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Activism: Peace: NVCD: History

The fusion of organized mass struggle and nonviolence has a long history and involves the refusal to counter the violence of a repressive system with violence. A prime example of mass nonviolent action is the successful nonviolent campaign for Indian independence from the British Empire, which was led by Mohandas Gandhi. But there are many other examples. Techniques of nonviolent noncooperation were used in Denmark and Norway to save Jewish lives and resist Nazification of the school system. The Salvadorean people have often used nonviolence, particularly during the 1960s and 70s, when Christian base communities, labor unions, campesino organizations, and student groups held occupations and sit-ins at universities, government offices, factories, and haciendas.

There is a rich tradition of nonviolent direct action in this country as well. American revolutionaries used tactics such as tax and tea boycotts to mobilize thousand of colonists against the British. American peace churches have a long tradition of noncooperation with military conscription and taxation. Beginning in the late 1800s, the women's movement for the right to vote carried on a century of silent vigils, mass demonstrations, and hunger strikes.

The labor movement has used nonviolence with striking effectiveness in a number of instances, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free speech confrontations; the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) sitdown strikes from 1935-1937 in auto plants involving 400,000 people; and the United Farmworkers grape and lettuce boycotts.

Using mass nonviolent action, the civil rights movement changed the face of the South. The successful Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 electrified the nation. Then the early 60s exploded with nonviolent actions: sit-ins at lunch counters and other facilities, freedom rides, freedom schools, voting registration drives, jail-ins, and the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 participants. Civil rights activists developed many of the nonviolent techniques used by peace and justice movements since that time.

Opponents of the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s employed the use of draft card burnings, draft file destruction, mass demonstrations (such as the 500,000 who turned out in 1969 in Washington, D.C.), sit-ins, blocking induction centers, draft and tax resistance, and the historic 1971 May Day in Washington, D.C. in which 11,000 people were arrested for blocking traffic.

Since the mid-70s we have seen increasing nonviolent activity by women's, anti-nuclear power, environmentalist, anti-intervention, anti-apartheid, and anti-nuclear weapons movements.

Nonviolent civil disobedience actions have taken place at dozens of nuclear weapons research installations, storage areas, missile silos, corporate and government offices, and other places necessary to the pursuit of the arms race. Some 1,750 people were arrested on June 14, 1982 at the missions of the five major nuclear powers during the 2nd UN Special Session on Disarmament. In 1982, and again in 83, over 1,000 people were arrested for blocking traffic at the Livermore Labs where nuclear weapons are designed. In a series of actions in 1983, over 1,000 people were arrested at Vandenberg Air Force Base for nonviolently disrupting the flight testing of MX and Minuteman III first strike missiles. In 1983, American women set up peace camps at Puget Sound, Washington and Seneca Falls, New York to disrupt the production and deployment of Cruise missiles.

Many actions have been specifically directed against Trident. In 1975, members of the Pacific Life Community planted a garden within the fence at the first Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington. There have been ongoing civil disobedience actions at the Trident manufacturing plant in Groton, Connecticut. And from Pantex, Texas (where all nuclear weapons are assembled), to Bangor, people continue to sit on the tracks to block the white train as it carries nuclear warheads to the submarines. Protests against Trident have also taken place in King's Bay, Georgia at the second Trident base; Wisconsin and Michigan against the Project ELF communications system; Sunnyvale, California against Trident II's prime contractor, Lockheed; and the Knolls Atomic Power Labs in Albany, NY. Of the 14 Plowshares actions, enactments of the biblical injunction to "beat swords into ploughshare," six have been aimed at Trident. On January 15, 1987, just under 200 people were arrested for blocking the first Trident II test launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida.


In his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp has categorized 198 methods of nonviolent action, which can be broken down into three main types:
  1. protest and persuasions (e.g., leaflets, pickets, vigils, teach-ins, marches).
  2. noncooperation: social (e.g., social boycotts, student strikes, suspension of social activities); economic (e.g., labor strikes, tax resistance, consumer boycotts); and political (e.g., election boycotts, civil disobedience, draft resistance).
  3. intervention (e.g., sit-ins, occupations, alternative economic and social institutions, obstruction, work slowdowns and sabotage).

Political Analysis

Power itself is not derived solely through violence. Governmental power is frequently violent in nature, but it is primarily maintained through oppression and tacit compliance of the majority of the governed. Since silence and passivity is interpreted by the government as consent, any significant withdrawal of compliance will restrict or challenge governmental control. Struggle and conflict are often necessary to correct injustice. People's apathy in the face of injustice implicates them in the moral responsibility for that injustice.

Returning violence with violence forces us to replicate structures of oppression and injustice which we oppose. It is essential that we separate the role a person plays from that individual. The "enemy" is the system that convinces people that they have little choice but to play oppressive roles or work in military industries. A nonviolent campaign must focus on the issues and the system, rather than individuals caught up in that system.

Nonviolent struggle is not easy, and should not be thought of as a "safe" way to fight injustice. The strength of nonviolence comes from our willingness to openly take personal risk without threatening other people. Acting against injustice should be done in a way that exemplifies our vision of a just and peaceful world.


Nonviolence provides us with more control over a situation. It eliminates a major rationale for the use of violence by opponents. Supporters of the opponents are drawn away and there are fewer casualties. Nonviolence makes room for productive dialogue, allowing us to speak to the best in people, rather than seeking to exploit their weakness to what we may think is our advantage. We can put more pressure on people for whom we show human concern. Violence creates desperation and resentment in opponents. Openness and honesty are essential elements in our attempt to get the general public to respect and trust us. Violence and dishonesty undermine support and creditibility. Groups using nonviolence gain self-respect, confidence, and power.
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