by Brian MartinJanuary 20, 2022
This blog post is also available in Thai here.
You’re a soldier or police officer who’s been asked to control and possibly shut down a public protest. You’ve been told the protesters are threatening public safety and national security. However, when you encounter them, things are not so clear. There are hundreds or thousands of people and they are not being violent. They say they are standing up for your country’s values.
Later, you see a few people throw rocks and smash windows. Do they represent the protesting group? Are they trying to provoke you to be heavy-handed?
Around the world, more and more popular movements are protesting without physical violence. You may have to make quick on-the-spot decisions about what to do, so it’s important to know something about what these protesters are doing and why they are behaving the way they do. Here is some basic information that’s worth knowing (based on my recent Security & Defence Quarterly article, “Military-protester relations: Insights from nonviolence research”).
Nonviolent action is a way that people try to promote social, economic, and political change. There is a wide array of methods of nonviolent action, including rallies, marches, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. These sorts of methods do not involve physical violence or the threat of violence against opponents. Nonviolent action is sometimes used by itself, and sometimes is used in conjunction with other methods of making change, such as election campaigns, the court system, and negotiations.
Civil resistance is used by some scholars and activists.
People power is sometimes used by journalists.
Satyagraha is Gandhi’s term, literally “truth force.”
Nonviolent action is a form of political action aimed at expressing views and applying pressure. For example, strikes and boycotts can apply economic force and sometimes coerce change. However, the idea is to respect the dignity of the opponent by not physically harming or threatening them. Because of this, the door is opened to dialogue and negotiation.
In addition, because people engaged in nonviolent action are often exercising their widely recognized human rights, and do not present a physical threat, if police or soldiers physically attack nonviolent protesters, some observers will think this is wrong. When this happens, it can lead to greater support for the protesters, a process called “political jiu-jitsu.”
In warfare, each side uses violent force to try to defeat the enemy. But when one side applies only nonviolent pressure, using violent force may backfire.
Returning to the opening example in this article, there’s a protest, and most of those attending are peaceful. But a few are flinging stones at police, throwing bricks through shop windows, throwing punches at police, or even hurling Molotov cocktails. What’s going on?
When just a few protesters use violence, there are several possible reasons.
In my next post, I will outline what police and other security forces can do when they encounter nonviolent protesters.
Brian Martin is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He has been researching nonviolent action since the late 1970s, with a special interest in strategies for social movements and tactics against injustice. He is the author of 21 books and over 200 articles on nonviolence, dissent, scientific controversies, democracy, education and other topics.Read More