Who's Really Violent? Tips for Controlling the Narrative

Occupy Wall Street is similar to many movements in contending that its opponent--for Occupy, the 1 percent--is maintaining a system whose structural, systematic violence far exceeds any violence exhibited by the movement itself. For example, movements will say that class oppression or sexism or racism hurt people in the daily course of life, pointing to statistics like each percentage point of unemployment resulting in increased suicide, homicide and domestic abuse.

Occupy Wall Street is similar to many movements in contending that its opponent--for Occupy, the 1 percent--is maintaining a system whose structural, systematic violence far exceeds any violence exhibited by the movement itself. For example, movements will say that class oppression or sexism or racism hurt people in the daily course of life, pointing to statistics like each percentage point of unemployment resulting in increased suicide, homicide and domestic abuse. However, especially when the movement is still young and only beginning to get its message out, the powers that be in politics and the media will often succeed in dismissing such charges and in blaming every appearance of violence on the campaigners. Reversing this narrative in the public perception is one of a growing movement's most important challenges.

For nearly a year, for example, the Syrian government has been sending its tanks to kill demonstrators while claiming that the violence mainly comes from the pro-democracy forces. The Russian government publicly agrees. The reason why defenders of oppression the world over charge activists with violence--even if they have to make it up--is because it's a potent accusation. The oppressor doesn't want the "violence" label to stick to its own side. Those who presently are undecided or passive might move to support the campaigners because they don't want to support "violence."

In some circumstances, although not all, who wins the struggle depends on who most believably asserts that the other side is violent. Occupy Wall Street got a tremendous boost in the early days when mainstream media were largely ignoring them, thanks to the blatant violence committed by New York City police. Many influential and uncommitted people swung immediately to the side of Occupy and gave it extraordinary momentum.

Those in power, however, are at an advantage in this contest with campaigners. They usually control or hugely influence the media coverage. They start out with some legitimacy won through elections or asserted through authoritarian cultural institutions--often religious ones. In the Global Nonviolent Action Database, we recount dozens of cases in which oppressive regimes have persisted against activist challenge for years, even decades, before the campaigners' charge of "violence" finally stuck and key middle groups swung over.

After Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a swell of indignation in many Southern towns and cities. "Our town was peaceful until King came here," people would say, "and then we had all kinds of trouble and violence, and then he gets the Peace Prize?"

King's response was to say that those towns had been violent all along. Racism is violence, he said; just look at comparative statistics between whites and blacks of life expectancy, and infant mortality rates, and death in childbirth. He said that the town newspaper didn't put those statistics in headlines, so (white) people didn't see clearly the violence of racism. It took an activist campaign that brought out the Ku Klux Klan and police dogs, and blood running in the streets, for people to see that racism equals violence, because racism is a system that, when challenged, must be defended by violence. As we know, once the white people in the middle saw where the violence was actually coming from, large enough portions of them changed sides so that the activists could gain concrete victories.

How, then, did an oppressed people succeed in showing that the violence was actually in white racism, rather than in themselves?

They did it by creating brilliant dramas in which they contrasted their own behavior with that of their opponents. Part of the brilliance was in forcing their opponent into a dilemma in which either choice would put the demonstrators ahead of the game. The story-line for a lunch-counter sit-in, for instance, was: "I want coffee at this whites-only lunch counter. If you serve me, fine. I win. If you don't serve me but instead beat me or arrest me, fine. I win because I show where the violence is coming from." (I was privileged to learn this lesson firsthand; my first arrest was in a civil rights sit-in.)

In other words, at their best, the young people avoided doing what could be perceived as mere provocation--like walking into the streets to stop traffic or hassling shoppers. The students were much cagier than that. They carefully set up no-win situations for their opponents, and therefore, against all odds--including the KKK terrorists--they usually won.

Furthermore, because they knew the stakes were high, the students took steps to heighten the contrast as much as possible. They showed up at the lunch counter with ironed dresses and white shirts and ties and polished shoes, with a textbook in hand.

The danger of such contrast is known well to people whose job is to defend an unjust status quo. When activist behavior reveals so clearly the injustice of the state, it results in a loss of the state's legitimacy. Dozens of dictators have learned this to their sorrow. Smart managers of repression have therefore come up with a counter-strategy: reduce the contrast in behavior between the activists and those charged with repression. Here are some of their tactics:

  • Pay or persuade people to pretend to be activists and do something that can be called violence. This might be property destruction (since a lot of people believe property destruction is violence), but it could also mean attacking police or others on the side of the status quo.
  • Accuse the activists of violence whether or not there's any evidence of it.
  • Plant the evidence. In Philadelphia during the 1960s, a young, largely-white anti-racist group couldn't reach consensus to state publicly that they were nonviolent, even though they hadn't yet planned any acts of violence. They were increasingly effective in their nonviolent campaign, so the police staged a raid on the communal house where some of them lived, herded everyone into the living room, searched the rest of the house and "discovered" explosives in the refrigerator. With that planted evidence they were able to pretty much destroy the group, and the young people were powerless to defend themselves,

Variations of the repressors' "minimize the contrast" approach have been employed all over the world: provocateurs used in India by the British Empire, in Serbia to hurt the student opponents of the dictatorship, and on and on. There are steps that activists can take, however, to prevent this kind of manipulation:

  • Deliberately heighten the contrast. In France in the late 1950s, the anti-imperialist movement did a lot of demonstrations against the Algerian War, and were faced with notoriously violent police who were quartered in barracks to stay "battle ready." While working in France in 1960, I was told that many of the French activists knew that the smartest way to reduce their casualties was to remain nonviolent--police in so many countries increase their violence when they experience fighting back--and they wanted to win over more of the French public to their side. They therefore adopted the tactic of when in doubt, sit down. They found not only that they sustained fewer injuries, but also that observers (including media) of the confrontations spread the word about the drama: police standing over activists with upraised sticks; activists sitting on the ground creating the largest possible contrast. Their campaign grew as a result.
  • Boldly declare that you are nonviolent, as some Occupy groups have done, and by doing so move to the "moral high ground" in the perception of most people. If critics claim that certain tactics--say, locking arms--activists can challenge such claims on their own terms.
  • Start again if there has been an activist lapse into defensive violence. Researcher Kira Kern tells us that when the Omanis jumped into the Arab Awakening on February 27 of last year, their protest immediately turned into a clash with the police, with violence on both sides. The movement pressed the reset button and began a nonviolent campaign, taking care this time to heighten the contrast with the police who used arrests, tear gas and rubber bullets. The assessment of the Omani activist leadership was that the sultan was too well-embedded to replace with democracy in one campaign, so they set for themselves concrete goals that looked achievable: better wages, more jobs, an elected parliament and a new constitution. They used a variety of methods: occupation, obstruction, picketing, limited strikes, graduating to a general strike. In a little over a month, they won most of what they demanded.

The student sit-inners, French war protesters and heroic Omanis remind us that, while enjoying our own creativity, we needn't re-invent every wheel. We can also learn from sisters and brothers that went before us some ways to heighten the contrast and reveal the violent face of injustice.

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