The Art of Unarmed Uprising: to Change the Conversation

The Art of Unarmed Uprising

a review of Mark Engler and Paul Engler. This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century.(New York: Nation Books. 2016)

by John M Repp

The Engler brothers start their story with an account of the campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. The campaign was very carefully planned. The strategy was to create a public crisis and a media event using a combination of several nonviolent tactics like lunch-counter sit-ins, boycotts of merchants who displayed “whites only” signs, marches and the intention to fill the jails. Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of SCLC, expected someone would be killed from police repression. No one was. When their campaign succeeded, the activity of the civil rights movement exploded through the South. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination in public accommodations and hiring. The Engler’s call this the “legislative endgame”. It was the civil rights movement that changed the direction of our nation’s politics, and as we say now, “changed the conversation”.

The corporate mass media always portray popular uprisings as “spontaneous” and “leaderless” but the Engler brothers write that the organizing of mass uprisings is an art. Mass uprisings can be “engineered”. To be honest, the dynamics of a mass uprising are subtle and complex and require sacrifice and escalation. Organizers of mass nonviolent uprisings seek conflict. They do not avoid conflict. Above all, a mass nonviolent uprising can be an effective alternative for armed struggle. The Engler brother’s narrative of Birmingham is one of many historical examples of mass momentum-driven uprisings, an approach to social change that is the main focus of their book.

A real value of this book is the distinction the Engler brothers draw between different movement approaches to social change. They assert that each approach is needed. Each is appropriate at different times and places and that confusion, or worse, competition between the different approaches is a cause of movement weakness. When one approach is seen as the best or the only effective approach and the others are put down, social movements can fracture.

Here are the three approaches. 1) There is the mass momentum-driven nonviolent uprising like the mass movement that erupted after the success in Birmingham, the spreading of sit-down strikes all over the U.S. after the Flint sit-down strike of late 1936 and early 1937 and the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. 2) There is structure-based organizing like Alinsky-style community organizing or the union movement that was able to consolidate collective bargaining in the wake of the sit-down strikes. The unions, their bargaining and their political efforts were able to compress the wage-gap in the U.S. for 50 years, creating the “middle class”. Structure-based organizing is often hesitant to organize mass uprisings because the organization has bank accounts, employees, and carefully guarded relationships with key political players that they want to keep and not jeopardize. The Englers call SCLC a “hybrid organization” since it used both type 1 and 2 approaches. Finally, there is the third approach, 3) the alternative communities like the Quaker community or the counter-culture of the 1960’s. They attempt “to be the change they want to see” in society. Successful social change requires all three approaches, called “the ecology of change” by the brothers’ Engler.

Gandhi used all three over the course of his life. The Salt March was a momentum-driven uprising. The Congress Party was structure-based organizing. The ashram where he lived was an alternative, or pre-figurative community. (p.277)

There are limits to mass mobilizations as shown by the case of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Just a mass nonviolent uprising is not enough. A strong organization is needed to consolidate or institutionalize the demands and make the reforms. Movements have stages. “Mass mobilizations alter the terms of political debate and create new possibilities for progress; structure-based organizing helps take advantage of this potential and protects against efforts to roll back advances; and countercultural communities preserve progressive values, nurturing dissidents who go on to initiate the next waves of revolt.” (pp. 253-254)

There is a wonderful quote from MLK, Jr. about Gandhi that I wish the right-wing fundamentalist Christians could hear and understand: “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” (p.13, quoted from King’s Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story, 1958)

Similar to the confusion between the different approaches to social change is the confusion around the concept of “nonviolence”. It is usually considered to be a philosophy or a way of life, called “principled nonviolence”. That is the Fellowship of Reconciliation stance. But nonviolence is also a strategy for social change, often referred to as “strategic nonviolence”. When another of the key figures in the book, Gene Sharp, was reading about Gandhi’s movement of resistance to the British in 1930’s India, he learned that most of the participants did not “embrace nonviolence out of a sense of moral commitment. Instead, they chose to employ nonviolent struggle because they believed it worked.” (p.40) This finding was very troubling to Sharp at first, until he realized it was a great opportunity because it meant large numbers of people could be mobilized for a nonviolent campaign. If only people who believed in “principled nonviolence” participated, the direct actions would be small. This is the experience of many of FOR-led direct actions. But the Engler brothers and Gene Sharp are looking instead to mass momentum-based uprisings for their great power. FOR often organizes new groups like SNOW (Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War) that WWFOR started in Seattle in 2002 when the invasion of Iraq approached and there was a need for large movements.

This year the Mike Yarrow Peace Fellows were assigned this book. On the back cover, Michelle Alexander wrote “we have more power than we realize.” And Bill McKibben added that this book describes “a powerful method for making real change fast. And real change fast is in fact what our world requires.”

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