Student Group Presents Database of Nonviolent Actions

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.

A group of students gathered Wednesday in Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room to present and discuss the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project that has been years in the making. The database is an electronic compilation of different case studies of nonviolent resistance from around the world.

Hannah Jones ’12 explained in detail how the case studies are presented in the database. A case study will contain a one to three page summary explaining what happened, and a file of which “nonviolent tactics” were used. These tactics are defined under the framework of Professor Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institute, whose goal is “advancing the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world.”

This framework contains 198 different types of nonviolent actions such as “signed public statements,” “domestic embargo,” and “student strike,” among many others. They are broadly categorized as social, economic and political actions. Under this framework, nonviolent actions are considered in units of “campaigns” like the April 6th group in Egypt which helped oust Hosni Mubarak, which aggregate into “movements” such as the civil rights movement in the U.S.

After introducing the database, the student group showed a 25 minute video from Al Jazeera English that discussed the recent revolution in Egypt. The video discussed some of the methods behind successful nonviolent action, as well as the extensive planning, strategy and leadership that go into a movement like those in Egypt and Tunisia. It also illustrated how those who participate in nonviolent actions borrow and learn from each other: it showed leaders of Egypt’s April 6th Movement directly conferencing with members from a group that had helped to oust Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia.

Seven students then spoke in turn about the connections between the video and the database, as well as the broader goals of the database. Julio Alicea ’13 discussed how the database helps to trace “patterns of influence,” which are how different nonviolent actions inspire and affect each other. Zein Nakhoda ’12 discussed some of the hopes for the future of the database. The database will likely be online and publicly available by this summer; those involved hope to have instituted some form of revision process in place by then.

Four professors were then invited to comment on the database. Stephen O’Connell from the Department of Economics, who specializes in Sub-Saharan Africa, discussed some of the parallels to and departures from nonviolent actions presented in Nelson Mandela’s campaign. Lee Smithey from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology mentioned the importance of understanding how the knowledge of these nonviolent actions diffuses and how this database will help facilitate that. George Lakey, currently a research fellow at the Lang Center, said that the database “shows…how much payoff there is to paying attention to nonviolent action.”

Shane Minkin from the Department of History talked about some of the problems with the Al Jazeera English video. “Who gets to be portrayed” in these videos, she asked. “It’s not the uneducated workers who have been starving in a strike for years.” She cited the database as an important way to discuss the differences within movements, and warned against giving too much credit to a singular group of people.

The group of presenters then participated in a brief Q&A session, which included more discussion of Egypt specifically, as well as the review and categorization processes and other specifics of the database.

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