by Nadine BlochMarch 15, 2022
Last month I offered commentary on the new publication Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century (“CRT21”, ICNC Press, 2021) by Michael Beer. My review provided a quick synopsis and some top-line thoughts about Beer’s service to the civil resistance community by updating and recategorizing Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent action (1973).
Beer recognizes that civil resistance encompasses a vast array of human behaviors. Indeed, there is a large space on the spectrum of conflict between “being powerless” and “engaging in violence”. That distance houses a diverse range of civil resistance tactics, which in my experience form the most powerful way to make transformative positive change for the long haul. Though violent action can certainly have direct and immediate impacts, it is defined by destruction and harm. In contrast, human agency and creativity are unbounded by those limits. So, when it comes to producing an anatomy of civil resistance, it truly takes a village… and the frontiers continue to expand.
In that vein, I want to share some ideas—drawing from my personal and professional engagement as an artist, activist, movement trainer and organizer—about how to address potential gaps that persist in spite of Beer’s new comprehensive resource.
Many of us are indebted to Gene Sharp for his early categorization of nonviolent action methods. So it is not a surprise that we also followed his lead in underemphasizing the foundational work that must be done in order to deploy or engage in those methods.
Yet this is about much more than just logistics. Being able to escalate or diversify tactics calls for mobilization of significant human capital, human agency and creativity. At the very least, it requires a commitment to planning or strategizing, and most likely training for new skills. It also calls for raising money or identifying specific contributions to sponsor a movement’s actions.
Underemphasizing this foundational work for successful campaigns can be costly. Instead, it should be acknowledged in CRT21 as a key component with its own identifiable nonviolent method(s), rather than just as “primarily logistical campaign activities” (rule G on page 50 of CRT21). Resourcefulness and capacity building are major parts of human agency and thus critical for successful people power.
It may also be time to add an “Organizing” category (or perhaps “Human resources mobilization”). This would include training, planning, all the behind-the-scenes work to make sure things happen: that someone made flyers, called volunteers to get them to show up, facilitated the meetings, made the coffee, and so much more! According to the criteria of Beer’s book, these actions fall outside of the definition of tactics, but again, civil resistance cannot be understood without these enabling actions (which require skills and training, like other nonviolent actions). To include such actions, one would not need to list trivial actions like “making coffee”, of course, but certainly fundraising and capacity building activities like nonviolent action training.
Beer’s categorization does not explicitly include organizing related actions, but they are acknowledged—for example in his reference to Shaazka Beyerle’s book Curtailing Corruption and in other ways. To do this category justice, one would need to distinguish organizing actions that are aimed internally (to build or strengthen a movement, like training for capacity building on how to organize, for example) versus outwardly-focused actions, like producing social media posts or using training to prepare groups for a blockade for a specific action.
CRT21 highlights constructive action by introducing a self-standing category of “Constructive Acts of Commission,” but there is more to explore in this new category. There has been a fault line in many movements, certainly in the United States, between those who engage in nonviolent action and consider themselves “activists”, and those who engage in constructive actions and don’t necessarily use that frame.
However, there are examples where the two concepts have manifested together beautifully: As Beer notes, during Gandhi’s Salt March, disruption of the unjust, oppressive colonial system intersected with actual making of salt, creating processes that prefigured the movement’s vision of independence. In this way, constructive actions can act both in the affirmative and in the negative.
More examples of this will soon be reflected in the BeautifulTrouble world with the publishing of a new book and accompanying modules on the website. Beautiful Solutions: A Toolbox for Liberation (OR Books: Spring 2022) will showcase the stories and strategies that prove another world is possible and help us envision the breadth and power inherent when our ‘No’s” intersect with our “Yes’s”!
Importantly, giving organizing and prefigurative/constructive actions more visibility would encourage communities to invest more in group or community building as a path toward better-planned, more sustainable, resilient movements—and that was no doubt one of the main goals of publishing CRT21.
Overall, in spite of my constructive critiques, CRT21 offers an extremely useful framework for expanded thinking on civil resistance tactics. The knowledge it channels is ready to be applied in practice, teaching, innovation and movement support… all in the arc toward more effective nonviolent campaigns. Michael Beer and ICNC clearly understood that taking on the epistemological challenges that our field has faced for decades is more than just semantic; it represents a huge opportunity. An opportunity to take stock of how the field of civil resistance has grown and evolved, becoming increasingly sophisticated and nuanced every decade.
As we witness people power opposing the Russian invasion in Ukraine, we can clearly value the knowledge and accessibility of CRT21, as well as resources like BeautifulTrouble. How wonderful that today’s organizers can dive into these free online resources, which are increasingly being translated into other languages (in large part thanks to ICNC).
Perhaps this work to promote critical resources should be considered an act of resistance in itself!
As an activist artist, strategic nonviolent organizer, and Training Director of Beautiful Trouble, Nadine Bloch explores the potent intersection of art and people power. Find her writings in Beautiful Trouble, SNAP: An Action Guide to Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding, and WagingNonviolence.org.Read More