By Mark Engler and Paul Engler. New York: Nation Books, 2016.
As I write this, activists in the US are participating in “die-ins” to dramatize the number of deaths predicted to result from the American Health Care Act. Others are shutting down streets, incensed by another police shooting of a black youth. In doing so, they are a part of today’s drama of public debate and working for nonviolent political change.
Some bystanders see mass street actions as erratic or dismiss them as undisciplined eruptions by angry, rebellious youth. Mark Engler and Paul Engler, however, in their 2016 book, This is an Uprising, How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century, make the case that actions and movements of nonviolent disruption and civil resistance have been purposeful and productive, and have, in the last century, brought about more positive social change than ordinary legislative processes. The examples they give remind us that though today’s nonviolent action movements take on new creative expressions, they benefit from careful strategic planning and use well-studied strategies and tactics. In other words, it is an art, and is based on a foundation of knowledge and practice.
The Englers share compelling stories of “momentum-driven mass mobilizations“¯ as Martin Luther King Jr. and other SCLC members carried out in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as of building long-term social change organizations or institutions as Saul Alinsky did in Chicago.
In comparing the advantages and drawbacks in these two approaches, the authors point out the value of a hybrid path, such as used by Otpor, the Serbian movement to unseat Milosevic. As they review and offer insights about other nonviolence strategies and disciplines, they give historical examples. They share what they see as strengths and weaknesses of various direct action movements, including the Civil Rights Movement; ousting Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; Gandhi’s Salt March; the Living Wage campaign at Harvard; Occupy Wall Street; the AIDS Coalition to ACT UP; Egypt’s Arab Spring; and #BlackLivesMatter. These stories are insightful, with lessons which can help movements today be more effective.
The success of nonviolent actions and campaigns can’t always be predicted or easily determined, but two of the guidelines the authors use are whether a campaign or action won more popular support of an overall goal or cause and whether it builds the capacity of the movement to escalate further. In order to be successful, movements shouldn’t be expected to change everything, have instant results, or meet every need. Success is seen in the context of a process that is usually long-term. They conclude that the most successful movements combine, in forceful ways, strategies that involve disruption, sacrifice taken by participants, and escalation of the dilemma that pushes for change.
Chapter nine is called “The Discipline“¯ and thoughtfully and sensitively looks at the various points of view within social change movements about using violent tactics, or a combination of nonviolence and violence. Drawing from the experience of revered practitioners of nonviolence and historical movements, the Englers conclude that using violence will cause more harm than any perceived benefits to movements. One of the arguments they highlight is that violent tactics provide a pretext and excuse for violent repression from governments and reactionary groups who have greater violent power. They remind us that the means affect the ends, asserting that violence will not lead to the open, democratic society and leadership that the movement wants to achieve.
This book presented a concept which was new to me: the art of “framing the victory.” The authors give examples in history and suggest that organizers can affect the public’s perception and evaluation of their action by openly announcing its objective, no matter how small or symbolic. Then after the action, they proactively claim a victory, not waiting for the judgment to be made by the opposition or the media. Like other tactics, it isn’t always successful, but indicates that practitioners of nonviolence often have more strategies at their disposal and power than they realize in order to move public opinion in the direction of positive social change.
Reviewed by Peggy Faw Gish, an Ohio peace worker. She is author of Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace, Herald Press, 2004, and Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation, Cascade Books: 2013.
Peace Magazine July-September 2017, page 30. Some rights reserved.