The Power of Nonviolent Direct Action

people protesting

Some acts of nonviolent protesting put the message out for the public and brings attention to the issue. However, this strategy doesn’t always capture the attention of the people who have the power—the government. Adding strategy to nonviolence brings the attention it needs directly into the face of those who can change the rules and policies that support the injustice.

The following is an excerpt from Shut It Down by Lisa Fithian. It has been adapted for the web.


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Listen to the following excerpt from the audiobook for Shut It Down by Lisa Fithian.


When people ask about my approach to nonviolence, I like to say that I’m committed to strategic nonviolence, believing it is the most effective way to dismantle what does not serve us while building a better world.

I am not a pacifist; I believe that our actions must have a confrontational edge, but I believe we can achieve that edge without an intent to do physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual harm.

There are many nonviolent tactics that can be incredibly disruptive and effective, like highway blockades with bodies or boulders, as they do in the Global South. I also acknowledge that in the face of violence from the state, nonviolence can require incredible courage, sophisticated strategy, and creative, flexible tactics.

This stance has been shaped by my exposure to the dangers activists encounter when they’re in the streets. I’ve watched police aggression toward public demonstrations evolve after September 11, 2001. I have witnessed the government develop its playbook against large mobilizations in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. At the anti-FTAA mobilization in Miami in 2003, the police turned their guns on labor union members and elderly activists.

At the mobilization surrounding the G8 meetings in 2004 in the predominantly African American town of Brunswick, Georgia, the governor mobilized at least ten thousand law enforcement agents, including the National Guard, into a town of fifteen thousand people. With this massive crackdown, only about three hundred G8 protestors traveled to Georgia.

It was abundantly clear that the Bush administration saw that summit as a training ground for the new Department of Homeland Security to practice domestic occupation. From the hundreds of undercover agents wearing their humorously conspicuous squeaky, out-of-the-box leather sandals to the Humvees patrolling the streets, you couldn’t miss the overwhelming force deployed to suppress the community of Brunswick and the First Amendment rights of ordinary people.

The military occupation of Brunswick cost US taxpayers $35 million. Meanwhile, we “scary” protestors hosted a shrimp boil, held a candlelight vigil for those who have died as a result of G8 policies, and educated the public about the twenty-two toxic waste sites in Brunswick—all of which closed in advance of the G8 so that politicians didn’t have to smell the consequences of their policies.

woman with hunger strike for gaza sign

Hedy Epstein and my good friend Jen Hobbs on hunger strike on the steps of the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo. Courtesy of Angela Sevin.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that violence and nonviolence is a framing that serves us. It positions the issue as emanating from within our movements, when in reality the violent side of the equation usually emanates from law enforcement or the military.

I think a more useful frame is one that looks at questions of government-mandated violence and self-defense against that violence with an understanding that self-defense is a choice we make to stand up for what is right.

I prefer to talk about self-protection—how we protect ourselves by training and preparing for potential violence, developing our awareness, learning how to protect our bodies, and knowing what we can and cannot endure. Some communities have defended/protected themselves or their members by establishing safe houses, building barricades, burning tires, throwing rocks, shutting down roads, occupying buildings, land, or factories, showing up in large numbers to march, establishing human perimeters, or collectivizing money and resources. Some have taken up arms. Others, like the Black Panthers, used guns more to send a message rather than send bullets.

In the global context, we will always see a diversity of tactics as people of color, poor people, and oppressed people respond to the state violence that harms them. I have learned to stop carrying judgment and acknowledge that taking the moral position that nonviolence is the only way is, in and of itself, oppressive. If I am not the one with skin in the game, who am I to say? And then there are the many fine lines and gray areas between defensive and offensive tactics. Is throwing a rock at an Israeli tank violent? Is picking up arms to stop an impending foreign invasion violence, or is it self-defense or protection?

I have also learned via my trainings that everyone has different ideas about nonviolence.

What might be considered violent in one situation may not be considered violent in another, and what some people see as violence, others see as self-defense.

At the end of the day, I like to stick with what my lived experiences have taught me while listening to the experiences of others, and here’s what I have seen: You can create a hell of a lot of social disruption and change using nonviolent tactics alone.

In my heart I also believe that violence is a tool of the state, and in the words of Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I have seen how the world pays attention when buildings burn and windows are broken, but I have also seen how it frightens people. Dismantling structures of oppression is part of what we’re all in this for—but if we dismantle structures of oppression using tactics that are grounded in fear, how do we simultaneously build something better?

Die-In outside the Tivoli Theatre

Die-in action outside the Tivoli Theatre on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, November 2014.

When I work with people who practice aggression in their dissent, I try to walk that line of not marginalizing or judging them while also showing a different way. I communicate the possible consequences of their actions and my concerns for the vulnerabilities they create. I have found that it is usually young white men who are most drawn to aggressive tactics, and I say to them, “Do you really want to take their bait?” In almost every situation over the past twenty years where people have been caught planning a risky or violent action, it turned out that a government infiltrator was in the mix urging them on.

This occurred most infamously during the 2008 Republican National Convention protests, when three young white men, in two different situations, were arrested for constructing Molotov cocktails. During their trial it became clear they did not intend to use them, and it came out that an agent provocateur with the FBI had been goading them forward.

Recently the public debate surrounding the anti-fascist “Antifa” has been prominent. Antifa are anti-racist, anti-fascist militants who use a range of tactics, including physical engagement if needed, to confront white supremacists and racists. After the election of Donald Trump, the actions of Antifa were more conspicuous as they faced off with the violent white supremacists emboldened by the mainstreaming of their views. The far-right media, of course, hypes Antifa, often by fabricating stories and spreading falsely captioned images.

We know that the media is obsessed with these images of protestors dressed in black, whether it be Antifa or the black bloc. We can’t control this, and we need to understand that people really buy into this criminalization campaign. Over the years I have witnessed the huge effort the government puts into criminalizing our movements and the massive investments corporations put into silencing and maligning us via relentless media smear campaigns. These investments against social justice movements show me that our resistance truly threatens their power.

And what threatens them the most is not the black bloc, but a resistance filled with beauty, joy, and love.


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