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Mass Action: some background information
from Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies
by Kurt Schock
Earlier this year, leader
of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai,
said that "a broad-based alliance of democratic forces"
was "putting the final touches to a comprehensive programme
of rolling mass action designed to push the regime to the long awaited
negotiated settlement." To help you determine how realistic
Tsvangirai's calls for mass action are, our electronic activism
campaign discusses lessons from Unarmed Insurrections: People Power
Movements in Nondemocracies by Kurt Schock.
Using the struggle to
end Apartheid in South Africa as an example we observe that social
and political transformation occurs only after a sustained period
of challenge in which multiple forms of resistance are engaged.
and 1990 activists in South Africa used at least twelve different
tactics within major campaigns aimed at challenging the entrenched
power of the white regime.
Nonviolent Action Campaigns and Events in South Africa, 1983 -
to launch the UDF
demonstrations and rallies in opposition of the Whites-only
referendum on political reform
in support of election boycott
of Tricameral Parliament Elections
of British consulate
in support of occupiers of British consulate
structures of people power
of American consulate
of local elections
disobedience of segregation laws
"unbanning" of itself
Two basic conditions
must be met for a challenge to contribute to political transformations:
(1) the challenge must be able to withstand repression, and (2)
the challenge must undermine state power.
Generally, when the interests
of political authorities are threatened, repression is used as a
means to control or eliminate the challenge. Unlike democracies,
where dissent is expected and tolerated, nondemocratic regimes cannot
simply ignore protest, as its mere existence represents a threat
to the regime. If protest is ignored, the regime will appear helpless
in the face of defiance, and resistance will spread. Thus, those
engaging in overt challenges to nondemocratic regimes should expect
a violent response by the government.
The organizational template
most useful for challenging the state through nonviolent action
in repressive contexts is network-oriented rather than hierarchical.
Compared to hierarchical organized challenges, network-organized
challenges are more flexible, are more adept at expanding horizontal
channels of communication, are more likely to increase the participation
and commitment of members and the accountability of leaders, are
more likely to innovate tactically, and are more likely to weather
The more diverse
the tactics and methods implemented, the more diffuse the state's
repressive operations become, thus potentially lessening their effectiveness.
Protest and persuasion help overcome apathy, acquiescence, and fear.
Noncooperation undermines the legitimacy, resources and power of
the state, and the collective withdrawal of cooperation from the
state promotes cooperation and empowerment among the oppressed.
of protest and persuasion are largely symbolic expressions, with
communicative content intended to persuade the opponent, or to produce
an awareness of the existence of injustices and the extent of dissent.
Examples include protest demonstrations, marches, political funerals,
rallies, symbolic public acts, and protest meetings. Protest and
persuasion are important in that they may help aggrieved populations
overcome acquiescence and the fear of repression, and provide them
with social visibility while alerting third parties to an unjust
situation. However in some contexts, some methods of protest and
persuasion have become more or less institutionalised and therefore
they may not necessarily provide a direct and immediate challenge
to the power of the state.
Methods of noncooperation
involve the deliberate withdrawal, restriction, or defiance of expected
participation or cooperation. These methods, which may be social,
economic, or political, are intended to undermine the power, resources,
and legitimacy of the government. Social noncooperation involves
refusal to carry out normal social relations through means such
as social boycotts, social ostracism, student strikes, stayaways,
and offering sanctuary to dissidents.
consists of the suspension of existing economic relationships or
refusal to initiate new ones through means such as labour strikes
or slowdowns; economic boycotts; refusal to pay rent, debts or interest;
and the collective withdrawal of bank deposits. Political noncooperation
involves refusal to continue usual forms of political participation.
A common type of political noncooperation is civil disobedience,
that is, the open and deliberate violation of laws or orders for
a political purpose such as the publication of banned newspapers
or pamphlets and refusal to pay taxes, participate in the military,
or obey orders of state agents.
the biggest challenges that Zimbabweans face in addressing issues
of state injustice is fear.
State violence or the
threat of violence makes just about any social movement activity
in a nondemocratic context costly and high-risk. It is important
that we learn from past liberation struggles. In six cases of unarmed
insurrections (South Africa, Burma, China, Nepal, Thailand and the
Philippines) people did overcome their fear, break their habitual
patterns of obedience, and risk their lives against repressive regimes.
To examine what they did or did not do and to attempt to learn from
their struggles seems like the most appropriate way to honor their
and limited goals
According to Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, one of the
principles of strategic nonviolent conflict is to formulate functional
objectives. The goals of movements should be well chosen, clearly
defined, and understood by all parties to the conflict. The goals
should be compelling and vital to the interests of the challenging
group, and they should attract the widest possible support, both
within society and externally. As Ackerman and Kruegler state, "The
concept of 'freedom' is inspiring to millions. As an
ultimate strategic objective, though, it is not highly functional
because it lacks specificity. The legalisation of independent trade
unions (Poland in 1980), on the other hand, is the very model of
a clear and functional objective". Precise goals give direction
to the power activated by a movement and inhibit the dispersion
of mobilized energies and resources. Moreover, clear goals enable
a movement to accurately gauge the extent to which its actions are
bringing about the desired change, thus permitting an alteration
in its actions if necessary. The more focused the goals of the challenging
movement, the greater the likelihood of success.
- A return to multiparty democracy in Nepal and the Philippines
- Abolishing Apartheid in South Africa
- A more liberal constitution and the removal of an unelected general
from office in Thailand
methods of nonviolent action
There are a number of reasons why challengers should attempt to
expand their repertoires of nonviolent action. The struggle in China,
for example, was almost entirely limited to the occupation of Tiananmen
Square, and the outcome of the challenge hinged on whether the occupation
and hunger strike persuaded the government to give in to some of
the challenger's demands. Struggles for political change should
not depend on a single event, however momentous, but rather should
focus on the process of shifting the balance of political power
through a range of mutually supporting actions over time.
Methods of protest and
persuasion or disruptive nonviolent intervention by themselves are
rarely sufficient to promote political change. Methods of protest
and persuasion may be effective in mobilizing members of the aggrieved
population and the support of third parties, but they are less effective
in directly undermining state power unless used in tandem with methods
of noncooperation. Noncooperation through the use of strikes, stayaways
and boycotts in South Africa were crucial in undermining state power.
spaces and places of resistance
As Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler state, "In almost
all cases, wide dispersion of nonviolent actions, both geographically
[place] and throughout the social and political environment [space]
. . . compromise the opponents' ability to respond and diminish
their overall control". The more spaces and places challenged,
the greater the likelihood of the struggles remaining resilient
and undermining state pressure. Obviously there is a high degree
of risk associated with public protests in nondemocracies. On the
one hand, protest may be necessary to mobilize a challenge and discredit
the regime, yet on the other hand, such behaviour is an easy target
for repression and may result in imprisonment or death for the challengers.
Since activists should
not expect a government response other than violence, the greater
their ability to "stay out of harm's way," the
greater their likelihood of sustaining the challenge. In other words,
repression is to be expected, but steps may be taken to limit its
reach and impact. Considerations of space and place should underlie
decisions about whether methods of concentration or dispersion should
be implemented. Methods of concentration, in which a large number
of people are concentrated in a public space (e.g., protest demonstrations,
sit-ins), provide challengers the opportunity to build solidarity,
highlight grievances, indicate the extent of dissatisfaction, and,
if the state responds with repression, expose the fact that the
state is based on violence rather than legitimacy. However, if the
political elite is not divided, the military is coherent, and the
state prepared to use decisive repression against the movement,
methods that minimize the effects of repression must be implemented.
Methods of dispersion, in which cooperation is withdrawn, such as
strikes and boycotts, do not provide the state with tangible targets
for repression and may overextend the state's repressive capacities.
Communication is vital to the success of unarmed struggles; communication
among challengers, accurate public knowledge about the movement,
and international media coverage all increase the likelihood of
success (Martin and Varney 2003). According to Peter Ackerman and
Christopher Kruegler, "Swift and accurate communications are
also necessary to authenticate instructions, to counter enemy propaganda,
and generally to inform and bolster the fighting forces. Communications
to the world outside the conflict are no less important, with images
carried by print and broadcast media playing a key role in interpreting
the conflict for outsiders and in motivating third party involvement".
Thus communication is important within the movement for coordinating
and aggregating the struggle, and it is important for events, especially
acts of state repression, to be accurately reported to a broader
Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies
by Kurt Schock
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