Thursday, June 4, 2020

Nonviolence: the Power of Protest Squared

Today is the anniversary of the violent end to the weeks of peaceful protest at Tiannamen Square back in 1989.  I remember driving to my grad school class and listening in shock.  It was an interesting time, as we watched the unraveling of the Communist bloc (but it was before the events of the German border that would bring down the wall), so I was hopeful that the peaceful protest would prevail.  I felt like weeping when the tanks rolled in.

It feels like we're at a similar crossroads today.  We see a mix of peaceful protest which sometimes stays peaceful and sometimes explodes into violence.   I have written many times about the power of nonviolent protest (for example, here and here).  In these days of protest, many of us are considering the best way to respond.

Bill McKibben has written a wonderful article in The New Yorker about planning for not just what's happening now, but what might be about to happen:  "Events are now moving at high speed in this country—every day, President Trump and his crew gallop past new lines, so that the morning’s flagrant usurpation is legitimized by the evening’s even more outrageous improvisation. (Firing tear gas at a crowd in order to be able to stand menacingly in front of a church holding a Bible is hard to top, but I wouldn’t bet against it.) A danger of this is that we’re always reacting to what came before. So perhaps it’s worth skipping a few steps ahead, to places where we haven’t gone yet but very well may."

He reminds us of the power of nonviolence, while noting that most of our 20th century experiences with nonviolence might not be wise in a time of highly contagious global pandemic.  And boycotts may not be possible in a time when big events aren't happening.

McKibben points to these encouraging statistics:  "As the Harvard researcher Erica Chenoweth has shown, less than five per cent of a population engaged in resistance is often enough to cause huge shifts in the zeitgeist and make it much harder for illegitimate authority to rule."

Mckibben also mentions the work of Gene Sharp, who spent a lifetime cataloging methods of nonviolent action.  What a wonderful list of possibilities!  It's a good reminder that we don't have to be in the streets with the protesters.  We can pray.  We can have sit-ins and other methods of teaching.  We can "communicate with a wider audience"--and he wrote this list before we had so many opportunities that social media gives us.

These dark days, where the president threatens to use the military to hurt its own citizens, have me reaching for Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny.  It's an important book.  But Gene Sharp's list is also important.  We need to resist, while we prepare for what might be coming next.  One way that tyrants solidify their power is by wearing down resistance.  These days, we must not let that happen.

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