Report of the Working Group on Nonviolence

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It was an obvious question for a civil resistance workshop, but still unnerving. “What would happen if Donald Trump took the White House and tried to invade Canada?” It came up near the end of the February 27 and 28 seminar organized by Science for Peace’s Working Group on Nonviolent Resistance and Civil Society.

The scenario was introduced by Maciej Bartkowski, a scholar at the Washington-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which graciously provided four academics to lead the intensive and riveting sessions. Bartkowski “gamed through’’ possible responses on behalf of the Canadian population, but after two days of deep immersion in resistance theory, participants had a pretty good idea what a successful anti-occupation uprising would look like.

Indeed, the whole jammed-packed nine-to-five affair in University of Toronto’s Bahen Centre was all about the protocols of revolt.

So here’s the dope: according to the four lecturers, social revolutions are frighteningly hard to achieve and fraught with danger. In sad fact, struggles fought nonviolently only have a 53% success rate. On the other hand, armed movements are likely to triumph only half as often, a meager 26% of the time. And five years after a campaign ends, a society is more than twice as likely to be a democracy if the gains were made without arms. (See authors Erica Chenowith and Maria J. Stephen for more)

As ICNC president Hardy Merriman put it, “There will be spectacular failures in all transitions, but a nonviolent one has a much better chance.’’ Democracy, he said, “is in the DNA of civil resistance.’’

Several university programs co-hosted the seminar, which featured eight sessions, an astounding array of research data on weaponless struggle, and a survey of best-practices protest options under dictatorship. In presenting revolution as a methodology, the four lecturers drew material from First Nations uprisings, India’s independence movement, Poland’s anti-communist struggle, the anti-apartheid upsurge in South Africa, the ill-fated resistance in Egypt and Syria, and a whole lot more.

It was a kind of a dream weekend for the Working Group members, who’ve spent the months since our formation in May 2015 examining civil resistance through film and discussion, from non-cooperation under Nazi occupation to the U.S. civil rights movement, the OPTOR uprising, the Orange Revolution, and more. Many of us were looking forward to absorbing the big theoretical picture.

“Nonviolence is a science,’’ ICNC president Hardy Merriman told the audience of 80 students, professors, activists, and a crew of engaging participants from the Royal Military College, “but it’s not a formula.’’ Not a formula, but it does have a rulebook, and professor/activist Tom Hastings offered a quick summary of the key maxims: “Frame the uprising as nonviolent; frame the challenge as respectful; frame the insurgency as just; frame violence as injustice.’’

The message was compelling, though daunting. Social movements can’t ride on anger or caprice. They have to be disciplined, proactive, creative, have a long-term vista, know how to negotiate, escalate, and de-escalate, and most important, they have to convince the violence-prone in their midst to hold their fire and let mass resistance do its work – all major challenges, as the stunning failures in Egypt and Syria attest.

Whole issue on one page | as PDF

ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)

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