By Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik.
The following is an interview with Hardy Merriman of ICNC, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Civil resistance movements—featuring a wide range of nonviolent tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, acts of noncooperation, civil disobedience, and other actions—are capturing the world’s attention like never before. The ICNC focuses on how these movements struggle effectively and win. We would like to thank Hardy so much for his time and challenging answers.
How was ICNC born and with what aims?
ICNC was founded in 2002 with an educational mission. We aim to share knowledge about how ordinary people can nonviolently struggle to win rights, freedom and justice around the world. We think that skills and strategic choices really matter in how nonviolent movements grow and evolve, and that learning lessons from other activists and scholarly research can help people engage in this process.
The background to ICNC is this: The scholar Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall collaborated in the creation of a film called “A Force More Powerful”, which was released in 2000. They also wrote a companion book to the film. The film and book told the story of nonviolent movements through the 20th century and how they overcame oppression, with a particular focus on the kinds of strategies that these movements used. The cases were diverse and included the nonviolent resistance that ended the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile in 1988, the Polish Solidarity Movement that ended Soviet rule in 1989, the nonviolent resistance in South Africa that led to the end of Apartheid, the 1960 Nashville Lunch Counter sit-ins in the US Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s famous Salt March in 1930 during the Indian Independence Struggle, and Danish nonviolent resistance to Nazi occupation in the early 1940s.
All of these movements had common attributes that helped them to persevere and achieve progress. While the film and book were designed for general educational purposes, what happened is that activists and organizers around the world started using them as educational tools to train themselves. It was clear that demand was high globally for this kind of knowledge.
As a result of this, in 2002 they decided to create the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) to support research, produce educational materials, and share knowledge with activists, organizers, and other practitioners (i.e. members of INGOs, journalists, and others) around the world.
What are the factors that have led to civil resistance movements acquiring more importance nowadays? Did social media play an important role?
Currently, between 2.5-3 billion people are suffering under unaccountable political, economic, and social circumstances where the traditional means of making change are totally failing them. Elections are fraudulent or stolen. The legal system is corrupt or unavailable because it is too expensive. And negotiations and conflict resolution are, by themselves, insufficient to address these people’s needs.
In these situations, people can wait and hope for things to get better, or they can decide to struggle using violence, or they can decide to struggle using nonviolent means—for example through boycotts, strikes, mass demonstrations and a variety of other tactics. I think civil resistance is spreading quickly because it is comparatively the most effective way to struggle against political, social, and economic oppression. It is powerful. It does not always achieve results, but we know statistically that looking at movements from 1900 onward, it is the most promising way for people who are oppressed to get power and change their situation. It is much more successful than violence or waiting passively for things to change. Many people can also participate in nonviolent resistance—women, men, children, elders, people of all economic classes, for example—so it can engage a much fuller portion of a population than other means of struggle.
Social media may be helping to spread knowledge about civil resistance. But I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on it. What’s spreading the knowledge is the fact that civil resistance is powerful, and powerful ideas tend to spread.
How responsive has civil society been so far?
That’s an interesting question. Civil society is a broad term—and could mean well-funded nongovernmental organizations, or local labor unions and cooperatives, or community and village organizations or associations (such as savings circles), or anything in between.
To keep my answer brief, I can only speak in general terms. At the level of large NGOs, I think the rise of civil resistance movements has been generally surprising. This is because movements operate on a different basis than NGOs. Movements are based on the voluntary participation of many people who may not necessarily have any particular political affiliation. Sometimes people who have been non-political for most of their lives decide to join movements. And the reason they do it is because they feel that the movement represents them, and welcomes them, and values them. The movement is part of their community, and they have confidence that the movement has a chance of making real improvements in their lives. The movement gives them hope, and may inspire courage. It speaks to them in a language that makes sense. The movement also doesn’t often have a clear hierarchy—for example, you can’t command thousands of people to mobilize. They mobilize because they choose to, not because anyone tells them to.
So a movement is very different from a traditional NGO. The traditional NGO often has paid staff, is officially registered, and has hierarchy. It has a director who can make choices from the top down and the staff provide input and carry things out. And the NGO exists as long as it is registered and has a budget and a board. Again, I’m just speaking in general terms here, and I know there is a wide variety of NGOs.
Now, a movement exists because people support it. If people stop supporting the movement and participating in it, the movement doesn’t exist anymore. So a movement is very organic. It’s from the bottom up. It’s from the grassroots. It operates on a different premise than most NGOs. That’s why I think movements can be surprising for people who are used to working in hierarchy and thinking about change from the top down.
I also think that people in NGOs are learning how to work in alliance and coalition with movements, and this is great, because the work of NGOs can be really important too, and when movements and NGOs work together, it can be very powerful. If anyone reading this wants to learn more, I’d encourage them to get in touch with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. We’d be happy to talk with them or share information. We are an example of an NGO that supports civil resistance through education, but there are other ways civil resistance can be supported as well.
Now, back to the concept of civil society. At the edges of what some people think of as “civil society”—at the level of local associations and communities—in general I think people at that level are not as surprised by the increase of civil resistance movements around the world. It’s at the local level that civil society is closest to understanding the lives of ordinary people, and listening to what’s going on for people, and so it is natural that those local civil society organizations would have a clear sense of when and why and how people might mobilize in a movement. Some local civil society organization play a key part in organizing movements, and supporting them.
What are the actions that can be defined as civil resistance? Did they evolve over time?
In 1973, the scholar Gene Sharp published a landmark book called The Politics of Nonviolent Action. This book was a major contribution to the field because Sharp looked at all kinds of cases of nonviolent resistance and tried to create a general theory for how nonviolent action worked. And just to be clear, Sharp used the term “nonviolent action”, and I usually use the term “civil resistance”, but we mean the same thing.
To carry out his research, Sharp had to define his terms, and he defined nonviolent action as a way for people to wield power without the use of physical violence. He continued by saying that nonviolent action can involve acts of commission, which means people do things that they’re not supposed to do, not expected to do, or that are illegal. Nonviolent action can also involve acts of omission, which means that people don’t do things that they’re supposed to do, expected to do, or are required to do. Or nonviolent action can be a combination of both acts of commission and omission.
Drawing from this, we can see that there are hundreds of examples—strikes and boycotts of all kinds, protests of all kinds, civil disobedience, the establishment of alternative institutions, and other methods. The basis of Sharp’s definition is disobedience to expectations and creating new patterns of behavior, without violence. There are so many things that we are expected to do every day, and things that we are not supposed to do every day, that we can see that there is enormous room for creative forms of defying these expectations. Official and unofficial rules can be challenged and broken in many ways. Sharp himself documented 198 different methods of civil resistance. Others have documented additional methods and my organization is supporting research right now to document additional methods that have been created and used.
What are, according to your experience, the factors that can lead a civil resistance movement to succeed?
The three factors that my colleagues and I use to quickly assess a movement’s health are unity, strategic planning capacity, and nonviolent discipline. I first heard these three variables from Peter Ackerman and I later wrote an article about them, and they have spread around the field quite a bit. If you don’t mind, it would probably be easiest for me to share excerpts from that article to explain further:
Unity is important because nonviolent movements draw their strength from the participation of people in diverse sectors of society. Put simply: numbers matter. The more people a movement has supporting it, the greater its legitimacy, power, and tactical repertoire. Successful movements therefore continually reach out to new groups in their societies, e.g. men and women; youth, adults, and elders; urban and rural populations; minorities; members of religious institutions; farmers, laborers, business people, and professionals; wealthy, middle class, and lower economic stratas; police, soldiers, and members of the judiciary, as well as other groups….
Participants in nonviolent movements must also make complex decisions about the course their movements should take. Strategic planning is of central importance in doing this. Regardless of the merit of one’s cause or the morally indefensible acts of one’s opponent, oppression is usually not overcome solely through spontaneous and improvised acts of resistance, even if such acts are well-executed. Instead, movements gain traction when they plan how civil resistance can be systematically organized and adopted by people in society to achieve targeted and focused goals.
Deciding what tactics to use and how they should be sequenced; developing galvanizing propositions for change based on the aspirations and grievances of the people who the movement aims to represent; planning what individuals and groups to target with tactics and what short-, medium-, and long-term objectives to pursue; and building lines of communication so that coalitions can be negotiated and built are just some of the issues around which nonviolent movements must creatively strategize. Doing so requires a holistic analysis of the situation in which the nonviolent struggle takes place. As part of their planning process, effective movements formally or informally gather information, listen to people at the grassroots, and analyze themselves, their adversaries, and uncommitted third parties constantly through the course of a conflict.
Finally, a strategy is only effective if it is executed in a disciplined way. The largest risk for a failure of discipline in a nonviolent movement is that some members may become violent. Therefore, nonviolent discipline—the ability of people to remain nonviolent, even in the face of provocations—is often continually instilled in participants. There are practical reasons for this. Violent incidents by members of a movement can dramatically reduce its legitimacy while giving the movement’s opponent an excuse to use repression. Furthermore, a movement that is consistently nonviolent has a far greater chance of appealing to a broad range of potential allies—including even an adversary’s supporters—through the course of its struggle.
Those three factors are critical, but we can look at other factors as well. For example, Peter Ackerman and I wrote a chapter a couple of years ago that expands that list of three variables into six variables.
A key lesson here is that engaging in nonviolent struggle is both an art and a science. What I’m talking about here is the science part—general knowledge and principles that we have seen work everywhere. We look at civil resistance as a social science, but we also don’t think there is any formula. I can share with other people what I know, but I certainly can’t tell others what to do. Local context differs in different places and so it’s up to people in a particular context to decide if and how they think the general principles of civil resistance can be applied in their situation. Learning and applying knowledge in your context—that is the art.