Before I begin, I want to put in a plug for the Bemidji Library because I happened upon this book there and I am often amazed at the progressive array of books they seem to always have facing out on the displays. It’s pretty incredible how much I love the books I see as I walk through their aisles. I don’t recall ever being in a library where I feel more resonance with the displayed books than I do in the Bemidji Library. So thank you, Librarians! You’re making this library great for me.
As an activist, I often struggle to comprehend how things work or how to best move forward, and I frequently feel like I can never do enough. Change takes time. And sometimes, like when a company wants to build a tar sands pipeline through your watershed, for the river that supports a large part of your nation, you can feel like you’re running out of time. In This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, I found much solace, encouragement, and a feeling of empowerment.
This is an Uprising weaves itself around several examples through time, breaking down how the use of non-violent action has been, and is likely to remain, the best way to overcome oppressive governments and outdated cultural beliefs. It discusses how we make change by being courageous and standing up for our beliefs, even when we seem like the minority. In the end, we often find that people can be far more tolerant and open-minded as time progresses and we evolve as a society. And that they are most likely to see our way if we approach with a message of non-violence.
The book does a review of the two main strategies of structurally based organizations and movements and how a hybrid of the two can be most effective. The generally accepted founder of structural community organizing is Saul Alinsky, author of the 1971 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, considered by many to be the Bible for Activism. His work is contrasted with that of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward who co-authored the 1977 Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed, How they Fail. Movements are more fluid and free-forming, often making the bigger and/or faster steps forward, while structural organizations have the capacity to build the communities and administrative practices that allow groups to hold gains as they progress. The book’s discussion on the pillars that uphold the culture in our society depicts how they can be toppled in moving to a new evolution of our culture; one more tolerant and supportive of those whose voices were previously not being heard.
In fact, research done by Erica Chenoweth (University of Denver Professor of Political Science) and Maria Stephan (U.S. Department of State Strategic Planner) showed that nonviolent movements have been twice as likely to succeed as violent insurgencies. In fact, while violent insurgency may occasionally succeed, non-violent uprisings bring about more lasting and peaceful results. Old data claimed that if 5% of a population stood up, they could successfully challenge their government. Evaluating a database of social movements worldwide over the last 100+ years, Chenowith and Stephan discovered that a mere 3.5% of the population is needed to challenge it; no government can withstand a movement of this small size. In the United States, that would be 11 million people. Mass non-cooperation CAN bring change. Just ask Slobodan Milosevic. And by allowing people of diverse backgrounds an ability to participate, civil resistance, as opposed to physical violence, can more easily make peaceful and lasting change. Erica asks in her Tedx talk:
What if our history courses emphasized the decade of mass civil disobedience that came BEFORE the Declaration of Independence, rather than the war that came after? What if our social studies textbooks emphasized Ghandi and King in the first chapter, rather than as an afterthought? What if every child left elementary school knowing more about the Suffragist Movement than they did about the Battle of Bunker Hill?
This takes us to the ideas of the Pillars of Support. Education is one of the key pillars supporting our culture. If we change how we educate, the focus of cultural knowledge changes, ideas of how things work expand. Other pillars include Media and Religion. When the Media finally broke the stories on Standing Rock, the movement gained recognition, validation, and a mass influx of new funding and supporters. Subsequent to the camp being dismantled, several new camps have arisen, carrying on the cause. Standing Rock is like a plant that, having blossomed and sent out its seeds, created exponential growth in its influence by recreating itself many times over.
The Marriage Equality Movement was greatly helped as Religions continued to incorporate more ideals around the acceptance of people without regard to their sexual orientation. Once the old bias of the faithful against homosexuality had become less and less acceptable, the numbers of people supporting legislation for gay marriage overwhelmed those who continued with the old tenets of intolerance.
Other pillars are more coercive and controlling: the Police, the Courts, and the Military. These groups are made up of individuals who, when faced with immoral and violent acts against peaceful protesters, will likely side with the resistance, rather than the oppressors for whom they work. In order for an Empire to maintain control over its citizens, they must be obedient… and the powers that be rely on the above three groups to maintain obedience. Any action to upset the status quo be must be quelled.
Interestingly, while Police and Military showed some support for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, it remains to be seen whether there will be successful civil suits filed in the Courts against the likes of TigerSwan, a firm working security for Dakota Access without license in North Dakota.
Gene Sharp writes, “Obedience is at the heart of political power.” The book contends “And if popular disobedience is sufficiently widespread and prolonged, no regime can survive.”
In the second half of This is an Uprising, the focus is on how non-violent groups move forward successfully and the techniques and shortcomings that can cause efforts to backfire and/or lead to downfall. There are two major concerns that can derail movements, infiltration and violent disruption.
With regard to the temptation to turn to violence, Michael Albert, leftist activist warns:
It’s really quite simple. The state has a monopoly of violence. What that means is that there is no way for the public, particularly in the developed First World societies, to compete on the field of violence with their governments. That ought to be obvious. Our strong suit is information, facts, justice, disobedience, and especially numbers. Their strong suit is lying and especially exerting military power.
A contest of escalating violence is a contest we are doomed to lose. A contest in which numbers, commitment, and increasingly militant nonviolent activism confronts state power is a contest we can win.
Ghandi argued that to resort to violence is to “cooperate with the Government in the most active manner.” Which brings us to the other concern: infiltrators, or agent provocateurs. Did you know that a paid FBI informant supplied the first firearms to the Black Panthers?
A friend of mine has asked, when attending meetings of the new movements forming since the election of 45, “When will we be having training in non-violence?” She understands that, for a movement to succeed, the participants must be trained formally in civil resistance. Once emotion rises, it’s too easy to revert to violent response. Training is vital to developing skills needed to not succumb to reactionary tactics in the heat of the moment. For true success, there must be a total commitment to non-violence, and it must include training that practices with mock demonstrations. This is where the structured organizing tactics are critical as they have designated practices for bringing in new members. The Movement supplies the passion but the Organization administers the path to success.
Activists and concerned citizens alike will find this book a readable explanation of how non-violent civil resistance can bring about change. It may very likely give you hope a bit of for the future.