What Makes A Campaign Nonviolent?

Article in The Broken Rifle No 75, September 2007, it also featured in the 1st edition of the Handbook for Nonviolents Campaigns.

Joanne Sheehan

A campaign is a connected series of activities and actions done over a period of time to achieve specific, stated goals. Campaigns are started by a group of people with a common understanding and vision, who identify the goals and begin the process of research, education and training that strengthens and increases the number of participants who engage in the activities and action.

Demonstrations alone do not end a particular war or correct a deep seated injustice. Faced with the horrors of the world, it's easy to do the nonviolent equivalent of lashing out -jumping into action or activity without stepping back or looking ahead. Too often groups go directly from recognizing a problem to picking a tactic. Or we suffer from the "paralysis of analysis", educating ourselves and others, but never getting in to action, and therefore never reaching our goals. The power of a nonviolent campaign comes in the creative combination of tactics, the strategic thinking and commitment of the participants.

What makes a Campaign Nonviolent?

Whether a clear commitment to nonviolence is present or absent, most of the basic steps in campaigns are the same. To be strategic, all campaign organizers need to research and collect information, take part in education and training programmes, develop a strategy that includes multiple tactics to reach their goal. What, then, is unique about a "nonviolent campaign"? It's certainly more than simply not being violent.

Many organizations, campaigns and leaders in nonviolent movements, have statements of their nonviolent principles to explain their perspective. WRI's Statement of Principles describes what we mean when we say we embrace nonviolence:

"Nonviolence can combine active resistance, including civil disobedience, with dialogue: it can combine non-cooperation - withdrawal of support from a system of oppression -- with constructive work to build alternatives.

As a way of engaging in conflict, sometimes nonviolence attempts to bring reconciliation with it: strengthening the social fabric, empowering those at the bottom of society, and including people from different sides in seeking a solution. Even when such aims cannot immediately be achieved, our nonviolence holds us firm in our determination not to destroy other people."

While writing about nonviolent campaigns for the WRI Handbook for Nonviolent Action, I found a variety of descriptions of nonviolent campaigns, usually a mixture of nonviolent principles with common strategies. The following list is meant to identify specific principles that are unique in a nonviolent campaign. While some of these may be found in campaigns that do not identify as being nonviolent, the combination of these principles is what makes a campaign nonviolent.

Principles of Nonviolent Action

We acknowledge the value of each person. This is fundamental, recognizing the dignity and humanity of oneself and others. We refuse to mistreat our opponent as an enemy.

We recognize that we all have part of the truth; no one has all of it. No one is all "right" or all "wrong". Our campaign information gathering, education and actions should reflect this.

Our actions are open to anyone - no restrictions of gender, age, ability, etc. We need to be careful that we are truly open to the full participation of all and that we do not mirror the discrimination found in society. We accept suffering but cause none to others. Accepting suffering is a principle based on the value of each person, and a strategy that draws attention to our commitment and our cause. We will not violently fight back if attacked. We recognize jail may be a consequence of our actions; filling the jails may be a strategy.

Our means (behaviors, actions) are consistent with our ends (of affirming life, opposing oppression and seek justice, valuing every person). Our strategy must be based on this principle, we cannot justify a "victory" obtained through violent, coercive, or deceitful methods.

Believing in the transformative power of nonviolence, we prefer conversion rather than coercion. We work for win-win rather than winloose solutions. The combination of respect for our opponents' human rights and objection to their violating our rights can make them move. Our actions emphasize openness to promote communication and democratic processes. We work for processes that express "power with" not "power over" others. The empowerment of all involved in the campaign is important. We promote democratic structures (internal and external) to maximize self-determination.

We maintain discipline to agree upon guidelines and preparation before taking action. Going back to the Code of Discipline laid down by Gandhi in the 1930's, many campaigns have developed "nonviolence guidelines" which all participants are asked to agree to. To ensure these are followed, participants may be encouraged to participate in nonviolence training or orientation for an action.

"Nonviolence guidelines" are not the same as nonviolent principles. They are agreements on how participants in an action will behave. They may be stated in very practical terms ("We will not carry any weapons.") or may be written in more philosophical terms ("We will gather together in a manner that reflects the world we choose to create.")

In any nonviolent campaign there will be people with varied levels of commitment to nonviolence. Nonviolence guidelines make it clear what is expected and sets a nonviolent spirit for the action. In the midst of an action, it is easy for the crowd's tone to move in the direction of verbal abuse and even violence. Infiltrators may attempt to discredit the group by urging people to act violently. Nonviolent agreements, and nonviolence training, can make it possible for a large number of people to participate in a campaign nonviolently, even if they have little experience in this area. No matter how committed the organizers are to the principles of nonviolent action, and how well the campaign strategy is organised, it is crucial that the participants in the demonstrations and civil disobedience actions can reflect the principles of nonviolence for it to be an effective nonviolent campaign.

A nonviolent campaign takes people through processes of empowerment. It should be personally empowering -- people discovering and exercising their own power against oppression, exclusion, and violence, and for participation, peace and human rights. Groups working on a campaign develop a collective power, learning how to be organisers and become political strategists in the process. Multiple campaigns can move us towards social empowerment that leads to the social transformation we are working for. In our training and planning we need to consider all aspects of this nonviolent social empowerment process: personal empowerment, community power, people power.

Examples of nonviolence guidelines:

Faslane 365:

Lakenheath Action Group:

School of the Americas Watch:


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