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Social Movements Can Find Strength from Unlikely Allies
Nearly all successful movements need to attract allies in order to win. The U.S. Occupy movement in its first few months attracted widespread sympathy and support in opinion polls; but the function of allies is to translate favorable opinion into active support.
Some movements realize this and craft their messaging and tactics in order to expand their base and win active allies. They avoid what might be called “shrinking messages” that emphasize what happens to them (i.e. the latest police repression), and instead put out “expanding messages” that emphasize how the system oppresses other people — thereby giving reasons for other people to join them. This isn’t easy. What’s more natural than to become self-absorbed, especially when taking punishment? The advice commonly used in the civil rights movement, which took much more punishment than many U.S. movements do, was to “keep your eye on the prize.” When we remember the prize, we know we need to expand beyond our ranks and win allies.
Because the reader will easily think of obvious allies, we decided to stretch our strategic imagination to find unlikely allies that, at a critical moment, appeared and made a difference. Our aim is to push beyond unconscious activist assumptions and suggest that allies may sometimes be found in unexpected places. We’ll start, fittingly enough, with the story of an occupation.
In 1998, students in Indonesia launched a campaign to overthrow the country’s dictator of 30 years. Their numbers quickly grew to tens of thousands, and their street demonstrations outside campuses were greeted with tear gas and live ammunition from the military. That brought more Indonesians into the streets for several months and President Suharto realized he had a real problem on his hands.
Rumors spread of a more drastic military crackdown, but the weakening dictator needed a justification since the movement was largely (although not entirely) nonviolent. At that point, two days of widespread rioting broke out, reportedly instigated by government provocateurs and resulting in over 1,800 deaths. Most of those killed and injured were Chinese, suggesting that Suharto was playing the card of racial division in Indonesia to divert attention from himself.
The students were not deflected, however, and kept their focus on the dictatorship and continued their demonstrations.
The days following the riots revealed splits in the military and rising tension and uncertainty. The students escalated by launching an occupation of the parliament building in Jakarta. Soon after the occupation began, rumors spread that the military would attack the students in the building. To prevent the attack, foreign diplomats and journalists — some bearing video cameras for documentation — joined the student occupiers as third-party nonviolent interveners. They hoped that by showing that, as we now say, “the whole world was watching,” the commanders would hold back. Throughout the night, fear remained high within the parliament building as soldiers remained stationed outside of the gates.
The next morning brought a palpably different atmosphere. Troops that had previously been feared showed thinly-guised support for the occupiers. They allowed more students and guests to enter the parliament, and some soldiers even openly exchanged high-fives with occupiers.
Within two days Suharto had resigned, having lost much of his base in the legislature and military; even his minister of defense finally refused to use violence against the nonviolent protestors. These unlikely allies helped keep student leaders alive in the critical moments.
As extraordinary as the Jakarta spectacle was — diplomats and journalists protecting insurgent students — it’s not the only case in the Global Nonviolent Action Database where friendly interventions came from surprising places. The 1980s was a dramatic decade for South Korea, where the U.S. had backed a series of dictators ever since Korea was partitioned in 1945. The pro-democracy movement had been growing, and dictator Chun Doo Hwan began to try to purge his society of activists.
After several years, the movement’s resilience impressed political dissident Kim Dae Jung, who had been forced into exile in the United States. In 1984 he sensed that it was time to return to offer leadership to the movement, but returning would be highly dangerous. The previous year, Filipino dissident Benigno Aquino similarly tried to return to Manila and was assassinated by the U.S.-backed Marcos regime in broad daylight on the runway at the airport.
Kim was able to gain the protective accompaniment of members of the United States Congress for the flight back to South Korea. With them, in addition to journalists and others, South Korean reactionaries did not take the risk of a direct assassination attempt. Kim was briefly placed under house arrest. Once released he resumed his former role as an opposition politician, eventually becoming elected as South Korea’s president.
Kim’s safe return gave hope to the Korean grassroots movement, which less than two years later brought about democratic reforms through massive nonviolent direct action.
The most unlikely allies are those who were previously enemies, and the civil rights movement produced some of the most dramatic examples of this. Soon after sit-ins began in Greensboro, N.C., on February 1, 1960, students at the nearby historically-black Johnson C. Smith University decided to join the movement. J. Charles Jones, the student government president, later told me (George, that is) this story about a segregationist who eventually did a complete turn-around.
As Jones assessed the situation, he realized that their star football player would want to participate in the sit-in, and also that the man was esteemed partly because he was a warrior: He had led a group of students in fighting off some white hooligans who invaded a campus dance. When the football player came to Jones to volunteer, Charlie explained that the sit-in movement was committed to nonviolence and everyone would have to fit in. “No problem,” Jones said. “If others can do it, I can do it.”
On the first day of the sit-in at the local lunch counter, however, the big football player, once harassed, was barely able to restrain himself to keep from turning around on his stool and knocking a couple of white men out. The second day, he noticed that his student friends on each side of him didn’t seem to be sweating it out as hard as he was, and he began to wonder what they had that he didn’t. He began paying attention to the nightly trainings and mass meetings back on campus.
A couple of weeks later, the football player, once again at his stool at the lunch counter, heard a woman yelling in his direction. He turned just enough to see a white woman, almost hysterical, coming closer while screaming racist insults. She came up to him and, with all her might, pushed him off the stool. He fell to the floor, paused to collect himself, and noticed two stanchions that marked the aisle with a rope connecting them. He stood, reached and unhooked the rope from the stanchion, indicating with a smile and a gesture that she could go.
At first stunned, the woman collapsed in tears and was led from the store by a friend. A week later, the woman joined an informal “white ladies auxiliary” in support of the sit-ins.
Charlie laughed when he finished telling me this story. “Okay,” he said, “I know it’s pretty amazing to see the woman turn around like that, but how about the football player? Now that’s a nonviolent warrior!” Charlie went on to become an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Activists in the organization Otpor!, during the nonviolent overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, deliberately reached out to win unlikely allies among their opposition: the police. The police and military in Serbia were a strong pillar of support for Milosevic’s repressive regime. Otpor’s strategy counted on dividing the security forces when the critical moment came.
As Otpor grew stronger, police forces brutally attacked and arrested nonviolent protestors. Because the repression was so widespread, Otpor required training for all its members, and part of the training was how to handle a police beating nonviolently. They didn’t allow the repression to become the focus of the campaign — their messaging remained on “the prize,” which was the overthrow of Milosevic — but they did use the repression to undermine the morale of the police.
Students with heads bloodied by nightsticks were brought to an apartment by their comrades and photographed. The photos were blown up poster-sized, and then Otpor members went to the house or apartment building of the officer who had done the violence and held up the poster with the question: Why are you beating our young people? The police found themselves trying to justify to family and neighbors their actions, which of course they couldn’t do. Because this and other Otpor measures were so strategic, they didn’t need to pay off immediately. Throughout the campaign Otpor focused on gaining support from youth across a range of societal classes and regions within Serbia. As the movement gained momentum, Otpor also worked hard behind the scenes to cultivate allies within the police force, gaining agreement from large groups of police officers to refuse orders to attack protesters when the campaign reached its climax.
The campaign peaked in October, 2000, when up to a million people gathered in the streets of Belgrade in front of the parliament building. Milosevic was inside, and the police stood between him and the people. This was the moment Otpor had planned for. Milosevic gave the order to the police (backed by troops) to fire and turn away the people. The police refused. They knew that the campaigners’ numbers were overwhelming, and that among those masses of people were their sons and daughters, nephews and nieces. Milosevic was finished.
When Otpor began its campaign, few if any observers would have guessed that police, beating up students on the streets, would end up becoming the students’ allies.
Yet this phenomenon can be witnessed again and again. In 1989, while the Iron Curtain still stood separating the Communist East from Western Europe, previously repressive Hungarian border guards stood aside allowing East Germans to pass safely through Communist Hungary and into Austria — and freedom! An imaginative tactic set the stage.
Human rights activists in Hungary found a weak point in their regime and exploited it to organize a “Pan-European Picnic” on the border between Communist Hungary and neutral Austria. In the meantime, there was a strong build-up of pressure in East Germany both to overthrow the regime and to emigrate to freedom. The Hungarians realized that East Germans wanting to leave could easily cross the border into Hungary, a fellow Iron Curtain country, but not to go farther.
To create their Pan-European Picnic, the Hungarians gained permission for a few hours to cut the fence at the border so Hungarians and Austrians could cross back and forth and socialize while feasting. This was supposedly a restricted, symbolic festivity limited to Hungarians and Austrians, but hundreds of East Germans showed up. Hungarian border guards disobeyed direct orders from their commanders and allowed the East Germans to pass safely into Austria, then closed the fence again behind them.
Finally, Afghanistan gives us a recent, spectacular example of police support for nonviolent campaigners. When, in 2009, Afghan women’s rights advocates began a protest march against a recently passed Shia Personal Status Law, they were confronted by a mob of a thousand people who supported the repressive law.
The counter-demonstrators began peacefully, but then turned to throwing stones at the women’s rights advocates. Female police officers in the area quickly took action, but without responding violently. The policewomen formed a human chain around the original female protestors, facing inwards to protect them from the stones being thrown. With the human wall of policewomen now surrounding them, the women’s rights advocates continued their march safely.
By offering this brief sample of unlikely allies — soldiers, segregationists, border guards, journalists, U.S. members of Congress, police, diplomats — we’re suggesting that a nonviolent campaign can be full of surprises. The willingness of the campaigners to take risks for justice can inspire others also to take risks.
A condition for success, however, is that the central message of the campaign be larger than the campaigners themselves. A campaign that wins unlikely allies is not about victimhood; it’s not “all about us.” The message is expansive, in line with widely-held values, and it’s clear about the goal — in these cases, democracy, women’s rights or economic justice.