Strategy & Tactics

Nonviolent Tactics: How Anti-Vietnam War Activists Stopped Violent Protest from Hijacking Their Movement

by Robert Levering

Anti-Vietnam War rally at Washington Monument, Nov. 1969; courtesy npr.org

Only the Vietnam era protests match the size and breadth of the movement unleashed by the election of Donald Trump. One point of comparison: The massive march and rally against the Vietnam War in 1969 was the largest political demonstration in American history until the even more massive Women’s March on January 23. All around us we can see signs that the movement has only just begun. Consider, for instance, that a large percentage of those in the Women’s March engaged in their very first street protest. Or that thousands of protesters spontaneously flocked to airports to challenge the anti-Muslim ban. Or that hundreds of citizens have confronted their local congressional representatives at their offices and town hall meetings about the potential repeal of Obamacare and other Trump/Republican policies.

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Looking Back on the Milwaukee 14: An Interview with Jim Forest

by Dyllan Taxman

A drawing of Jim Forest in prison made by his son Ben, age six at the time, for his Sunday School class.

Editor’s Preface: Dyllan Taxman, an 8th grade student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was doing a research project for his history class and decided to look into an act of civil disobedience that had taken place in his city in September 1968. As Jim Forest has written, “The Vietnam War was raging. A group of fourteen people broke into nine draft boards that had offices side by side in a Milwaukee office building, put the main files into burlap bags, then burned the papers with homemade napalm in a small park in front of the office building while reading aloud from the Gospel. We awaited arrest, were jailed for a month, freed on bail, then tried the following year, after which we went to prison for more than a year; for most of us it was 13 months.” The interview was conducted in February 2006. Please see the note at the end for further information. JG

Dyllan Taxman: What made you do this?

Jim Forest: I had been in the military myself so didn’t have to worry about the draft, but as a draft counselor (a big part of my work with the Catholic Peace Fellowship) I was painfully aware of how thousands of young people were being forced to do military service in an unjust war about which they knew little or nothing, or even opposed. Anyone who knew the conditions for a just war could see this war did not qualify.

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Nonviolent Tactics: Some Reservations about Plowshares

by Jim Forest

Photograph of the Milwaukee 14 courtesy Jim Forest; details at the end of the article.

Editor’s Preface: Tactics define a protest, whether violent or nonviolent. They have been and are a matter of controversy and heated discussion within movements, as in the recent Occupy. Indeed, some would define nonviolence as a tactic, a definition not accepted by all. In the Catonsville Nine and the Milwaukee 14 protests the burning of draft files was seen by some as a justified means towards ending the Vietnam War, while others such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton saw it, at the very least, as a dangerous blurring of the line between violence and nonviolence. Jim Forest is here adding his word to this debate. We have also posted other articles concerning the definition of nonviolent tactics, especially Dorothy Day’s famous article, “Dan Berrigan in Rochester”, and the book review at this link of a recent history of the Catonsville Nine, which quotes Merton’s famous warning. JG

I was one of the Milwaukee 14, a group that burned draft records in 1968. This was the action that followed the Catonsville Nine. The discussion of Plowshares-style property damage and destruction in the November issue of The Catholic Agitator really got me thinking. One of the essential elements in property destruction actions is secrecy. If you tell them you’re coming, they won’t let you in. It’s that simple. The only way around it is to take pains not to be expected. You are obliged to be secretive. There are events in life where secrecy is necessary, even contexts in which life-saving actions are difficult or even impossible unless there is secrecy. For example here in Holland, my home since 1977, you had to be highly secretive about the people you were hiding during the period of German occupation.

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Sending a Mighty Message: The Waging Nonviolence Interview with James Lawson

by Nathan Schneider

Portrait of James Lawson courtesy Vanderbilt University, vanderbilt.edu

Editor’s Preface: James Lawson was one of the chief organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, especially of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins. Throughout his long career he has steadfastly emphasized the need to develop long-range nonviolent strategies, not just short-term tactics. Please see the note at the end for further information about Lawson, Nathan Schneider, links, and acknowledgments. JG

Nathan Schneider: For activists trying to reclaim people’s power among all the powerful corporations at work today, what do you think can be learned from the civil-rights movement? What are the lessons from your experience?

James Lawson: Well, I think that the main thing that activists must learn is nonviolent philosophy, methodology, techniques, and strategy. They need to work from an investigation and assessment of their local base, determining thereby the skills and techniques that will organize and mobilize people in that local scene. No social movement is going to take place if it doesn’t have roots in what’s going on in Cleveland, Ohio, or Washington, DC, or right across Georgia. That’s how movements take place, and that’s how movements have taken place in the United States—not by national policy, but by local groups assessing their own scene and trying to be real about how to start working.

At the local level, people need to get some processes going that will cut down the sales of certain companies and corporations and begin to send a mighty message. It may not be possible to do that in the first year, but I’d be willing to wager that steady organizing around something specific would begin to have an impact. That’s the first task.

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The Spirituality of Nonviolence: The Soka Gakkai International Quarterly Interview with James Lawson

by SGI Quarterly

Painting by Charlotta Janssen based on mug shots of James Lawson after his arrest for a nonviolent protest in Jackson, Mississippi; courtesy charlottajanssen.com

Interviewer’s Preface: In the late 1950s, James Lawson moved to Tennessee as southern secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he began training students in Nashville in nonviolent direct action. Prior to that, he had spent a year in jail as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and had also trained in nonviolence at various Gandhian ashrams in India. Described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “one of the foremost nonviolence theorists,” Rev. Lawson, now in his 80s, still remains a vibrant voice for social justice. SGI

SGI Quarterly: Do you remember a particular moment after you became involved in the Civil Rights Movement when you felt afraid?

James Lawson: I recall a number of moments of fear. But, I should say to you that those are isolated moments, and that from the beginning of my involvement character requirements froze out any fear. I was going to finish my graduate degree and then probably move south to work in the movement. I had spent three years in India, 1953-56, and then came back to Ohio for graduate school. I shook hands with Martin Luther King for the first time on February 6, 1957. By then I had been practicing and studying Gandhian nonviolence for ten years. And so as we met and talked, he said I should come south immediately. I said to him, “OK, I’ll come just as soon as I can,” which meant that I dropped out of graduate school and moved. There was no fear in making that move.

I don’t recall a single moment as I traveled around the South that I was frightened or fearful. And as we began the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, I wasn’t aware of any moment of fear there either. I was expelled from the university and was made the target of many public attacks.

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Seven Reflections on the Enigma of a “Nobody” Making a Public Display

by William J. Jackson

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing Los Angeles Rams in NFL game; courtesy Getty Images

(1) New forms of nonviolent protest, and renewed uses of old forms, are in the headlines; the kneel-in, for example, a protest that has recently spread among athletes. Many people are not aware of the history and the philosophy involved. Not knowing the background, some critics misunderstand and grow angry. Even the liberal and usually knowledgeable Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called the kneel-in “dumb” and “disrespectful.” (Soon thereafter she took it back: “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”) Many people seem unable to put kneel-ins in a historical perspective. So I feel it might help deepen our understanding to look into the background, the meanings, and intentions of some of these practices. Maybe being better informed could help critics comprehend what is happening. (1)

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Book Review: A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works

by David M. Craig

Dustwrapper art courtesy zedbooks.co.uk

Reflecting on the writer’s internal struggle between the sense of futility and the need to persevere, the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald described the “test of a first-rate intelligence [as] the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (1) Stellan Vinthagen’s book, A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works (London: Zed Books, 2015), passes a similar judgment on Mohandas Gandhi. Even if Gandhi resisted the “Great Soul” title of Mahatma, his genius included a capacious imagination and experimental creativity that not only embraced opposed ideas, but also put them into action simultaneously. Some of the contradictions in Gandhi’s nonviolence are familiar. His aspiration for spiritual purification could sometimes conflict with his political strategizing. The nonviolent resister’s opposition to oppressive rules and roles stands in tension with solicitude for the people who support and benefit from the status quo. Vinthagen multiplies the contradictions inherent in nonviolent action, interpreting them as “a creative tension, a dynamic that gives nonviolence its social ‘force.’” (Vinthagen, 321)

Vinthagen’s original contribution is to map out these tensions in a general sociological theory of nonviolent action. For Vinthagen, Gandhi is the primary source and theorist for all discussions of nonviolence, but he also draws Gandhi outside of his historical context and religious identity. A good illustration is Vinthagen’s disagreement over the role and significance of suffering in nonviolence. Gandhi links suffering (tapasya) to a Hindu ideal of renunciation. In his re-reading of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi exhorts everyone to follow the sannyasi’s practice of renunciation and always renounce the fruits of one’s actions. In place of personal goals, right action aspires to Truth. The clearest sign that devotion to Truth has displaced personal goals is a person’s openness to suffering even to the point of losing one’s life.

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Columbian Nonviolence Group 40 Years On

by Stephan Brües

Youths in Ecuador painting peace symbols; courtesy wagingnonviolence.org

Editor’s Preface: We have previously posted, from the War Resisters’ International archive, two historical articles about nonviolent resistance in Latin America, which can be accessed at this link. This article updates the information, and the struggle. Please consult the Editor’s Note at the end for further biographical information and acknowledgments. JG

Blas Garcia Noriega, a small man who wears glasses, is thoughtful and vivid, especially when he talks about his activities with Servicio Paz y Justicia, or SERPAJ. Founded 40 years ago in Medellin, Colombia, SERPAJ promotes nonviolent resistance and peaceful conflict resolutions throughout Latin America.

“SERPAJ is not an NGO, but a social movement,” Garcia said. “We are doing big things with little resources.” In words like these, it is possible to hear the challenges of this kind of work and the pride he takes in doing it. Peace activists like Garcia who oppose all forms of violence — whether from the state, guerrillas, drug sellers or militias — are caught between many armed groups in Colombia.

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Firmezza Permanente: Nonviolence in Central America

by Matt Meyer

Book jacket art courtesy wipfandstock.com

Editor’s Preface: The following, previously unpublished essay was presented to the Alternative Defense Commission, as part of the War Resisters’ International Peace Education Project, c. 1987. It continues our series of discoveries from the WRI archive.  Please see the notes at the end for acknowledgment, archival reference, and biographical information about the author. JG

To many western activists it may seem that revolution and nonviolence are clear contradictions. Nonviolence is often seen as passive, utopian, naive, or as a bourgeois luxury that we in the West arrogantly urge upon our Central American sisters and brothers. However, revolutionary nonviolence is not passive, reformist, or romantic. It is a powerful means of social change, which confronts the roots of militarism; its use in Central America has often been ignored.

Western pacifists may well be challenged about their commitment to nonviolence even in the war zones of Central America. “What do you know?” someone might ask. What we know, and what we believe history has taught us, is that revolution is a long process, with many difficult questions and no easy answers. We know that to strive for an end to war, we must first struggle for the elimination of the causes of war, including racism, sexism, class structures, and imperialism. We know that any revolution, including nonviolent revolution, will suffer bloodshed and innocent casualties, and we continue to experiment with diverse forms of resistance to minimize bloodshed and maximize lasting social change. Above all, we know that we cannot begin to talk about nonviolent revolution until we place ourselves firmly in solidarity with those already in revolutionary struggles throughout the world.

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Nonviolent Program to Stop Napalm Production

by Stop Napalm Production Subcommittee 

Napalm protest, 1966, photo by Harvey Richards; courtesy hrmediaarchive.estuarypress.com

Editor’s Preface: The Quaker Action Group convened a meeting in January of 1967 to discuss a nonviolent strategy for protesting the use of napalm in the Vietnam War. The two documents posted here in succession are unpublished internal memos outlining a strategy against Dow Chemical, the principle manufacturer of the deadly weapon. Among the members of the subcommittee were George Lakey, Lawrence Scott, and George Willoughby. These documents are especially noteworthy for their adherence to several Gandhian nonviolent civil disobedience principles, especially studying the opponent, and determining the weak point. They are another in our series of discoveries from the War Resisters’ International archive. Please see the note at the end for archival reference and acknowledgment. JG

You sit down to write a nice, dispassionate report on what napalm is. The paper is there, the pencils; all the facts you need to demonstrate the horror of this weapon. And you read this (New York Times, December 10, 1967):

“It comes premixed and packaged in thin-skinned aluminum tanks. There are three sizes of which the largest, a tank of 120 gallons weighing 800 pounds, and ten feet long and about three feet in diameter at its thickest point is most frequently used . . . About 1,500 tons of napalm are dropped in an average month in South Vietnam . . . Unlike conventional bombs most tanks of napalm are not provided with fins. Instead of spinning, they tumble, spreading the flaming fuel over an area in open country of about 150 feet along the path of the plane and about 50 feet wide.”

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi