Updated: Dec 2, 2020
by Barbara Peterson - July 14, 2020
The following dialogue with my students illustrates an important aspect of power.
“What if,” I say, “I were to assign each of you three hours of homework every night?” Some eyes widen in fear at even the possibility that I might do this. “What are your options?” I ask.
“Sink or swim,” some say. “Cry,” others say. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?” ask a few.
“Can you do nothing to alter this homework policy of mine?” I prod.
“We could try talking you out of it,” they answer.
“What if I refuse?” I insist.
Some students suggest going to the administration and having them put pressure on me to change.
“Great idea,” I answer. “Go to someone with more power than myself. What if that doesn’t work? What if either they won’t do as you ask, or I won’t buckle under their pressure? What are your options then?”
“I guess we just decide how badly we want to get an A or even pass,” a few students claim while the others are at a loss, hoping this is all just a thought experiment instead of some homework boot camp precursor.
“What if,” I suggest, “You all agree with one another to refuse doing the homework? What would happen then?”
“And what would happen to me if all of my students failed?” This is when the light starts to shine for some.
“You’d probably be forced to change your policy,” one or two students offer.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because no school wants a teacher who fails all her students,” someone answers.
“Yes!” I agree. “So, who has the power in this classroom: me, the teacher, or you?”
And their minds light up.
Power (or more particularly, political power) is an interesting notion. It is the ability to control the actions of others. It would be silly, for example, to say that I had power in my classroom if my students refused to comply with my dictates, policies, or rules. To effectively oppose me, to take away my power, my students could refuse to obey. This is the very fundamental basis upon which nonviolent action is based. While the above example may seem simple, it is not. To be effective, the students would have to organize: do their research to see if what they’re objecting to will be supported by many others in the school and in the larger community, make sure their messaging reveals their true objectives and shows their actions as moral and righteous, build solidarity among the majority in the class, prepare to counter backlash against their actions, etc. While students taking a stand against a single teacher in a classroom is a relatively small example of people power, this practice of nonviolent action is nevertheless illustrative of the principles of organized, strategized, and planned nonviolent noncooperation used throughout history to effectively alter the balance of power and defeat the opposition.
To look at nonviolent action power in history used at a national level, we see how Gandhi employed organized civil disobedience to defy British rule to show them that India would not comply with British laws and commands. By refusing to obey, India revealed that Britain’s power was dependent on the cooperation of Indian citizenry. Without such cooperation, it eventually became too costly for Britain to maintain their control and authority. This was no easy victory for India; the struggle went on for decades and there were tragic losses suffered, although far fewer than if India resorted to violence. Gandhi himself spent a great deal of his adult life in prison for refusing to obey what he claimed were unjust British laws. His followers, too, suffered from being jailed, threatened, beaten, and killed. Yet they persevered. Gandhi famously stated: “They [the British] may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.” Gandhi knew that activism on as serious a scale as fighting for national independence can and likely will lead to activists being fined, jailed, tortured, and killed. It is a complete myth to believe that nonviolent action is a weapon of the weak or cowardly. In fact, it takes far more courage to face one’s enemies who are armed and trained to kill when one is both unarmed and refuses to kill, then it is to face the same enemy when one has a gun and the will to use it. And there’s a certain amount of esteem an armed soldier can and often does develop for an opponent who will neither retreat nor fight back; the valor of the nonviolent opponent is astounding, and it earns respect.
Imagine walking ahead, watching your fellow activists at the front of the protest line get brutally attacked by police beating them on the head and shoulders with steel tipped lathis, breaking bones and fracturing skulls, seeing the marchers fall to the ground bleeding, and knowing your turn will come when you reach the front of the line. You don’t back down but continue forward. When the vicious blows to your head and body come, you do not even raise a hand to block the assault; instead, you take the full brunt of the attack, fall like your fellows, and wait in a heap of bodies for your turn to be helped out of the line by other supporters so that those behind you in line can take your place. This was the experience of Gandhi’s cohorts who participated in the 1930 Dharasana Satyagraha (i.e., a Salt March to protest British control and monopoly of the sale and distribution of salt in India). It was witnessed and reported by American journalist, Webb Miller, who wrote that there were moments when “the spectacle of unresisting men being methodically bashed into a bloody pulp sickened me so much I had to turn away” (democraticunderground.com). Once his story was printed in over a thousand newspapers worldwide, there was an international outcry against British policies in India. Whatever moral high ground the British thought they had in defending their authority in India was lost after the reporting of this nonviolent action. Gandhi knew that continued and massive nonviolent disobedience would eventually drive the British out, and he was right.
Peace activists are too often seen as unrealistic idealists seeking to replace violent war and conflict with good feelings, harmonious cooperation, or even clever negotiating. How wonderful a world it would be if we could convince our opponents to always play fair and reach mutually satisfactory compromises. If this truly is what peace activists think or attempt to do, then judging them as unrealistic and romantic idealists would be a fair appraisal. However, it is an entirely erroneous portrayal. Advocates for peace, among other things, promote the use of nonviolent action to effectively fight against injustice, even when harsh and violent consequences befall them. We see this today in the United States with the willingness of Black and Brown people and their White allies protesting in the streets, knowingly putting themselves at risk from brutal police retaliation. We also see it with protestors in Hong Kong refusing to give up their struggle in the face of new, restrictive, and punitive legislation.
Theoretically as well as historically, nonviolent action has proven to be a realistic alternative to violence; it is more prevalent, more effective, and more moral. Nonviolent action has been and will always be an effective method of producing meaningful change, even against some of the most ruthless rulers. Thus, it is arguably a moral imperative that we educate people in the theory and practice of nonviolence so people may become empowered to have their voices heard and their needs met (even against large, multi-billion-dollar corporations and institutions), and so nations can fight for justice in a manner that causes far less horror, tragedy, destruction, torture, and death than violent conflicts.
Nonviolent Citizen Action is committed to educating people about the theory, history, and methods of nonviolent action. We do this through our newsletters, workshops, trainings, on-the-ground activism, and scholarly publications. Founder for a systematic, academic study of nonviolent action, Gene Sharp, began his work in the 1950s. Because an understanding of how nonviolent action works is therefore relatively new, it’s important to teach people, including new generations in schools, about nonviolence so they can develop necessary capacities to leverage real power and wield it in a way that builds sustainable, just, and compassionate communities. If we are to alter the roots of injustice in our society, we need to educate people about how to make effective and real structural change, the kind that values socio-political equity, an economic system of fairness and solidarity, clean energy and land, quality and affordable housing as well as healthcare and education, and a legal system that prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable. Nonviolent action, like any other area of study, is best learned through a combination of scholarship and reflective action. We can no longer afford to learn simply by trial-and-error. Instead, we must promote a more rigorous, deep study of nonviolent action – its history, theory, and methods – alongside organized, strategic praxis, if we are to create genuine and effective people power.
Barbara Peterson, PhD
Founder/Lead Scholar: Nonviolent Citizen Action