Millions of us have marched and protested in recent weeks against the divisive and dangerous policies of the Trump administration. The Women’s March of January 21 brought more than 700,000 people to Washington and sparked protests all across the country. More than four million people participated in demonstrations that day, making it the largest protest action in U.S. history. Since then there have been countless rallies and protests at airports and in town squares against the administration’s immigration ban, and a growing number of actions at Congressional offices to prevent the gutting of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The concerns of this new progressive movement are many—human rights, social justice, religious tolerance, climate care, peace, women’s rights—but the unifying goal is a desire to roll back the extremist agenda of the new administration. This is a goal that many Americans support. The President’s approval ratings are historically low, and with every new Executive Order or tweet he seems to alienate more people. Opposition groups are gaining members and financial support. The ACLU received a record $24 million in contributions in one weekend after the immigration ban was announced.
The strategic mission of the movement in the months ahead is to continue building opposition to the administration’s policies and to drive a wedge between the White House and Congressional Republicans.
Already we’ve seen some successes. Federal judges have temporarily blocked the immigration ban. Green card holders won’t be prevented from returning to the U.S., and Iraqis who served as translators for American forces will be exempted from the ban. Proposed executive orders to reopen CIA ‘black sites’ and authorize discrimination against women and LGBTQ people in the name of ‘religious freedom’ have been shelved for now.
Splits have started to appear in Republican ranks. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders have criticized the Muslim immigration ban. Republican members of Congress are nervous about the backlash they will face if they pull the rug out from under the 20 million people who gained health coverage through the ACA.
Achieving further success will require maintaining the peaceful spirit and demeanor of the Women’s March and avoiding actions that could turn away those we seek to attract.
We need to apply the lessons of empirical research on civil resistance. Nonviolent movements are more effective than violent campaigns. Political success comes from building mass participation and inducing loyalty shifts among the adversary’s supporters. Tactics are effective to the degree that they draw large numbers of people to the cause and undermine the legitimacy and moral authority of the opponent.
This is not a time for the kind of anarchist action that occurred in Berkeley last week. Using fire bombs and throwing fire crackers at police feeds the Trump narrative and damages the credibility of the progressive movement. They alienate people who might otherwise support the movement. Studies show that violent action often provokes government repression and can be counterproductive politically. The same is true today.
This is not to say that disruption and civil disobedience will have no place in the current struggle. Social change often requires disrupting business as usual and generating what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative tension.” If the Trump administration starts to come after the undocumented, many of us will put our bodies on the line and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. If federal authorities want to detain or deport our neighbors, they will have to arrest us first.
As we resist the Trump agenda we should maintain nonviolent discipline and a sense of respect and caring for others. Our goal is to protect the vulnerable, and we should act in the spirit of charity and love that is appropriate to that purpose. We must attract ever larger numbers of people to our cause and build the social force and political support necessary to stop the Trump onslaught.
3 thoughts on “The Strategy of Nonviolent Protest”
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