George Lakey suggests a new approach to nonviolent campaigns

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, on Thursday, March 29, the Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor, George Lakey, unofficially opened the second annual Tri-College Peace Week. Despite this title, however, Lakey began his talk by arguing for more conflict in the world. “There is a tendency to want to wrap up the conflict and get it done and move on,” while “there are a tremendous number of conflicts that need to be fought out.” But he was not calling for violent struggle. Instead, he described finding “ways to fight that won’t do people in.” In other words, more effective and safer methods of non-violent struggle.

His lecture, entitled “Making Nonviolent Struggle More Powerful,” centered around the premise that nonviolent struggle has become a wide-spread idea, and is gradually losing its relevance to modern discussions. Lakey no longer thinks of the term as a useful “single umbrella,” but that it would be more useful to break the term down into multiple categories.

He brought his extensive knowledge as a non-violent trainer and protest organizer to bear on the problem, and developed three smaller categories: “social change, social defense, and third party non-violent intervention,” or “TPNI.”

Social change describes what we know the most about. When we think of non-violent action, “we think of Ghandi, King, Alice Paul, and we think about those who were specialist in non-violent change, about changing the status quo into something different.” Social change has been a part of the human arsenal for centuries. “Ghandi once quipped that if history were really the way historians write it, the human race must have been extinguished long ago.” Instead, groups must have been demanding social change and using non-violent techniques throughout most of our history.

Most Americans are familiar with “making policy changes, like the civil rights change.” It doesn’t have to be an organization spear-headed by charismatic leaders with a large organization, though. The nuclear power movement, Lakey explained, exemplified this: “There was a time when, in the United States, nuclear power was assumed to be the energy source of the future, it would make energy too cheap to meter.” The power was supported by power companies, manufacturers, banks, and even the Pentagon. And “standing against that was … us.” And somehow, “this motley grass-roots group without a charismatic leader actually won!”

Non-violent resistant is critical to social change. “Freedom House recently found that 47 of the last 60 regime changes in the past 33 years were accomplished with civilian non-violent action was the primary force,” outlined Lakey, before describing how the movements which refused to ever turn to violence were significantly more successful in creating lasting democracies than were other nations.

Another kind of non-violent action, social defense, is not as thought about. It is typified by “the Greenpeace kind of environmental defense,” and it is in these movements that real innovation is taking place. In North East Thailand, Lakey worked with Buddhist monks who ordained trees, even dressing them in traditional saffron robes to protect them from loggers. Gene Sharpe, said Lakey, “once cataloged over 200 distinct methods of non-violent struggle,” but if he were to take a new survey “it would be much more than the 198 methods.”

Social defense also is vital in defense against coups. Lakey turned to an unlikely candidate for powerful examples of this: the Weimar Republic in Germany between World War I and World War II. At one point, a figurehead, with the support of the government, seized the capital from the Social Democrats. In response, the Social Democrats just called “a general strike against the military,” and it was so successful that the military could not even get their memos typed. The junta didn’t last long. “It doesn’t matter if you have the army behind you,” pointed out Lakey. “You can’t run the country if no one will even type your manifesto.”

While in these two examples, Lakey highlighted the effectiveness of social defense, he also conceded that “there are a couple kinds of social defense that we aren’t so good at,” most notably non-violent defense against terrorist attacks and non-violent defense against genocide. “Maybe [non-violent direct action] has been presented to you as a kind of magic,” prompted Lakey, “but it isn’t something that operates outside a historical context.” Non-violent protest doesn’t just work: activists and leaders need to study it, practice it, and refine it in order to develop new methods and strategies. Ultimately, “it is about very hard intellectual work.”

Finally, Lakey suggested the category of “third party non-violent intervention. Lakey broke this category down even farther into four techniques. First, observation and monitoring. Lakey observed that, while this technique has become “almost routine in many countries,” it has yet to be adopted by the United States in any way. A second technique is accompaniment. This technique “isn’t so well known,” but is typified by Peace Brigades International. The organization sends westerners to accompany threatened individuals in oppressive regimes. The theory is to find ‘body guards’ “who, if killed, shift the dynamic in such a way for it to be disadvantageous.”

A third technique Lakey presented was interposition, or stepping between “the aggressor and the meek.” Finally, he suggested “presence” as a fourth and final form of third party non-violent intervention. It is also, Lakey admitted, the hardest to describe. “It may help to think of any social situation as a kind of force-field of energy,” he explained, suggesting that this ‘force-field’ can have a powerful effect on other people.

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