by Joel Preston SmithSeptember 20, 2018
One of my least favorite memories of working as an emergency manager at the Standing Rock pipeline protests in 2016-2017 was seeing a camp kitchen shut down over cultural conflict between two Native American tribal groups. The ‘California Camp’ kitchen, which was first directed by a professional chef from the Kurok tribe, served upwards of 400 meals each day at its peak.
At each meal, the chef would explain to protesters waiting to be served, “In our tradition, women are the nurturers. We are the caretakers of all. Therefore, men and children eat first. When you take your place in line, please remember this.”
Easy enough to do—until a man walked into the camp one day, noted that he was Lakota Sioux, and the Lakota in the resistance camps objected to the eating order of the Kurok. “You’re camped on our land,” he argued. “You will respect our traditions while you are visitors here.”
That’s a claim any Mandan, Assiniboine, Arikara, Dakota or Hidatsa would likely find offensive, since each and every one historically inhabited or traversed the land that came to host the Dakota Access pipeline camps. The upshot of that conflict? The Kurok chef said she’d had it with in-fighting in the camps. She, her family and support team packed up their considerable equipment and supplies and were on the road back to northern California two days later.
In any analysis of what drove the Standing Rock camps to implode in the winter of 2016-2017, failing to deal with cultural or racial conflict and turning a blind eye toward internal violence were prominent triggers. From arguing over peripheral issues such as who stood at the head of a meal line, to refusing to follow the nonviolent strategy of tribal elders, to theft and physical violence against fellow activists, groups within the camps tore and tore at one another until there was no fabric left to rend.
The following recommendations, from some of the most prominent nonviolent civil resistance organizers and researchers in the United States, are meant to stave off some of the most vexing internal conflicts that can metastasize like cancers in movements.
Reverend James Lawson, whom many cite as the ‘Mind’—the principal strategist—of the Civil Rights Movement1 says, “Citing cultural heritage differences between activists in a nonviolent resistance movement is a no-no. If I start a movement in Los Angeles, for example, it’s my responsibility to unify those who come to participate. If a campaign can’t be supported by those who come to the locality because they’re caught up in their own issues, that’s not a nonviolent movement, that’s just cultural conflict.”2
It’s not that movements cannot acknowledge cultural differences; it’s that they can’t allow those differences to distract or divide activists from the principal goal of a movement. While it may not be possible to ‘leave behind’ cultural differences, it may be possible to leave the destructive aspects of such conflicts behind. And it is possible to set a tone in which such conflicts can be dealt with constructively.
Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan point out in their excellent study, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, that 100 percent of nonviolent movements from 1900-2006 who recruited more than 3.5 percent of a nation’s population into a common struggle succeeded in driving out a foreign occupier or dictator. They didn’t get there by alienating entire classes or demographics of people through verbal bloodlettings for past grievances against a given group.
“Shame-and-blame is very contrary to inspiring change in social justice movements,” observes George Lakey, co-founder of Training for Change and the author of 10 books on human rights and nonviolent civil resistance. “We saw this in what was called the Anti-Oppression movements in the 70’s in the U.S. When people tried the shame-and-blame approach, people would just batten down the hatches, rather than rely on any kind of process that would make the conflicting groups better allies.”
“Movements may name and shame opponents” for entirely rational and strategic reasons, notes Hardy Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. “They may also name and shame certain behaviors or attitudes within the movement—i.e. when people say things that are disrespectful, spread damaging rumors, or act with arrogance. The key thing here is defining behaviors or attitudes as shameful (which offers room for people to change), rather than labeling entire groups of people as inherently bad.”
Ultimately, movements can choose to shift their focus to the future—specifically, to strategies that rally new participants around the movement’s vision for a more fair, equitable and sustainable future.
Movement violence can also get physical—for example, in the form of a violent flank. A violent flank is defined as a minority faction within a nonviolent movement that breaks nonviolent discipline during public actions, therefore undermining the movement’s cause and credibility. How can you decrease the chances of this happening? By establishing and communicating a nonviolent code of conduct.
“The best campaigns are going to have two things decided really early, and they’re going to stick to them—the language of a code of conduct, and how decisions are going to be made in the movement. If you lack either of those, you degenerate quickly; it becomes a death spiral, like the Occupy Movement," comments Tom Hastings, Ph.D., long-time activist and co-coordinator of the undergraduate program in Conflict Resolution at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon.
An effective code has two main qualities: “It has to be firm, and it has to be specific. It’s explicit, not rhetorical.” For example, it may forbid things such as: throwing objects at opponents, making threatening gestures (physical or verbal), wearing a mask, or destroying property. Secondly, it’s repeated, ad infinitum, to activists within a civil resistance action or movement through a variety of media (email, social media, etc.), and publicly announced (e.g., over a loudspeaker) at the launch of a resistance action.
Hastings notes that the Portland Peace Team, which intervenes to diminish or prevent conflict between violent groups such as Antifa and the Alt-Right, often requires that event organizers have a code of conduct in place before the team will provide support at an action.
Having evoked the importance of establishing a clear decision-making process as well, Hastings explains that this can be any process that the group agrees to abide by, whether that’s a hierarchical structure, by group consensus or otherwise. If a movement can’t decide how decisions will be made, each choice faced by activists may accentuate internal inequalities, exacerbate conflict or even devolve into chaos.
In essence, preventing internal conflict often comes down to making clear strategic decisions, communicating them to activists (and the public at large, where possible), and focusing on the present objective. Recognizing cultural differences and addressing internal inequality are important, but so is recognizing common humanity, common goals, and common values—all aspects that unite people within a movement, and in some cases, society further down the road.
This blog post is also available in Spanish:
"Tres maneras de reducir los conflictos internos en los movimientos de resistencia civil"
Joel Preston Smith is director of field operations and communications for Frontline Wellness United, a nonprofit medical aid society that provides medical care, wellness services and training for social justice activists and nonviolent civil resistance movements. He served in the pipeline resistance camps as evacuation manager and emergency shelter director for the Cannonball District of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.Read More