October 2 marks the anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Gandhi (1869) and the International Day of Non-Violence, one of the lesser known United Nation’s observances; indeed, the United Nations Association in Canada does not even recognize it as a UN day. Established in 2007, the UN resolution for the International Day of Non-Violence calls for the dissemination of the message of non-violence through education and public awareness and affirms “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and the desire “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”. While the International Day for Peace (September 21) often gets some meager recognition in Canada, nonviolence is not likely to be taught and celebrated, for nonviolence, as Malvina Reynolds proclaims, “isn’t nice”. In her song of that title, she sings: “It isn’t nice to block the doorway,/It isn’t nice to go to jail,/There are nicer ways to do it,/But the nice ways always fail.”
Nonviolent direct action isn’t “nice”. It requires getting in the way of the status quo, to make the injustice of the status quo more visible – or at least visible to those who cannot or will not normally see it. It requires refusing to consent to and support unjust systems. It often involves imagining and enacting alternative social processes and practices that tend to make people with power and privilege anxious. As a value system, it challenges the basic presumptions and practices of a consumer-capitalist society and the military-industrial-education complex (and, hopefully, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity, too, but often not). It requires time, risk and sacrifice, commitment and patience, and not just good thoughts and a progressive attitude.
On this October 2, 2011, activists “occupy” a park on Wall Street in New York City, and others are gathered in solidarity in other U.S. cities, not so much to demand that the “powers that be” make any particular changes but to offer an alternative order, as Nathan Schneider writes, by living it: participatory democracy, sharing knowledge rather than owning it, etc. (Although Jessica Yee notes that this alternative order, like the existing one, enacts anew the ongoing colonial occupation of Manhattan). Last Monday, September 26, hundreds gathered at Parliament Hill in Ottawa to protest the Alberta Tar Sands and the proposed oil pipeline to the United States, which will feed the continued use of the automobile and the destruction of the environment, among other forms of harm. Wave after wave of activists crossed the police lines; over 200 people were arrested. Significantly, this action was conducted in a way that acknowledged, and sought to honour, that the civil disobedience was occurring as a solidarity action between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people on occupied Algonquin territory (aka, Ottawa), and that the Tar Sands “development” is not only an environmental crime but an act of ongoing colonialism. In August, more than 1000 were arrested for performing civil disobedience at the White House, in Washington D.C., protesting the same pipeline. On September 26, clerics in Bahrain staged a sit-in to protest the arrest of dozens of women for demonstrating against the government. In Syria, activists continue to be largely committed to nonviolence in the struggle to depose the Assad regime, at the very least, and perhaps foster a new social order. There, protestors have taken to the streets week after week, with thousands killed and arrested; yet, for the most part, they have not taken up weapons in their struggle. Their will and persistence is their weapon.
Unlike the nonviolent revolution in Egypt, which was broadcast live on television earlier this year, the work of the protestors in Syria has not become a media spectacle in North America. While Gandhi by no means invented civil disobedience and nonviolent action as a mode of struggle, the 1930 Satyagraha Namak (or Salt March), which he initiated, was remarkable not just for the way in which it disturbed the British colonial order but for the way it utilized the media to illuminate an injustice. The “political theatre” of the long march to Dandi beach and the dramatic newspaper reports of the satyagrahi being mercilessly beaten has become a significant model of nonviolent action; a spectacle produced for dissemination through the media. The mainstream corporate media, however, is not a dependable source of dissemination. Indeed, in Canada the mainstream media typically seems to search for acts of physical violence at protests, and key on them, ignoring modes of nonviolent action and more importantly the issues those actions seek to illuminate – as the coverage of the G8 protests in Toronto attests. This, and increasing access to other modes of media (i.e. alternative online media, online social networks, youtube, etc), has increased the desire and need for activists to disseminate their own images and stories of their action.
Although she advocates for nonviolent action in much of her writing, Arundhati Roy contends that in order for it to be effective, it “has to be carried out in the public eye, in front of TV cameras, and for demands – like ‘anti-corruption’– which appeal to the sympathies of the middle class… If you follow what happened over the last three summers in Kashmir, for example, when tens of thousands of unarmed people faced down Indian security forces with as much courage and determination as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, you can’t help but wonder why the Western media switches on the lights to cover some uprisings, and blacks out others.” As legitimate as this concern is – we must heed Roy’s advice to be wary of what the mainstream media chooses to describe and how – nonviolence is not only a spectacle produced for the camera. As Roy, herself, notes of the Satyagraha Namak, the action was not only symbolic: the people made salt, they used that salt, and they refused to pay tax on it. Most examples of nonviolent direct action do not enact such disobedience so specifically; sit ins, fasts, etc., tend to be symbolic rather than acts contravening unjust laws and policies.
As much as nonviolent direct action is necessarily a spectacle produced for the media, part of that spectacle, and exceeding it, is the spirit of nonviolence. It is a mode of conflict that does not figure the adversary as an opponent to be conquered or destroyed. The practitioner of nonviolence risks injury to themselves but refuses to physically injure others. Although there may not be any instantaneously iconic images of the Syrian nonviolent struggle, at least in the coverage of the North American networks and news channels – as there were of Tahrir Square in Cairo – the spirit of nonviolence produces affects, there. Those who take to the streets are not focused on an audience in Europe and North America but in Syria, itself, as they seek change from within rather than foreign intervention. In June, and perhaps at many other moments during this now months-long struggle, in response to the committed nonviolence of demonstrators, soldiers refused to shoot and the expectation that the military take up arms against its own people has created divisions and dissension within the military. This is the impact of the spirit of nonviolence.
The constant stream of stories in mainstream media of nonviolent direct action this year has been inspiring, but it is true that many of the stories that have made the lead, and that have been presented somewhat favourably, are stories of citizens with status – in the Ottawa action, Maude Barlow and union leaders – who have undertaken civil disobedience. One wonders how this story would have been covered, or if it had been covered, had these participants not been involved. There are a myriad of un- or under-reported stories of landless peasants making their homes on land “owned” by others, farmers saving seeds in resistance to corporate monopolies, and people refusing to give up their homes to be bull-dozed for dam reservoirs, industrial developments, or new “settlements.” In some cases these struggles use civil disobedience simply as a tactic; they haven’t the means for military struggle or direct action provides an effective way to raise awareness of injustice. For others, noncooperation and civil disobedience are one mode in a larger project informed by the values of nonviolence.
Sources accessible via embedded links.
Some sources on nonviolent direct action:
International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict – (check out their news digest)