Nonviolence as a Strategy for Protecting the Election Results

These are frightening times. A lot of people with guns have been emboldened by the president to threaten, and in some cases murder, people for political reasons. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Nonviolence as a Strategy for Protecting the Election Results

The particular situation we are facing, in the mass rallies that are planned, is a classic one where enforcing nonviolence by people who show up on our side is important.

In preparation for the possibility of an electoral emergency, many organizations are mobilizing people all across the country to be ready to protect the election results and ensure that all votes are counted. I hope that everyone who shows up to those protests takes seriously the desires of those organizing them.

Different tactics are helpful in different situations, and I have seen movements that use street protests fall apart because there hasn't been agreement among participants about what are acceptable forms of action, and what a movement should do to enforce those agreed upon norms. This can be difficult because, especially in the days of social media and internet organizing, it is fairly easy to turn out a lot of people onto the street. But along with that ease has come the reality that those showing up often don't have a history of working together or strong relationships based on trust with the organizations calling the actions.

Most of the organizers mobilizing to protect the results are asking for strict nonviolence and for careful messaging focused on protecting the integrity of the election. To me this makes sense for this situation and I would urge those who engage in these actions to be ready to enforce them. In this context, nonviolence means not engaging in property destruction, trying to deescalate aggression from our members and our opponents, and retreating if attacked. And the organizers have asked for fairly strict adherence to messages that focus on protecting the results.

There may be situations where acts of violence against our people on the streets will need to be met with physical self-defense. Yet the particular situation we are facing, in the mass rallies that are planned, is a classic one where enforcing nonviolence by people who show up on our side is important.

In this particular situation we are trying to call the country together to respect the results of the election. We are not challenging power. We are not trying to make unjust systems ungovernable. We are not trying to keep strikebreakers from crossing our picket lines. Each of those other goals requires different tactics. And some of those goals sometimes require not adhering to the strictures of nonviolent action.

Gandhi believed in non-violence as a spiritual calling that would unleash people's soulforce, satyagraha, which would lead to a society based on moral virtue.

Martin Luther King Jr.s' commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience was far more a matter of strategy. In Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community, King argued for nonviolent civil disobedience as a smart strategy in a country where Blacks were vastly outnumbered by whites. He wrote that a violent revolution might work in Cuba, where the majority of the people who were poor were able to overthrow a government dominated by the rich. But, he argued, the only way to end segregation in the US was to show it to be morally reprehensible and to gain the support of some whites in the power-structure.

The early lunch counter sit-ins for the civil rights movement succeeded brilliantly by showing clean cut young people sitting and asking for lunch and being attacked by violent police officers and vicious dogs. The strategic objective of nonviolent resistance was to lay bare for all to see the moral bankruptcy of segregation. And it worked.

Nonviolent civil disobedience can be a powerful tactic. And yet it isn't the right tactic for every situation. Even Gandhi equivocated when asked if nonviolent civil disobedience was the right approach for stopping the Nazis.

In the lead up to actions to protect the election results, I have seen a lot of rhetoric in favor of nonviolence that overstates its universality as a good tactic. Many authors are claiming that nonviolence has been proven to be more effective than disruptive tactics. It is true that riots and property destruction may lead people to oppose the movement and its goals. They might legitimize a strong repressive government response. And we have seen how at these protests, agents provocateurs from the other side often show up and use property destruction to discredit a movement or justify police action.

In their book Poor People's Movements: Why they Succeed, How they Fail, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that forms of disruption, such as riots, strikes, and other things that don't allow business as usual to proceed, are the tools that most often have worked to achieve reforms for people from very marginalized communities. Riots and property destruction focus the imagination. They often lead entrenched systems to realize that change is necessary before order can be restored.

In the past decade or so I've heard a lot of people arguing for what they call "diversity of tactics." That idea is usually used to argue that those who show up to a demonstration should embrace a wide variety of ways of being at a protest. It implies that it is somehow authoritarian to impose one way of protesting on people who show up.

The concept diversity of tactics grew out of the counter globalization movement that drew worldwide attention at the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. At that time, there was tension between nonprofit organizations which were deeply committed to using nonviolent civil disobedience on the one side, and those who felt that more militant forms of action were sometimes helpful, on the other. Those arguing for diversity of tactics are often in resonance with the imperative put forth by Malcom X that we need to achieve our goals "by any means necessary."

I tend to follow Malcolm X in this, but with the proviso that, while any means necessary, are morally acceptable to use, it is crucial for people who are serious about social change to always use their strategic brain and think about what they are trying to accomplish and what the best means are for getting there.

If you are in a situation where achieving your goal requires power holders to see you as legitimate, then it is crucial to not allow for a diversity of tactics, and to require people who show up to be disciplined in their messaging and in their forms of action. It is crucial, for strategic reasons, in the days, or weeks or months, ahead as we go into the struggle to protect the results, that we adhere strictly to nonviolent methods in the mass protests to prevent a coup.

In this moment, we need to build as broad a base as possible to demand that every vote should be counted, and that the results of the election should be respected.

In her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out that decentralized movements do a great job unleashing street energy, but it takes a lot of flexible organizing to turn that mobilization into lasting policy victories. Tufekci is Turkish born activist and scholar who has been involved in many street protests around the world to challenge governmental authorities, such as the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul. She has argued that with social media it is much easier than it was in the past to get people to the streets to challenge illegitimate power.

But those movements have ultimately achieved less than had seemed possible given the number of people on the street. She argues that within those movements there has been an overvaluation of the beauty of decentralization and spontaneity. This has led the action to be exciting and transformative for the lives of those who have participated in them. But she also argues that the same lack of a decision making structure that makes them exhilarating, can also lead to what she calls a tactical freeze. This is where a movement can't shift to other forms of action to translate the power that comes from disruption into leverage to transform a system of power. She looks at older movements where it took much more to get people onto the street, but where the organizing work itself built relationships that engendered forms of trust that allowed complex shifts of tactics, which ultimately were more amenable to achieving real long term gains.

When people are organized to be on the streets to protect the election results in the coming weeks, we need to operate as collectives. We need, to the extent possible, given our often new and untested connections with one another, to act as a community accountable to our common purpose.

The organizers of these main coalitions have been very clear that they don't want to see people fighting in the streets. That is a smart strategic choice about what is needed in this very crucial and dangerous moment.

If you are organizing a local event, be sure you have made clear in your call what kinds of tactics are acceptable, make sure you have people prepared to deescalate the violence from opponents, and to deescalate violence or property destruction by people on our side, when those are counter to the purpose of our actions. Those calling protests have a right to limit the tactics and messaging of those who show up.

These are frightening times. A lot of people with guns have been emboldened by the president to threaten, and in some cases murder, people for political reasons. We need to be on the streets. We need to make a strong statement. We need to maintain the moral high ground. We need to control the narrative. To do that we need to agree together that these protests will be deeply nonviolent and that we will deescalate and retreat if needed to maintain that. And we will hold our members to account to achieve those crucial goals.

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