by Tom HastingsJune 22, 2022
As Covid emerged in 2020 and altered our lifestyles, some of us who offer nonviolent movement trainings in the United States became aware of the anti-Covid vaccine, anti-health mask campaign launched across the Canadian border, in Ottawa. The campaign spread somewhat to the U.S. North, notably resulting in a trucker blockade in February 2022 at the Ambassador bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario with Detroit, Michigan.
The phenomenon left many of us trainers asking such thorny questions as:
Below I discuss an historical precedent in the North American context that, I hope, will address these questions, while also highlighting the delicate ways that nonviolent trainers can navigate gray areas in their work. After all, nonviolent movements do not exist in an ethical or ideological vacuum.
In 1983, a court battle for the treaty rights of the Lake Superior bands of Chippewa (Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe) resulted in a legal victory for the Native American tribes. Almost instantly, a white backlash erupted and more than 90 percent of people in polls taken across the U.S. state of Wisconsin expressed opposition to the treaty rights and, more existentially, to the tribes.
Eventually, tribal members decided to exercise their treaty rights in limited ways that they felt would not alienate the majority of the state’s residents. They began select spearfishing, even though they also had treaty rights to certain species of trees, plants like wild rice, and other usufructuary rights throughout the ceded territories (the non-reservation lands that the tribes ceded to the United States in treaties of 1837, 1842, and 1854).
The backlash was ferocious. In 1986, it began with the “battle of Butternut Lake,” when a handful of native fisherpeople went spearfishing on an off-reservation lake and hundreds of white people showed up to confront, harass, and interfere with them. At that point the white opposition to Anishinaabe treaty rights was technically nonviolent but it became increasingly overtly racist and eventually violent.
At the beginning, even though I was involved with training allies who would witness and de-escalate opponents of treaty rights, I also let it be known that I would happily train opponents of treaty rights in nonviolent strategy, as long as they weren't using racist language and as long as they were committed to nonviolent discipline.
Yes, and to simplify my thinking at the time: Any party in a conflict who can be convinced to stick to nonviolent action and nonviolent discipline makes the entire conflict less violent, which is objectively a Good Thing.
Pretty much everyone scoffed at me, which is understandable. And since the anti-treaty campaign was overtly racist, I never did do any of those trainings.
So, what would we do in the case of the anti-vaccine/anti-mask truckers in Ottawa? Would we let them know that they were advocating for something with which a majority of their countrypeople disagreed? Would we advise them to simply abandon a struggle that they were clearly going to lose?
I would not personally offer to train an anti-vaccine/anti-mask campaign in anything unless organizers in those campaigns committed to ridding themselves of the symbols that would cause direct pain to the many who carry intergenerational trauma associated with those symbols.
But if they did commit to nonviolent discipline and rid themselves of those hurtful symbols, then their struggle would be legible as focused only on opposing Covid restrictions. As much as I would happen to disagree with them politically and scientifically, I would happily train them in whatever nonviolent strategy I find useful upon their agreement to my terms as a trainer.
There is no one right answer to the issues raised above. The whole debate comes down to positioning oneself, as a trainer, on the spectrum between ethical nonviolence as a system of beliefs, on the one hand, and nonviolent resistance as an action strategy—stripped of its moral connotations—on the other. Nonviolent action trainers must decide for themselves where they land on the spectrum, and why (so that they can explain it to others involved), then consistently apply their convictions in their work with movements.