Understanding Civil Resistance: a Reflection

When commemorating the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think his quote, “nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom,” is most appropriate.

Picture from the "Understanding Civil Resistance" clinic

Engaging with the topic of non-violent resistance movements is relevant for anyone going into the field of international affairs or politics. In the past few decades, non-violent resistance movements have become commonplace in regions of the world that we previously never thought possible. The power of nonviolent resistance that Dr. King was referring to was analyzed and broken down for MSFS students during an all-day clinic on Friday, January 19.

Before the clinic, “Understanding Civil Resistance: Nonviolent Struggles for Democracy, Accountability, and Rights,” took place, student participants were assigned three readings to prepare for the full-day discussion. These readings opened my mind to the history and the impacts that nonviolent resistance movements (versus violent resistance movements) have had throughout the last century. I learned that campaigns of nonviolent resistance from 1900 to 2015 succeeded 51 percent of the time, whereas violent campaigns succeeded only 27 percent of the time. Success was defined as achieving the intended goal of the movement.

When we gathered on Friday morning, Professor Bibbins Sedaca introduced the two discussion leaders: Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), and his colleague Maciej Bartkowksi, ICNC Senior Director for Education and Research. They began with a quick round of introductions and expectations for the clinic, followed by an exercise that required participants to write three episodes of nonviolent resistance movements from any time in history on Post-it notes and paste them on the wall according to their timeline. It was amazing to see how far back some MSFS students went; I remember one episode was about the women during the Peloponnesian war that refused to have sex with their husbands until the war was brought to an end.

The leaders spent the first two hours laying the groundwork with key concepts, definitions, and research findings. We broke down the questions, “What is civil resistance?”, “What is a movement?”, and “What are some of the characteristics of nonviolent resistance leaders?”. The discussion was lively, and some people challenged each other by raising the points of combining violent and nonviolent movements to increase efficiency. Merriman pushed back and argued that the data shows nonviolent resistance is always more effective and counseled against tainting a nonviolent struggle with facets of violence. The discussion was combined with graphics, images, and a film screening of Nashville: We Are Warriors to illustrate strategies and tactics that make up an effective nonviolent civil resistance movement.

Picture from the "Understanding Civil Resistance" clinic

I found the film to be very powerful. It portrayed how Rev. James Lawson led young students in the community of Nashville, Tennessee to organize sit-ins at lunch counters, followed by downtown store boycotts, and a powerful march that culminated in negotiations with the town mayor for desegregation. The American civil rights struggle was the momentum behind this movement, and during our discussions of the film, Bartkowksi elaborated on the strategies and sequencing of events that allowed Nashville to succeed. Bartkowksi also explained the four roles of social activism: the citizen, the rebel, change agents, and reformers. He elaborated on how each role is needed and was depicted in the film.

The clinic concluded by reviewing key takeaways about how and when external actors should intervene in nonviolent civil resistance movements. The ICNC’s mission is to educate people throughout the world about the wide range of tactics in nonviolent resistance movements and to share resources with others around the world. The two leaders stressed the importance of knowledge and skill sharing by external actors over financial aid, supporting an independent media, and removing foreign assistance for repressive regimes. The timing of assistance is important, and external actors should also be aware of the risks involved: discrediting the legitimacy of nonviolent movements, supporting the wrong movement, increasing the repercussions to the citizens of oppression, and creating nongovernmental organizations that may cripple grassroots efforts. In order to truly assist a nonviolent struggle, one must first understand the situation and context of the conflict and decide what type of aid is most effective.

This was a timely clinic, filled with small group exercises, big group discussions, and individual learning.