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Nonviolent Direct Action in Nine Steps

By David R. Weyeneth, Sr.

To accompany Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy" (PDF).

One: Focus on a problem or issue which needs change.

Two: Hold hearings and conduct research, including taking statements and affidavits of witnesses. The research may reveal a history of previous social change campaigns as well as being useful in outlining the current campaign. Keeping records will be useful in constructing a history of the current campaign for reference by others.

Three: Witness sites and events of the social problem.

Four: Negotiate with persons or agencies indicated as responsible or capable of alleviating the problem. Return to negotiations as needed.

Five: Change yourself. Gandhi thought changing one’s self so as to no longer be part of the problem but to be part of the solution would be the hardest step in nonviolent change. Gandhi also advocated taking the suffering on yourself as the social change agent. A key personal change will come with training in nonviolent campaign construction, decision-making, strategy, tactics, personal evaluation, negotiation skills and ability to maintain nonviolent confrontation without resort to fearful retreat or violent reaction. The many elements of a nonviolent campaign will require specialists such as audio-visuals, speaker amplification, leaflet and sign creation, public sanitation, legal representation, and provision of food and water, medical resources, observers, record-keepers, negotiators at local, regional and international levels as well as skills in assessing public opinion or proper conduct of a plebiscite. Where Robert’s Rules of Order are in disfavor, practice in alternative decision-making such as consensus is appropriate. A “leaderless” style of campaign may require learning new techniques and skills. Affinity group structure may arise as support for actionists. Just learning to tweet, blog or text may be a big step for old timey activists. Prepare to become a leader in the event other leaders become impaired.

Six: Constructive program is the creation of an economic activity compatible with a solution to the problem, not adding to the problem and possibly generating a positive outcome meeting needs of people. Indian salt-making campaign and spinning cotton for Indian khadi, homespun and woven cloth, not giving power to English textile mills were Indian examples. White bicycles of Amsterdam provided a subliminal message of united cooperative action to directly solve transportation needs without commercial control or resort to unethically obtained or unhealthily burned petroleum. I would like to experiment with the constructive program of making buildings more energy efficient, installing solar powered heating and photovoltaic and wind turbine electric generation, making sustainable electric generation cooperatives and electric automobile time-share cooperatives. Doing The Right Thing might stand as a part of Constructive Program or as an “incompatible alternative” to mandated unethical behavior such as joining an army in its war, and therefore fit in with Noncooperation. Maybe it should be considered as a form of nonviolent direct action separate from the others. It involves doing exactly what you determine is the right and moral behavior for you, given your situation. Balancing on a log while crossing a stream is not accomplished by falling off on the upstream side any more than falling off on the downstream side. The goal is to balance exactly on the log and proceed to your destination. In my example of being conscripted into the Vietnam War, I viewed going to jail, for me, as interrupting my work as a nonviolent direct action trainer. Of course, going to plant trees in northern California as “alternative service” set up for Conscientious Objectors or enlisting in the army would also represent, for me, at that time, “falling off the log” on a different side. Make the oppression obsolete.

Seven:  Protest. This may be in public meetings, signs, leaflets or other communication of challenge to the perpetration of wrongdoing. Petitions, public meetings, and even such seemingly innocuous signs as 1950s airline stewardesses “wearing” a diaper pin as a subversive rebellion against the firing of married women can serve as protest. Highly intelligent action by a dedicated group of social change agents has been called provo, a term derived from provoke or provocation.  Provo groups may activate psychological processes of association, allusion, metaphor, and creative appeal to idiosyncratic preferences of key decision-makers. Just as some chemical enzymes may short-cut the activation energy to start a reaction releasing energy, a catalyst, some “subliminal” communication may catalyze a social change process. A crane speeding a heavy load along the factory floor could cause injury by a sudden stop. The load at the end of the pendulum cable would begin to swing with destructive power. If the crane operator uses some smarts, he or she might halt the progress of the crane head, allow the load to progress a few feet, and then quickly advance the crane head just that distance. The energy of the load motion will be directed into a short vertical fall and then the load will execute a quivering standstill. That skillful halt-and-advance by the crane operator is the type of very thoughtful intervention a provo group seeks to make. An apparently small, precise intervention provides for a dramatic and nonviolent result. Richard B. Gregg studied the psychology of ahimsa and satyagraha by leaving a violent labor strike in Florida to live on an ashram with Gandhi. He wrote that the steady and nearly subliminal effect of nonviolence imperceptibly melted away at a violent person’s world view as warming southern waters melted away the hidden underwater bulk of a drifting iceberg. In a dramatic flip not easily foreseen, just as an iceberg might overturn as its center of gravity shifted under the effects of underwater melting, the violent person is sometimes dramatically “converted.”  Intelligent use of all the symbols of culture may be brought into play by a cadre of provo activists.

Eight: Non-cooperation. This may take the form of resigning offices, refusing to pay taxes, emigration, refusing to join or remain in an army or other means. Self-immolation seems to violate the nonviolent part of the social change system.  Suicide is perhaps a separate form of social influence from nonviolent direct action. It was a means of non-cooperation used by Africans captured and destined for slavery.  Full utilization of existing legal means of refusing cooperation may be considered part of this phase of a nonviolent campaign. Personally, I subscribed to the Selective Service regulation update service when the USA attempted to conscript me into killing Vietnamese people.” General Hershey articulated his concept of “channeling,” whereby people could be threatened with conscription unless they followed a course of action approved by the government, such as higher education or work in a munitions plant. The SS Regulations guided draft boards and the lawyers of wealthy parents seeking, like George H.W. Bush, to keep their kids out of the Vietnam meat grinder. Remember, this was a war later declared immoral or stupid by the very people (Robert Mac Namara and others) who ran the war. Henry Kissinger advised the USA president to pretend to be insanely willing to risk nuclear war as a tactic for keeping Chinese troops from full-scale invasion. A few years after the Vietnam War the USA policy-makers had the USA Navy performing joint naval operations with those same Vietnamese in opposition to Chinese assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea. This, while refusing to spend a paltry $300 million to clean up the Agent Orange continuously causing birth deformities among babies born in 2011, nearly forty years after the war’s ignominious end. My point in (1970) non-cooperation was that I could not in conscience vow to obey every lawful order. Lieutenant Calley led rampaging troops he ordered to murder defenseless non-combatants. Since Calley was the only person convicted of illegal behavior, an implication is that all those other despicable orders were lawful. In any case, I followed legal means of non-cooperation. When the Selective Service failed to make a timely rejection of my offer to perform alternative service by providing training and action in nonviolent resistance to the war (within their prescribed limit of 12 months), I informed them that my relationship with them was concluded. Other nonviolent non-cooperators chose such routes as to voluntarily turn themselves in for imprisonment for refusing the draft. I chose the principle of “doing exactly what I thought was right.” Maybe that is a modification of the 9 steps of nonviolent direct action. I did not want to go away to Canada and I did not want to go to prison. I thought it was right for me to organize and train people for nonviolent direct action to stop the Vietnam War. I remember at the time speculating that I might lose at my attempt to Do the Right Thing. In the event the government chose to induct me, I vowed to myself to begin to organize a soldiers’ and sailors’ union along the Dutch model. If sent to prison, I thought it would be my place to organize a prisoners’ union. As it turned out, the Selective Service vindictively sent me a reclassification from I-O conscientious objector to I-A, eligible for the draft. Even with my low lottery number of 36 (24 August 1948) they chose not to call me again. We can’t guarantee a particular outcome. Even so, the only justification for our means is the ends we intend. At that, we are responsible to keep alert and modify our means, our behavior, according to the outcomes as they develop. For reasons such as that, nonviolent actionists are advised to be open and transparent in their planning. Agents provocateur are hired by governments to stimulate nonviolent groups to action for which they may be criticized in the public media or in law courts. A recent (2011) event of that nature came up when the government informant suggested a complicated plot to assassinate a foreign ambassador in a way that Iran could be blamed for the plot or possibly for an actual assassination. The target of the government informant was so incompetent that the plot went nowhere and acquaintances of the guy could not believe he had been capable of the alleged plan. In my noncooperation with military conscription I was asked to exert myself to the utmost in answering Selective Service examination intelligence test questions to the best of my ability. This test, I was told, would guide my whole career in the U.S. Army. I chose to answer the questions not correctly and not incorrectly, but in the most amusing manner possible. I was required to submit to a long interview by two government agents and later presented with a “transcript” of the interview during which I had not been informed and had not granted permission for a tape recording to be made. “Errors” requiring my initials for correction were included on each printed page. Imbedded within the document were many statements purporting to be quotations and transcriptions of my responses in which I was presented as advocating illegal and violent resistance to the USA government. These were lies. Noncooperation might be tricky and require a very thoughtful response. Noncooperation involves saying “No,” but it is far from “Just saying ‘No.’”

Nine: Nonviolent intervention. This may take the form of entering an office performing unethical acts, disturbing physical non-human resources needed to conduct injury to people, or such small-number activities as placing one’s body between assailant and target to prevent injury. Cambodian villagers protesting the illegal harvest of old growth forests there made bonfires of lumber they found cut from their forests. I watched a film of those villagers resisting police officers by blocking blows with wooden walking sticks. Nonviolent intervention may be under process of invention spontaneously and may not follow all the rules laid down by the Fellowship Of Reconciliation trainers who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent intervention by anti-abortion activists is a challenge to nonviolent advocates for women’s reproductive rights. Such an issue points up the fact that the technique of nonviolence itself does not give enough information to determine the rightness or wrongness of the cause. Gandhi famously threatened to fast unto death in order to protest a legislative/constitutional rule guaranteeing a few seats in the Indian National Parliament to dalit or untouchables. Suicide by self-starvation was considered to be a valid “nonviolent” technique, but I disagree with Gandhi’s goal and do not agree that right was on his side in that conflict.

Under the rule of just law, appeal may be made to stop hurting people and even under some circumstances ethical interveners may feel compelled to abandon nonviolent means in their efforts and use some form of violence to stop a crime. The intention of an act reveals the moral quality of it, and acting to prevent injury is different from calculated murder or ordinary chaotic warfare. The overriding goal is the transformation of individuals and social combinations. Guilty feelings after failure to kill an assailant who then murders your child will not be much assuaged by consolation that at least you did not commit violence yourself. A classic example is the religious person who commits an action she or he believes will be punished by damnation in Hell in the effort to selflessly rescue an innocent person.


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