Stephen Zunes On A Power That Can Overthrow Dictatorships

by Terry Messman

Nonviolent movements have toppled dictators all over the globe, in Mali, Serbia, Poland, Bolivia, the Philippines, East Germany, Latin America, and Africa. During the Arab Spring, it became clear that the power of nonviolence to overthrow tyrannical governments is giving new hope — and new revolutionary strategies — to people around the world. Just as several unexpected and massive nonviolent uprisings have dealt serious blows to brutal regimes around the globe, several scholars and researchers have dealt equally serious blows to generations of military analysts and national-security studies.

In a pioneering effort to systematically compare success rates of violent and nonviolent social-change movements, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, authors of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, researched 323 social-change campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Their electrifying finding was that campaigns of nonviolent resistance are nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent uprisings.

Stephen Zunes c. 2012; photographer unknown

Their innovative research may have proven astonishing in the circles of international security and military analysts, but it was solid confirmation of the lifelong research into nonviolent resistance carried out by Stephen Zunes, an author and Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Zunes’s parents were active in the peace movement. His father was an Episcopal priest and his parents were involved, along with many Quaker peace groups, in challenging U.S. militarism. He grew up in a Christian milieu where there was a strong sense of individual commitment to peace and social justice. He then attended Quaker schools and later worked with a number of Quaker peace groups, including the Friends Peace Committee and the American Friends Service Committee. Yet, his scholarly research, writing and teaching about the history of nonviolent movements was sparked, in part, by his realization that the strategies and tactics of nonviolent resistance not only had value for principled pacifists, but also could be utilized as a pragmatic — and highly effective — approach to social change by people from all walks of life, no matter their ideology or belief system.

In an interview with Street Spirit, Zunes said, “In terms of nonviolence, I realized one can’t build a movement just by calling on people to embrace pacifism. But if people recognize the utilitarian advantages of nonviolent action, it would help build the kind of movement that could create real change. So, academically, I got very interested in studying the phenomenon of strategic nonviolent actions.”

Zunes approaches the study of nonviolent movements with the dedication of a scholar, and with the commitment of a longtime activist for social change. For the past 18 years, he has taught courses on nonviolent resistance, conflict resolution, U.S. foreign policy, and the politics of the Middle East at the University of San Francisco. His activism has even deeper roots, extending back to anti-Vietnam War and environmental campaigns when he was young, and leading on to nonviolent activism in his university days as an organizer in the anti-apartheid movement that demanded divestment from South Africa and an end to the apartheid regime. His commitment continues to the present day with his participation last year in several protests and marches with the Occupy movement in Oakland and San Francisco.

Zunes recently wrote that nonviolent action “is the most powerful political tool available to challenge oppression.” That rather remarkable assertion seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that nonviolent movements are nearly powerless when facing the technological firepower of military dictatorships willing to massacre unarmed protesters simply to hold onto power.

In a recent article, “Weapons of Mass Democracy,” Zunes stated his case persuasively. He wrote, “It was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People’s Army who brought down the U.S. backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime’s tanks, and the millions of others who brought greater Manila to a standstill.”

The power of nonviolent movements to overcome a military regime would turn all conventional wisdom about power and security on its head. Instead of power deriving from the guns and tanks and jet bombers and missiles of the military, power derives from the people. If the common people withdraw their cooperation and resist the powers that be with determination, resourcefulness, and courage, they have shown repeatedly in history that “people power” can make even the most powerful regime fail. “People power” became the inspiring name of the brave movement in the Philippines that overthrew the bloody dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Nonviolent movements succeed, not necessarily through the moral “conversion” of people at the top of society, but more by removing the cooperation of the masses of ordinary citizens — the common people who turn out to be essential to a government’s very survival.

In “Weapons of Mass Democracy,” Zunes also explains how this dynamic works in a nonviolent insurrection. “When millions of people defy official orders by engaging in illegal demonstrations, going out on strike, violating curfews, refusing to pay taxes, and otherwise refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the state, the state no longer has power.”

Many times in the past few decades, an all-powerful dictator or military regime has been vanquished almost overnight by a nonviolent movement that seemingly emerged out of nowhere — or so it appeared. But that is because the mainstream media often only shows up at the very last climactic moment in a confrontation that may have been taking shape for years, or decades.

In his book, Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective, Zunes and his co-authors offer highly insightful case studies that analyze how nonviolent movements actually have arisen in the Middle East, North Africa, the Philippines, Thailand, East Germany, Poland, Nigeria, Burma and Latin America. In many of these countries, a large and unexpected movement seems to have succeeded in wresting power from a dictator in an astonishingly short period of time. But, upon further investigation, the uprising in question was often prepared over a period of many years with patient, nearly invisible forms of community organizing, nonviolent training, union organizing, workers cooperatives, student mobilizations, and many other forms of “people power.”

The uprising in the Philippines remains a very instructive example. The successful overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986 was seemingly accomplished in a matter of weeks by a dramatic outburst of yellow-clad protesters chanting “People Power.” Marcos arrogantly tried to steal an election from Cory Aquino. He ordered his troops to massacre nonviolent protesters of his despotic rule. But a nonviolent rebellion by hundreds of thousands of protesters succeeded in overthrowing Marcos, and the dictator fled into permanent exile.

The world remembers an amazingly quick victory over a dictator. Yet, in his book,  Nonviolent Social Movements, Zunes conducts a more thoughtful and careful analysis of events leading up to the ouster of Marcos. In the chapter, “The Origins of People Power in the Philippines,” he documents the fact that the foundation of people power in the Philippines was built over years by systematic training sessions in nonviolent resistance methods. Two years before the overthrow of Marcos in 1986, Philippine opposition leaders stepped up the extent of nonviolent training sessions dramatically, and also launched a series of nonviolent actions: general strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, marches, massive rallies, and other forms of protest.

Through the latter half of 1984 and all of 1985, these localized actions built the base for people power. Major urban areas were paralyzed: union and workers’ strikes, walkouts by professionals, student boycotts, and huge demonstrations temporarily shut down several cities and stopped major industries in their tracks.

These actions simultaneously built up the organizing capacity of grass-roots citizens, raised the consciousness of the general public about the abuses of the Marcos regime, and also gave those involved greater confidence that they could confront such a powerful dictatorship. These protest actions across the country nearly amounted to a people’s university education in the art of nonviolent insurrection.

Just a few examples from Zunes’ careful analysis may cast light on how grass-roots activists in the Philippines actually built up people power, step by step:

  • In December 1984, thousands of Filipinos took over the streets in Bataan, and shut down 80 percent of the transportation in the whole province.
  • In February 1985, trade unions in Mindanao held a one-day general strike that brought factories to a standstill. The union activists had mobilized an astounding 140,000 workers involving 187 unions.
  • Building on this momentum, in May 1985, a massive “people’s strike” paralyzed two-thirds of Mindanao island, as acknowledged even by the Philippines’ military leaders. At the same time, tens of thousands of people held marches, demonstrations and erected barricades.
  • On 18-20 June, 1985, a people’s strike of 10,000 people rallied against the government’s nuclear power industry. A simultaneous strike by transport workers shut down bus lines leading to Manila and halted transportation in 9 of 11 major towns in the province. Also, classes were suspended due to a massive student boycott, and thousands of workers organized their own general strike. For nearly three days, a well-organized, nonviolent movement paralyzed business as usual in the entire province and built up a powerful anti-nuclear campaign.

In the same period, International Fellowship of Reconciliation activists began holding systematic nonviolent training for Catholic and Protestant church leaders and members, giving lessons in strategic nonviolent actions capable of resisting a dictatorship. Zunes writes: “An estimated 1,500 people took part in these seminars, many lasting three full days, including people who would become major figures in the February 1986 uprising.” All these sustained training sessions, people’s strikes, and massive organizing efforts were crucial in building the movement of people power that eventually forced Marcos into exile in 1986.

Zunes has shown how this legacy of nonviolent training is now being spread around the globe. He writes that people are learning how to resist oppression and foreign occupation in far-flung regions of the world, from the “Western Sahara to West Papua to the West Bank.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are also posting today Terry’s interview with Prof.  Zunes. Please see the Editor’s Note at the end of the interview for further information about Stephen Zunes and Terry Messman.

“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