Nonviolent resistance to war in America

IssueMarch - May 2003
Feature by Gordon Clark

The Iraq Pledge of Resistance is a US campaign of nationally coordinated nonviolent civil disobedience to oppose the war in Iraq. To my knowledge it is the only US campaign of coordinated nonviolent resistance in opposition to the war.

To this date the campaign has been sponsored by about a dozen of the country's major peace organisations. It is being actively organised in 53 cities, with new ones coming on every week; over 5000 people have physically signed the pledge, with another 7000+ expressing interest in nonviolent civil disobedience through our website. A couple of dozen actions have already taken place, and many more are planned for the coming weeks, especially in response to any attack on Iraq.

Will the Iraq Pledge of Resistance effect and encourage the praxis of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in the US? The fact that it is happening at all, and that so many local groups and coalitions are taking it up, provides a positive answer. But the situation is quite complicated, and the struggle for a true nonviolent resistance movement against war - never easy anywhere - faces considerable challenges in 21st century America.

True resistance

For starters, there is no clear place to begin. Despite the numerous examples of powerful, even ground-breaking nonviolent activism in US history, the current adherents of nonviolence are relatively few in number. And, much worse than that, they are fragmented. There is a community of spiritually motivated activists, typified by the Catholic Workers, who perform courageous and high-risk acts of nonviolent resistance. Then there is a community of academics who teach nonviolence in theory. And there is a community, or more accurately a diaspora, of nonviolence trainers across the country.

But with a few bright exceptions, none of these three communities work with each other to promote nonviolent practice, let alone to build a campaign, and rarely do they work with the traditional peace organisations in the US. (Organisations which, even though they will freely quote Gandhi and King, overwhelmingly shy away from nonviolent campaigns or strategies.) It was a mild surprise to find how “on my own” I was when I initiated the Iraq Pledge of Resistance, and how much searching it could take simply to find materials, or to help groups locate trainers in certain parts of the country.

It also became quickly apparent that most activists in the US do not even share a basic definition of what nonviolence, and nonviolent resistance, is. To cite one extreme example, a writer in a popular lefty online publication, critiquing civil disobedience actions taken by local Pledge of Resistance groups, asked the following question: “Is it true resistance to break the law and then freely accept whatever consequences the state deems appropriate?” As I wrote in my response, the correct answer is “yes - unless you want to argue that what Gandhi and King did was not `true resistance'.” It is remarkable how little many US activists know about the history and methods of nonviolent resistance, even those who are personally committed to it.

But a basic definition is essential for a campaign or movement to be built, and I would offer the following one. Nonviolence is a force and a method which is based on love and compassion - a love so great that it asks us to love even our enemies, and a compassion so deep that it compels us to accept personal risk and suffering before we would allow or cause another to suffer.

This is nothing original, of course, it is the basic message of Gandhi and King (and other notables including Tolstoy, the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, Jesus, etc), but it is still utterly revolutionary. Perhaps that is why one virtually never hears the words “love” or “personal suffering” in contemporary discussions of nonviolence in this country - even though they are at the heart of nonviolence as taught by its most successful practitioners throughout history. It's also clear, from these same practitioners, that successful nonviolent resistance requires both discipline and organisation - two other words you don't hear a lot of in movement discussions these days. Taken together though, the basic premise of nonviolent resistance, and the organisation and discipline needed to use it effectively in a political context, set a standard by which our movement can be guided, and our problems analysed.

In this regard, it would be very useful if the peace movement (from which a nonviolent resistance movement could rise), engaged in some serious reflection on internalised oppression, and how it is profoundly influencing our thinking and organising. We need to take a cue from decades of work on racism in this country. One cannot take a serious training on race issues now without talking about internal oppression - namely the fact that because we grow and live immersed in a racist culture, we all have some aspects of racism living and operating within us. However well or poorly we deal with them, it is nonetheless commonly accepted that one cannot work on racism issues externally without working on them internally as well, and preferably in the reverse order.

Confronting demons

So what are the internal demons of the peace movement? I would argue that they stem from the other two of the three great social ills identified by Dr King in addition to racism - materialism and militarism. The United States is by far the most materialist and militarist country on the planet, riddled by mindless consumerism and intense, continual violence at home and abroad. It only makes sense that we would internalise some of this violence and consumerism, which would in turn hinder our attempts to change the system.

For instance, one big problem with the movement right now is that, for all the glorious and truly historic peace rallies and actions of the past several weeks, we are still an essentially reactive movement, especially here in the US. The crisis with Iraq could be seen coming for a long time, but it basically takes a crisis right in front of us to mobilise most US citizens, and even many activists. As a result, the mobilisation usually comes too late. Obviously much of this is caused by over-work (see below). But how much of it comes from our training as consumers to be both passive and reactive? Wait for the next product to be introduced, then go and buy it. Sit in front of the TV and have images fed into your brain, pausing only to change channels if you don't like what you see. (Or, for the really motivated, going to the kitchen for some food.)

Another problem in our movement is the aforementioned overwork, a staggering issue for many activists and organisers right now. In civilian life as well as in our activism, the swirl of responsibilities and issues keeps most of us in a daily frenzy. We all (correctly) fret about this massive overload, yet we seem perpetually frozen in it, unable to change the dynamic. Perhaps not coincidentally, the primary message of consumerism is more, more, more, in all things more. How much of our psychic conflict and subsequent paralysis is guided by a subconscious consumer ethic, which constantly feeds us this message of more? We can have 150 different types of breakfast cereal, why not 150 different political campaigns, and meetings to go to? We would do well to consider how often calls for “diversity of tactics” are used to excuse ourselves from focused, disciplined campaigns and actions.

“Not in our name.” Activists in Hollywood sit down/lie-in for peace during 15 February demonstrations. PHOTO: MIKE ( SEE FOR MORE


A third related problem in our movement is our lack of national leadership, or more precisely our unwillingness to accept and follow leadership. We cry out for direction in this country, yet ironically we attack and defy leadership, (“eating our own leaders”, as one colleague put it), and our movement and coalitions needs to be reborn anew every time there is a crisis. Individual rights are a cardinal virtue of our political system, but in movement terms this has devolved into the cult of personal political independence - everyone starts their own group, their own campaign, and even our coordinated calls often become “everyone do something” days, which are of arguable value in reaching our goals. And once again, how much of this is effected by an internal consumer ethic? In our consumer society, individual rights have transmogrified into “freedom of choice”. I have met more than a few activists who refuse to agree to nonviolence guidelines, not because they have any intention of violence, but because they feel that simply agreeing to rules “restricts their freedom”. Undercutting all of this a fourth major problem. Yet another primary directive of consumerism in this country is avoid all pain. Take drugs to get rid of physical pain; see new movies, engage in new personal sports, and buy endless streams of new products to alleviate psychic pain. It ultimately doesn't work, of course, but it is an overwhelmingly strong subconscious current in our collective consciousness. Needless to say, the method of nonviolence, which directs us to take on personal suffering and risk, to prevent the suffering of others, is the polar opposite of the consumer attitude toward suffering. No large-scale nonviolent resistance movement can be successful until this conflict is surfaced.

Turning anger into love

All the aforementioned problems derive from our lifelong training as consumers. To discuss the equally dangerous effects of our societal training in violence is a subject for several articles on its own. A couple of things stand out though. The emotional foundation for violence is anger and hatred, and our movement today is filled with palpable levels of these two corrosive emotions. One could say there is ample reason for both, and I enjoy a good joke at Bush's expense as much as the next guy. But when humour masks hatred and Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld et al become the”enemy”, we fall into a huge trap. Nonviolence prescribes that we love our enemy (including George W Bush) and that we recognise that our goal is not to punish individuals, even an “enemy,” but to change the system - in this case the militarism and materialism which continues, in one form or the other, through all administrations. Bush is simply the worst manifestation of this system, but he is still just a manifestation, and not the system itself.

Anger is perhaps an even stronger current in the present peace movement, and once again it drags us in the wrong direction. The commentator's question about “true resistance”, noted above, is symptomatic of an anger which can lead to widespread defiance of the system, but not to any organised resistance, and these are two very different things. Defiance is based on anger, while resistance is based on love. Defiance tries to evade the consequences of its actions, while resistance accepts those consequences. Defiance tries to increase social costs (which, by the way, often serves to increase the suffering of the already oppressed), while resistance works instead to transform the society. Ultimately, anger is not a sustainable emotion, and it does not deliver hope. Defiance based on anger is not a sustainable movement. Resistance based on love and compassion, however, is.

In confronting these internal obstacles, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance is at least providing a platform to practise nonviolence, and opening space for the discussion to happen. Hopefully this campaign will continue in some form should a war indeed break out.

For it is true that 11 September 2001 and the subsequent war on terror have placed new obstacles in the path of nonviolent resistance. Certain direct actions are much more dangerous to take in the heightened security environment, and dissent in general is being persecuted, as always happens at such times. But ultimately it is our own internal obstructions, unexamined, which are the greatest stumbling block to building a movement of nonviolent resistance, and it is only when our movement can begin to look honestly at itself that we will move forward in this way.