by Amber FrenchJune 26, 2017
What sparked your interest in civil resistance? What does it mean for you in your life, and for the lives of others? And why does it matter for understanding the state of the world today?
It would be impossible to answer these questions in one, or even a few blog posts. But as Minds of the Movement Co-Editor, my goal for this blog is to help you trace your own civil resistance journey through the knowledge and experience our bloggers share — and perhaps become even more committed, and effective, at living that journey.
To get things started, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts about what sparked my interest in civil resistance. Since joining ICNC in 2014, I’ve met activists who dedicated their lives to a nonviolent movement to abolish slavery in Mauritania. I’ve met a journalist who began campaigning against the death penalty in Singapore after volunteering for a citizen journalism site to help film an interview about the issue. I’ve encountered a member of the Tibetan diaspora whose father, a renowned translator and advocate for Tibetan self-determination, inspired him to pursue an activist and NGO career in support of this civil resistance struggle.
But most people I’ve met through my work can’t really pinpoint the beginning of their civil resistance journey—much less a watershed event. At some point in life, they just felt compelled—as members of a community, citizens of a country, or simply as human beings momentarily alive on this planet—to study protest, hit the streets, and/or advocate for a people power lens in their line of work.
From a professional standpoint, the seed that led me eventually to work in this field was planted sometime in high school. I remember several dinner table conversations with a close friend’s father, Chris Aberle, a public defender in New Orleans, Louisiana. Chris had helped win the release of Robert King, a black man who had been held in prison—in solitary confinement—for decades for a racially motivated murder conviction that was unsupported by any evidence. Along with two other inmates, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace of what became known as the “Angola 3”, Robert King for years helped organize inmate hunger and work strikes to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrendous abuse at the Angola State Penitentiary.
The story of the Angola 3 aroused within me a sense of outrage. I was aware of the grave injustices that black people in the U.S. South experience. But hearing about King's case from my friend’s father—who in 2016 also helped win the release of Albert Woodfox after 40 years of solitary confinement, longer than anyone else ever in the United States—brought it closer to home.
Throughout my studies in international relations, I learned about how governments and international bodies shaped world affairs. Civil society and other sources of people power came up from time to time, but I mostly recall writing papers about “States” with a capital “S,” like we students of international relations often do. I always had a nagging feeling that something was missing from a primarily top-down understanding of power, and of how the world works (or more accurately, doesn’t “work”).
When I first saw the term “nonviolent conflict” on an ICNC job posting, I admit I let out a chuckle. Then I started reading up on what the term meant, and it hit me: People power… of course, there’s more to “power” in the world than UN resolutions and “States” waging war against each other. Ordinary citizens have innate agency, both as individuals and in numbers, to achieve rights, justice and freedom—without violence, and outside of formal institutions. People, with a capital “P.” That’s what happened in India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and so many other great historical events I learned about throughout my studies.
And that’s what continues to happen in communities and countries around the world today, as you will see chronicled by our bloggers in the coming months and years.