The Strategy of Nonviolent Protest

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.

Democracy in Decline

Democracy and civil liberties have been diminishing all over the world in the past decade. This alarming trend has been thoroughly documented in recent years by the nongovernmental group Freedom House, and yet no one seems to be paying attention.

The most recent annual survey by Freedom House confirms the problem. “For the ninth consecutive year the condition of global political rights and civil liberties showed an overall decline,” the report states. Developments in 2014 were “exceptionally grim,” with nearly twice as many countries showing declines in political freedom compared to those experiencing gains. The last nine years have witnessed the longest continuous period of decline for freedom in the organization’s nearly 50-year history of publishing annual ratings.

What’s behind this worrisome trend? Freedom House does not attribute the decline in freedom directly to any single factor, but it emphasizes the harmful impact of repressive measures that have been imposed in many countries.  Civil and human rights are eroding “due to state surveillance, restrictions on internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy.” The worst reversals were in the areas of “freedom of expression, civil society, and the rule of law,” the report concludes.

The measures responsible for this decline in freedom are often adopted in the name of countering terrorism. In response to terrorist threats the United States and other countries have imposed measures that increase the power of police and state security agencies, reduce judicial protections and due process rights, expand government control over information, and limit personal freedoms. What used to be known as the ‘free world’ has become decidedly less free in the process.

As I point out in a recent article published in Global Observatory, many of the measures adopted in the name of fighting terrorism are of uncertain effectiveness. In some cases they are counterproductive and may intensify the feelings of marginalization and repression that feed extremism.

Protections against terrorist attack are necessary, but we will not overcome violent extremism by eroding the conditions of democracy and human rights that are necessary foundations of peace.