this writing, the video has been watched more than 100 million times; its makers hope it will “raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” My student wrote:

Can a nonviolent movement be virtual, or does it require feet on the ground? The concept of “KONY 2012” appears to be about awareness targeted to North American supporters, not the people of Uganda or Congo where Kony calls home. If “KONY 2012” seeks only to raise awareness, but does not result in organized protest or the arrest of Kony, is it still an effective campaign?

I thought it was a great question, coming at the beginning of an online course at the University for Peace (UPEACE) with 30 mid-career students from literally all over the world, and in regard to a phenomenon that is spreading just as far and wide. My response, however, is that the “KONY 2012” video and what it calls for, whatever its ultimate effectiveness, would not qualify as a true nonviolent resistance campaign, movement or mobilization.

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Syrians map their future, post-Assad

27 February, 2012

Discussion about changes to a Syrian street name, via The Highest Monkey.

The opposition in Syria is not waiting for Bashar al-Assad to depart before drawing up new maps of their country. According to a recent Washington Post report, activists have been using a Google crowdsourcing program, Map Maker, to rename major streets, bridges and thoroughfares after their own heroes. The purpose has been to erase the remnants of the Assad family’s 40-year rule and to memorialize nonviolent challengers who have died during the course of Syria’s almost year-long uprising. Stefan Geens, author of the Ogle Earth blog, which tracks Google Maps, told the Post that Syria’s is the first rebellion of which he knows where activists have used online mapping programs to rewrite history.

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Anticipating fear

19 February, 2012

Ku Klux Klan rally on the Louisiana State Capitol steps in Baton Rouge in the 1960s. State Library of Louisiana Historic Photograph Collection.

Black History Month has many meanings. For me, it is a time to remember the tremendous contribution African Americans have made to the building of the United States—as much as any group, and possibly more. I mean this literally, as in constructing so much of the nation’s material infrastructure, but I also am speaking of another realm.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported 4,733 lynchings between 1882 and 1962, nationwide. Of these, three-quarters of the victims were black, mostly in the Deep South, and we may assume that the incidents were underreported. Among the greatest contributions of the civil rights movement to the United States was its participants’ willingness to confront a culture beset by violent racism and pervasive fear. Random acts of violence could occur at any moment, with no expectation that police would intervene. It is easy to overlook today, especially considering the ways in which insidious racism continues, how great a distance has been traversed.

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Egypt’s revolution began long before 2011

6 February, 2012

Egyptian protesters participating in a silent stand on June 6, 2011, at Kasr Al Nil bridge. By Zeinab Mohamed, via Flickr.

The starting point for a movement of mass action usually cannot be pinpointed to a single moment or person. This is true of the 2011 Arab Awakening, despite the temptation to credit Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia or Wael Ghonim’s prowess on Facebook in Egypt; such struggles defy simplistic explanations of origin.

“I don’t want to take much credit; the revolution was leaderless,” Wael told 2.8 million listeners on BBC’s Radio 4 recently. Encircled in a tight studio in London’s Portman Place BBC headquarters, along with Paul Mason, economics editor for the BBC program Newsnight, newscaster Andrew Marr had convened the three of us to discuss the topic of “Revolution.” Egypt’s revolution, our conversation made clear, was far from spontaneous. For years, Egyptian activists were sharing knowledge, organizing and learning to think strategically.

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How to learn nonviolent resistance as King did

15 January, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr. beside a picture of Gandhi. © Bob Fitch, all rights reserved.

How does one learn nonviolent resistance? The same way that Martin Luther King Jr. did—by study, reading and interrogating seasoned tutors. King would eventually become the person most responsible for advancing and popularizing Gandhi’s ideas in the United States, by persuading black Americans to adapt the strategies used against British imperialism in India to their own struggles. Yet he was not the first to bring this knowledge from the subcontinent.

By the 1930s and 1940s, via ocean voyages and propeller airplanes, a constant flow of prominent black leaders were traveling to India. College presidents, professors, pastors and journalists journeyed to India to meet Gandhi and study how to forge mass struggle with nonviolent means. Returning to the United States, they wrote articles, preached, lectured and passed key documents from hand to hand for study by other black leaders. Historian Sudarshan Kapur has shown that the ideas of Gandhi were moving vigorously from India to the United States at that time, and the African American news media reported on the Indian independence struggle. Leaders in the black community talked about a “black Gandhi” for the United States. One woman called it “raising up a prophet,” which Kapur used as the title of his book.

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Václav Havel: a life in Truth

23 December, 2011

Illustration by Piotr Lesniak, Illustrations Portfolio.

Václav Havel, who died on December 18, epitomized the power of the pen. A playwright and actor, he was born in Prague in 1936, two years before Nazi Germany militarily occupied Czechoslovakia. As I have written elsewhere, the Stalinist effort to destroy internal opposition to the Czechoslovak communist regime and its worsening economic policies led to hundreds of executions and tens of thousands of imprisonments. Millions were left suffering. Rigid communist economic views, bureaucratization of all dimensions of life, and recurring shortages meant that people could survive under communist rule only through venality and by shortcutting regulations. Those who went along with the habitual corruption—including the great proportion of managers and professionals—found themselves subjected to blackmail and entrapped by lies.

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One year on, the roots of success for Tunisia’s revolution

14 December, 2011

The news has been filled with contention over Egypt’s November elections, but far less attention is being paid to the voting in Tunisia—also recently liberated from the rule of a dictator. More than 100 political parties participated. Tunisia’s October balloting was designed to elect members of the 217-member assembly that will deliberate and draft a new constitution and form a parliament. On the scene as an international observer, former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter noted, “It appears that everybody wants a good election—the politicians, the military (who are not political), the powerful trade unions, the police, the people—and everything is being done with compromise to make this happen.” Many in the Arab countries now view these elections as a prototype, and they prominently displayed the characteristics celebrated in modern political thought. Clean elections, of course, do not occur spontaneously. So how did this happen?

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The short and the long of creating democracy

8 December, 2011

Egypt began its first round of balloting in November, one of the outcomes of the January uprising that ousted the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. This followed the military’s attempt to hold onto power by using draconian measures against renewed protests in Tahrir Square, where military and police killed 40 and injured 2,000. With two more rounds of voting remaining, it is small wonder that many Egyptians are afraid of what is to come. Early indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood will show well in free parliamentary elections, and the more doctrinaire Salafists will claim seats. Debates over the prospects for the Arab Awakening now rage as a result.

After a spellbindingly rapid series of events in the Middle East in the early months of this year, progress seems to have slowed. The liberal spirit that characterized those nonviolent revolutions appears to be dissipating in favor of old rivalries—as well as the specter that new forms of repression will simply replace their predecessors.

What’s happening now in Egypt and Tunisia—to say nothing of Bahrain and Syria—is also bringing back to the fore worn-out arguments claiming that nonviolent struggle works slowly, while violence is quick. Efficient, even.

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