The tools of nonviolent action and the skills of struggle are as vital to these times as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Training to use them is as essential as learning how to use a computer. The ability to boycott and strike is as important as the ability to drive a car. Every citizen who knows how to use email should also know how to protest, walk-out, shut-down, occupy, blockade, and more. This is the only way the power of the people can hold the power of oligarchs in check.
Before the oligarchs concluded that the study of civics was detrimental to the longevity of their rule, every elementary student learned about checks-and-balances. Theoretically, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government were supposed to hold each other in balance. It was a reassuring fairy tale for the average citizen, but it never served the average citizen. This system of checks-and-balances merely held one oligarchic faction in check with the other. Nothing in the arrangement guaranteed that the government would be responsive to the ordinary peoples’ needs.
When oligarchs are the only ones who sit in Congress, occupy the Oval Office, and wield the judge’s gavel, then it is a government of, by, and for the oligarchs, responsive only to their elite interests … not to ours. This has been the case since the earliest days of the formation of the United States. The Founding Fathers must have suspected that the slogan, “a government of, by, and for rich, white men” wouldn’t produce the revolutionary fervor they needed to overthrow King George’s colonial rule. The phrase “of, by, and for the people” sounded far more inspiring to the thousands who waged struggle with mass acts of noncooperation, importation boycotts, civil disobedience of unjust British laws, and collective refusal to pay the Stamp Tax. Many more fought and died for an illusion of inclusion in the definition of “We, the People”. The history of the United States has been one long struggle for inclusion that continues to this very day.
If we learn nothing else from our history, we should know this: the tools of nonviolent struggle should never lose their edge, gather dust, or fall from active use among the people. To gain — and maintain — a true government of, by, and for the people, all 100% of us must grasp the considerable power of collective non-cooperation, disruption, and intervention. We must do so with regularity and with ferocity. Our own history of social justice illuminates this truth: women’s suffrage was only gained through the direct action of women, African-Americans gained functional rights and equality only when they organized; workers achieved wage increases only when unions and movements went on strike.
Maintaining the common use of the tools of nonviolent struggle can be aided by adding the legal right to use them to our laws. We need a second Bill of Rights that preserves not just the right to Speech, Assembly, and Petition, but also the right to organize, to strike, to form unions, to boycott unjust businesses, to engage in collective disobedience of unjust laws, and more. Such a Bill of Rights would make evident that the demonstrated “will of the People” is respected and viewed as a legitimate political force.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. Oligarchs are unlikely to enshrine anything that limits their power. However, the lack of such laws should not stop the populace from using nonviolent struggle. Indeed, in the history of global movements for change, the banning or prohibition of movement activity and dissident organizing has not stopped people from rising up for justice. Many movements have circumvented the laws in order to mobilize for change. Even in places where the knowledge of nonviolent struggle is banned, people have circulated important literature and workshops on how to wage struggle. In Chile, citizens met in small groups to train to overthrow the Pinochet regime. In the Philippines, the Catholic Church hosted the trainings. In other places, banned pamphlets were shared at great personal risk. In Soviet Bloc nations, hidden presses printed literature about nonviolent struggle clandestinely. As long as knowledge of nonviolent struggle is essential to social, political, and human rights, people will find ways to access it.
In the end, it is the people’s willingness to learn and use nonviolent struggle that ultimately liberates them. The absence of our willingness to use nonviolent struggle is what keeps us disenfranchised, disempowered, chained to the corrupt system, floundering for savior figures, and failing to achieve most of our social justice goals.
Currently, the US populace views nonviolent action as something unusual and out-of-the-ordinary. “Activists” are distinct from citizens. But if boycotts, strikes, walk-outs, and shut-downs became as common as calling your senator or signing a petition, we would rapidly and effectively win major social justice advances. Nonviolent struggle is not about pleading with politicians to do “the right thing”. It is not about voting the “right” people into power to do the right thing. It is about grasping the ability to non-cooperate, disrupt, and intervene in the activity of a society in pursuit of tangible changes for social justice.
Nonviolent struggle empowers the people to hold all aspects of their society accountable. Nonviolent action’s capacity to withdraw support, or disrupt systems of oppression, and intervene in injustice can target any institution, business, social practice or group, political party or policy, and cultural behaviors and beliefs.
Every meaningful advance for equality and justice in our nation’s history, beginning with our struggle for independence, has won because it mobilized mass numbers of people to cease their participation in life-as-usual. If we wish to see meaningful changes in our lifetime, we, too, must find the willingness to pick up the tools of nonviolent struggle and construct the world of our dreams.
The Man From the North is a fictional writer in Rivera Sun’s novel, The Dandelion Insurrection and the sequel, The Roots of Resistance. The novel takes place in the near future, in “a time that looms around the corner of today”, when a rising police state controlled by the corporate-political elite have plunged the nation into the grip of a hidden dictatorship. In spite of severe surveillance and repression, the Man From the North’s banned articles circulate through the American populace, reporting on resistance and fomenting nonviolent revolution. This article is one of a series written by The Man From the North, which are not included in the novel, but can be read here.
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