April 9, 2003

Well-Designed Strategic Nonviolent Actions

by Randy Schutt

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This paper lists the components of well-designed strategic nonviolent actions — actions that effectively challenge injustice and war by building a massive movement of people who withdraw their cooperation from and resist reprehensible policies.


For an action to be well designed, it should have clear long-range goals that are in alignment with a good society, a cogent strategy for achieving those goals, and tactics that fit into that strategy. Without these elements, an action is simply a “protest” that can be easily ignored. Well-designed strategic nonviolent actions — like the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56 and the Clamshell Alliance occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in 1977 — can launch massive movements that bring about far-reaching progressive change.

Many recent anti-war demonstrations do not appear to be well conceived. They have a short-range goal of disrupting normal affairs through a diversity of tactics, but no clear long-range goal or strategy. Presumably, the long-range goals/strategy that activists have in mind for these actions are:

When these demonstrations go exactly as envisioned by their creators, then they do achieve these goals to some extent. Using “diversity of tactics” is a clever way to enable a lot of people to participate at a level they feel comfortable while being more disruptive than a simple lowest-common-denominator vigil or a symbolic civil disobedience action would be. Since these tactics are usually direct, are targeted toward especially egregious institutions, and are not violent towards people, they are not indiscriminate, unprincipled, or immoral. And these actions typically require little preparation and demand little commitment or effort from participants.

However, these actions are often unpredictable and intimidating — and that can scare the public into supporting “law and order” politicians. Moreover, allowing a “diversity of tactics” makes these demonstrations vulnerable to being hijacked by misguided new activists, crazy people, or undercover police agents (agents provocateurs) who might verbally abuse bystanders, trash buildings, overturn cars, or ignite a riot. These activities can then be blamed on the movement and used to destroy our reputation.

For example, the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstration in 1999 involved about 60,000 people, including a unique confluence of human rights activists, environmental activists, and labor activists. It also included several thousand activists who nonviolently blockaded the WTO conference site. They successfully delayed the WTO meeting from starting for a day and encouraged delegates from smaller countries to stand up to bullying by the major trade countries — these were major victories for the fair trade movement. But a small number of demonstrators — fewer than 50 — who set dumpster fires and trashed a Starbucks outlet got most of the publicity. These inflammatory scenes were aired relentlessly in order to discredit the movement. Now, a few years later, most of the public remembers the Seattle demonstration only for this turmoil — and remembers it with fear and anger.

Unintended Consequences

As this example shows, the unintended consequences of a poorly designed action that goes awry in this way are:

When I look at the history of the last 35 years, I see us suffering from the unintended consequences of the poorly designed demonstrations of 1967–71. For 35 years, we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to get our real message out and to distance ourselves from the image of “radicals in the ’60s” who “hated America” (disagreed with the policies of the power elite and burned US flags), “hated our troops” (criticized or spit on soldiers), or “supported the enemy” (visited Hanoi, chanted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”), “rioted” (damaged property or were beaten up by the police), or engaged in sabotage and terrorism (like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army). I hope we don’t have to spend the next 35 years trying to recover from poorly designed actions of today.

Components of Well-Designed Strategic Nonviolent Actions

To avoid these problems, well-designed strategic nonviolent actions include these components:

A usual long-range goal is to build the movement until it includes the vast majority of people so that we can democratically transform society (not a tiny minority of us trying to impose our will on others). A usual strategy is to make the movement clearly positive, honest, democratic, cooperative, and reasonable and contrast that with the power elite’s negativity, dishonesty, dictatorial control, oppression, and exploitation. Even though we may engage in illegal behavior, we want to make it very clear that we are not criminals, thugs, or self-righteous attention-seekers (instead, we want to reveal that members of the power elite are criminals, thugs, and self-righteous attention-seekers). The best actions make it abundantly clear through the action itself that we are good guys and the power elite are behaving reprehensibly. For example, in the South in the 1960s Black people politely lined up to register to vote and the white police beat them up for doing so — this action made it abundantly clear that the Black folks were good guys. The changes they were demanding were eminently reasonable — in fact, they were commendable.

Well-designed actions expose the myths that enable the power elite to garner support from the public. These actions reveal the ugly reality to the public so that people will withdraw their support and actively resist the elite. The best actions do this in a clear, unambiguous way in which the message cannot be distorted (best if it can be conveyed in a single image without having to use any words).

Also, good actions are often designed in such a way that a repressive response would generate unfavorable publicity that would threaten the power of the elite, thus forcing them to tread lightly and treat us well. For example, though draping folded-paper peace cranes over a war memorial without permission is illegal, the authorities are less likely to arrest us if doing so would generate massive unfavorable publicity for them.

Other Components

Good actions also often include:

Well-designed strategic nonviolent actions that include these components can bring about far-reaching progressive change. But poorly conceived actions with critical flaws can fall far short of their potential.

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