We are in a new period of activism with forces exerting pressures on all of us—those who seek justice and an end to police killing unarmed black people, those who are severely hurt by this godawful pandemic, those whose small businesses have been smashed and looted, and those simply afraid to make any move right now.
One of the sticky questions revolves around the property damage we’ve seen recently in so many US cities. By all credible on-the-ground reporting, the vast majority of those on the streets protesting, city-to-city, are nonviolent. They are not necessarily peaceful—they make a great deal of sound singing or chanting and they are at times visibly and righteously angry—but disruption is the heart of civil resistance as long as it does not turn to violence.
Arson and use of explosives, however, are a different matter. Even if no one is immediately injured from such actions—which is hard to guarantee—the people engaging in such actions cannot control them once they ignite them. Some may argue that such actions—if they do not hurt or intend to hurt others—are not violent. However, from a strategic perspective, they have an impact that is similar to violence. They make people afraid and therefore less likely to mobilize publicly in support of the cause. They also divert media coverage, alienate the general public, raise support for officials to “restore order” by any means necessary, and increase unity and obedience among security forces.
In some places, especially after dark, riots break out. Property is damaged. The opinions about this are all over the map. Please entertain mine for a minute, as I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the 1960s, when my friends burned their draft cards and some destroyed Selective Service files to interfere with the draft sending young men to kill and die in the preposterous war in Vietnam.
I thought about this property destruction harder when some of my mentors hammered on nuclear weapons in symbolic disarmament. I followed their footsteps and reflected on it while incarcerated for these sorts of acts.
I’ve been convicted of property destruction three times, and all three times the judges and juries have come to agree with me that my acts might have been illegal, but were nonviolent.
There are five basic elements of my notion of when destruction of something may be helpful to a nonviolent campaign.
Two of my convictions were as part of the Plowshares movement, in which individuals or small groups disabled military equipment in the spirit of the guidance to “hammer swords into plowshares,” as in the famous statue outside the UN, in a bow to biblical scripture.
In the first case, the judge liked me and basically just sentenced me to probation.
In the second case, the judge was quite right-wing and yet he said in a pretrial motion hearing that he was getting tired of me explaining why cutting down 50-foot poles and sending the thick antenna crashing to the ground was nonviolent, conceding, “We all know it was nonviolent.”
The antenna’s purpose was to command the launch of nuclear war. Two of us literally cut down that possibility, but since we all knew they would repair it quickly, toppling the pole was also a symbolic act. The case generated a great deal of public education and virtually all publicity was in favor of our action.
I was very open and transparent in all three of my cases. I did the poles twice (in 1985 and 1996) and my other, much more minor conviction was at the command center also, where I spray-painted the signage. I had sent notice to law enforcement—I always included them in media releases—that I would be doing it. Since the military base existed for the sole purpose of launching nuclear war, I sprayed messages on their signs as warnings.
Again, the transparency, the emphasis on remaining nonviolent, and especially the outreach to the public explaining myself were crucial.
It worked. We shut down the base. The real power of our effort was the coalition we built. The Plowshares actions were only one component of the campaign’s multipronged effort and I took special care to work through that with the full core of leadership ahead of time. We were very divided when we began discussions but two days later all 18 of us had a plan that we all liked. My action was not unilateral—the group, which could fairly be said to represent the campaign, consented. No one was the boss and everyone felt heard and valued.
The current spate of destruction of businesses, including minority-owned, is hard to explain, unless part of that explanation involves reactionary agents provocateurs who seek to exacerbate racial tensions. It’s their mission to make nonviolent protesters look bad and thereby alienate the public, while also making the public grateful for the “thin blue line” protecting them from the dangerous “thugs” in the rampaging mob.
Such actions demand the ongoing, repeated work of exerting nonviolent discipline, denouncing ill-advised property destruction, and fielding peace teams to de-escalate violence and explain what the campaign organizers are asking for. While it’s always a good time to make efforts to maintain nonviolent discipline, a nonviolent campaign gains the most advantage by preparing ahead of time, knowing that a publicly stated commitment to nonviolent means—and training and statements that demonstrate that commitment—can help inoculate them against agents provocateurs, opportunists, and misguided activists who engage in violence.
There is also a need to work with all media to contextualize this and to train them to report accurately that the alienating acts of a few are not in accord with the nonviolent intentions of the many. If, for instance, the core organizers let it be known that the demonstrations will last for three hours that day and they hope everyone disperses at the conclusion, then reporters may put boundaries on what they report as the campaign’s actions, and rogue behavior committed later can legitimately be condemned as having nothing to do with the movement.
Is it fair that a campaign has to do all this to avoid acquiring an unfavorable image with the public? Of course not; if it were fair, we wouldn’t have to surround the precinct police station in the first place. We do what we must to draw in more of our neighbors, not drive them away.
Tom Hastings is Assistant Professor and co-coordinator of the undergraduate program in Conflict Resolution at Portland (Oregon) State University, USA. This article first appeared on the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s “Minds of the Movement” blog and is reprinted here with ICNC’s permission.