Strategy Nonviolence in America
THE LEXINGTON police arrested more than 300 residents of that affluent suburb and of neighboring Concord early one Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago. The townspeople had joined members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in a peaceful sit-in near the Minuteman statue on Lexington town green. When the "bust" came, the demonstrators lined up patiently and politely for the buses to carry them away for processing. Most of them were released after they paid a %5 park violation fine; charges of disorderly conduct were dropped. For many of the residents this was their first act of civil disobedience, and they spoke of it as a victory in very personal as well as official, political terms.
Of course the Lexington sit-in seems mild in comparison to May day in Washington. But significantly, both demonstrations claim to belong to the class of nonviolent actions, the tactic which Gene Sharp discusses in Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives. The book is a starting-point for a systematic study of the possibilities for nonviolence in political conflicts. Although not terribly well-written, it is a provocative monograph, presenting some interesting ideas which might easily be developed and applied by activist groups in this country.
SHARP, a CFIA fellow, describes nonviolence as a "power relying on noncooperation, intervention, and nonviolent moral courage." Specific actions include marches, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, and obstructions. Nonviolence is based on the idea that the system needs the cooperation of the people in order to exert control over them. If the people by their own will decide to withdraw that cooperation, Sharp reasons, then the system must topple.
Inherent to this theory is Sharp's satisfying conclusion that the impetus for action must reside in the people, making nonviolence a kind of grass roots movement. It depends on widespread participation, for, as Sharp explains, with the leaders extremely vulnerable to arrest, the citizens must be committed enough to carry out the action on their own.
Sharp divides the applications of his strategic theory between domestic and international conflicts. Although one wishes that he had spent more time discussing the tactics of minority groups and of the antiwar movement in this country, his international proposals are certainly intriguing.
Sharp begins with the premise that it is desirable to get the United States and other large powers out of entangling defense pacts with weaker nations. The way to do this, he suggests, is to provide every country with a way of defending itself against aggressor nations. Obviously, nonviolent civilian defense is less costly and thus more suitable than military defense. Sharp assumes throughout this discussion that a weak country is being invaded by a tyrant nation which must be resisted by the citizens. What he unfortunately fails to explain, however, is how this theory would apply to Vietnam and a war of self-determination.
The domestic applications involve slightly different situations, and although Sharp never really develops the use of his theory here, it can be inferred from his explanation of the invasion model. In the domestic cases, the opposition is an established system, the status quo, rather than a new invader. Perhaps the most important result of this difference is that changing domestic conditions, because of their long-term nature, will seem far less urgent than fighting an outside aggressor.
AND YET, as Sharp shows throughout his examples, persistence is the key to success. The nonviolent demonstrators must live their action daily, often for long periods of time, as did Gandhi's followers in India. They must sustain a picket line or a boycott much longer than the few hours of a Lexington sit-in or the few days of a Washington demonstration. The action becomes their primary purpose in life; they cannot go home and resume normal activity until the next demonstration, as do the American antiwar protesters. Sharp demands a full-time commitment which thus far in this country has only been produced in rare cases-notably the black civil rights activities and the grape strike.
Although the grape strike is unusual for the length of time over which it was sustained, in its format it is also quite typical of nonviolent activities in America. True, the participants lived the strike daily, refusing to buy or to eat non-union grapes. But the grape strike was never a large part of our lives. It was a popular and highly visible cause which never demanded full-time participation. We could forget about it once we passed the grape counter at the super market.
It is this aspect of the grape strike and of American participation which Sharp misses. He fails to recognize that the pattern of nonviolent activity in this country involves either a long-term partial commitment or an extremely short-term full commitment, as in the few hours of a demonstration. The instances of complete devotion to a cause are rare here, perhaps because, as it is popular to suggest, we are a selfish, private people. But perhaps also because we have come to expect instant results to our actions. In a country where we can pick up a telephone rather than wait for a letter, where we can consult a computer for the results of an election minutes after the polls close, it becomes difficult to understand that political actions will have a delayed rather than an immediate effect.
Sharp suggests that the population will have to be educated to understand the uses of nonviolent tactics. But Sharp never recognizes that Americans will need a cultural re-education before they will be able to accept the delayed effectiveness of nonviolent activities. Without this understanding of America's instant culture it is hard to see how any program for large-scale nonviolence could ever succeed in this country.
Still, Sharp's book is valuable as an introduction to the theory of nonviolence. A friend told me that when the May day demonstration left the steps of the Justice Department there were three copies of Sharp's book lying on the ground. Too bad there weren't more.