Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 6, Reading 3
by Gene Sharp
Nonviolent protest and persuasion is a class which includes a large number of methods which are mainly symbolic acts of peaceful opposition or of attempted persuasion, extending beyond verbal expressions but stopping short of noncooperation or nonviolent intervention. Among these methods are parades, vigils, picketing, posters, teach-ins, mourning, and protest meetings.
Their use may simply show that the actionists are against something; for example, picketing may express opposition to a law which restricts dissemination of birth control information. The methods of this class may also be applied for something; for example, group lobbying may support a clean-air bill pending in the legislature or overseas aid. Nonviolent protest and persuasion also may express deep personal feelings or moral condemnation on a social or political issue; for example, a vigil on Hiroshima Day may express penance for the American atomic bombing of that Japanese city. The “something” with which the nonviolent protestors may be concerned may be a particular deed, a law, a policy, a general condition, or a whole regime or system.
The act may be intended primarily to influence the opponent-by arousing attention and publicity for the issue and thereby, it is hoped, support, which may convince him to accept the change; or by warning him of the depth or extent of feeling on the issue which is likely to lead to more severe action if a change is not made. Or the act may be intended primarily to communicate with the public, onlookers, or third parties, directly or through publicity, in order to arouse, attention and support for the desired change. Or the act may by intended primarily to influence the grievance group-the persons directly affected by the issue-to induce them to do something themselves, such as participate in a strike or an economic boycott.
What, then, are the specific methods of nonviolent action which may be classified as nonviolent protest and persuasion? This is a sampling.
In a sit-in the interventionists occupy certain facilities by sitting on available chairs, stools, and occasionally on the floor for a limited or unlimited period, either in a single act or in a series of acts, with the objective of disrupting the normal pattern of activities. The purpose may be to establish a new pattern, such as opening particular facilities to previously excluded persons, or to make a protest which may not be directly connected with the facilities occupied. This method has often been used in the civil rights movement in the United States.
Students and pupils of all types of schools, from elementary schools to universities, may as a means of protest or resistance temporarily refuse to attend classes. Or they may refuse to cooperate in a related way-by boycotting only some, not all, lectures, for example; or students may attend classes but refuse to pay attention, as was done at the University of Madrid in 1965 as part of the campaign for an independent student union. Possible variations are legion. It is more usual, however, for all classes to be boycotted. (Student strikes are also called school boycotts or class boycotts.)
The student strike has long been widely used in China, Latin America, and to a lesser degree Africa; in 1970, following the United States’ invasion of Cambodia, it became a prominent part of university life in the United States. The student strike is not a modern invention, as the Chinese examples show. Student strikes in China have sometimes taken the form of refusal to take the examinations, sometimes in protest against the lack of impartiality by the examiners.
The sit-down is an act of noncooperation in which the participants actually sit down on the street, road, ground, or floor and refuse to leave voluntarily, for either a limited or an indefinite period of time. The sit-down may be a spontaneous act, or a reaction decided on in advance, as a response to orders for a march or other demonstration to disperse. Or it may be combined with civil disobedience to some regulatory law as a serious type of symbolic resistance. The sit-down may also be used to halt ordinary traffic or tanks, or to prevent workers or officials from carrying out their work. In these cases it becomes a method of nonviolent intervention (either nonviolent interjection or nonviolent obstruction, which are described in the next chapter). In recent years the sit-down appears to have been more widely used than previously.
Toward the end of April 1960, during the Algerian War, over 500 demonstrators protested the internment of 6,000 North Africans in France, without trial or hearing, by marching to the Centre de Tri de Vincennes (one of the French reception centers for Arabs) and sitting down in front of it. New waves of demonstrators came when the first persons were arrested and driven away in vehicles.
Turning One’s Back
Silent disapproval may be emphasized by turning one’s back (whether standing or sitting) to the person or persons who are or represent the opponent. For example, when in his proclamation of a day of fasting and prayer in 1771, Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts Bay had included a call for thanks for the “Continuance of our Privileges,” the radicals took this as an open insult because of the implication of support for British policies. The proclamation was to be read in the churches, but, Philip Davidson writes, “Dr. Pemberton alone of the Boston pastors read the proclamation-and he did so simply because the Governor was a member of his congregation-and he did so with evident embarrassment, for many of the members turned their backs or left the building.”
After the dramatic days of the June 16th-17th East German Rising, on June 18th, 1953, East Berlin strikers returned to their factories but refused to work. “They squatted in front of their lathes and benches and turned their backs on Party officials.”
A vigil is an appeal normally addressed not to one or a few persons, but to many people. Like picketing, a vigil consists of people remaining at a particular place as a means of expressing a point of view. It differs from picketing, however, in that it is frequently maintained over a longer period of time, sometimes around the clock, and is associated with a more solemn attitude, often of a pleading or religious character. It often involves late hours and loss of sleep.
As a means of reminding officials of the “immorality” of their behavior in repressing a nonviolent resistance movement and of the determination and fearlessness of the population, volunteers may sometimes follow and “haunt” officials everywhere they go, thus constantly reminding them of the population’s determination. For example, as Joan Bondurant has reported, during the 1928 Bardoli campaign in India: “Volunteers followed officials everywhere, camping on roads outside official bungalows. When arrested, they were replaced by others until authorities tired of the process.”
One of the rarer old-but newly reactivated- forms of nonviolent protest is the public removal of clothes as a means of expressing one’s religious disapproval or political protest. During the Quaker “invasion” of the intolerant Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century, Lydia Wardel entered Newbury Church naked as a protest. Members of the Sons of Freedom sect of the Doukhobors in British Columbia, Canada, have been credited with “uncounted nude parades” and in some cases individual women have disrobed in front of their own burning homes, to which they set fire as a protest against alleged government interference or prosecution of their husbands for resistance activities, including demolitions. When Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was attending a political rally at Trail, British Columbia, on May 28, 1962, Doukhobor women whose husbands were awaiting trial for terrorist acts interrupted the meeting, tearfully protesting “unfair treatment” of their group, and took off their clothing as part of their protest.
One of several cases of protest disrobing in the United States in recent years by young people in the antiwar and social protest movements took place at Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa, on February 5, 1969. The Students staged a “nude-in” during a speech by a representative of Playboy magazine, in protest of the magazine’s “sensationalism of sex.”
From The Politics of Nonviolent Action
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372