Protestors carry signs that say, “Bring Down the Wall, but this is not Berlin in 1989, it is New York’s financial district in 2011. They carry signs that say “Love, Compassion, Awareness, Understanding,” but this not Selma in 1965, it is Wall Street in 2011.
The #occupywallstreet protests in New York’s Wall Street district exhibit all the dynamics of the non-violent direct action movements of the 20th century as seen in the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the April 6 movement in Egypt that so symbolizes the “Arab Spring.” These are the young Egyptians chanting “peaceful, peaceful” only this time while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, not on a street in Cairo, or in front of a wall in East Berlin.
And like in Cairo and Selma and East Germany, they are met with force, sometimes even with brutality.
The police response follows Gandhi’s prescription for why non-violence is so effective; non-violent protest exposes the underlying violence of unjust systems, and the dilemma that non-violence poses to armed authority. This shocking video of police brutality, including pepper spraying young women who are behind a barrier, illustrates what Gandhi taught. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Gandhi. And Gandhi’s followers didn’t even have cell phones that could video all of the violence that erupts when non-violent direct action grows in numbers and support. The “NYPD pepper sprays peaceful protesters” YouTube video has over 100,000 views.
Alexander Holmes, a 26 year-old from CA, sums up his experience of what happens when authorities begin arresting protestors, and using strong-arm tactics. Holmes was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. He told reporters, “if anyone thought ‘15 hours of no food, no water and a jail experience that is not enjoyable would deter us,’ they were ‘completely mistaken…Every arrest brings another 25, 30, 40, 100 people,’
Holmes said. ‘It’s solidarity. Because they know that we’re not being treated the way we should be for exercising our First Amendment rights.’”
“Solidarity” is the name chosen by Polish activists to describe their movement that eventually brought an end to Communism in their country. Solidarity among people exercised through non-violent direct action is a method designed to create a dilemma for authorities. Solidarity among peaceful protestors grows movements and protests. Authorities can ridicule or ignore non-violent protests, and still the protests grow. Or authorities can use force against non-violent protestors and their force is publicized as the overreaction of the state. And still the protests grow.
Non-violence is effective precisely because of this dilemma dynamic.
Non-violent direct action is one of the most effective discoveries of the 20th century in terms of how power is actually distributed in a society. This “discovery” of the real nature of power in society is best analyzed and applied to non-violent change in the work of Gene Sharp. Sharp has been called the “Godfather” of non-violence and his work has been translated into many languages and is used all over the world now in helping to create non-violent change.
Sharp’s key theme is that power is not top down, nor is it a possession of those in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state - regardless of its particular structural organization - ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. Authorities rule because of the implicit consent of those ruled, whether this is by choice or under threat. Thus, his fundamental insight is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s) to survive. If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.
The power of non-violence is that when citizens learn how to deploy their power by withdrawing consent they are nearly unstoppable. This is why violence escalates in response to non-violence; those in power intuit that they are increasingly powerless and they overreact. Thus, it is the “white shirts,” the commanders whose rank is designated by their white shirts as opposed to the blue shirts of street cops, who have taken on the “the role of enforcer” and “(V)ideo recordings of clashes have shown white shirts - lieutenants, captains or inspectors - leading underlings into the fray.” It is, as reported in the New York Times, “Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna’s dousing of some penned-in women with pepper spray on Sept. 24, which seemed to surprise at least one of the blue shirts
standing near him on East 12th Street, near University Place.” The higher the rank, the more authority is threatened by non-violence.
This is the “truth force” that non-violent activists from India to the southern tip of Manhattan know. The truth that is now coming into focus for Wall Street and for Main Street, through these protests, is the “systemic violence” of the American economy today. Our economy produces more and more risky financial instruments and fewer and fewer decent jobs. The Great Recession, a direct result of the reckless financial practices of Wall Street about which Kevin Phillips writes so well in his book Bad Money has driven one in six Americans into poverty, many of them children.
And this is what can now be seen in the #occupywallstreet protests. This is the “moral force of nonviolence.”
Gandhi is on Wall Street today, and Wall Street will never be the same. Dr. King may be memorialized in Washington DC, but the truth he brought to America in the Civil Rights movement is the truth force working its way down the streets of the financial district. Of the fourteen inscriptions on the wall of the new King memorial, this one seems particularly apt for the economic struggles of today:
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” (10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway).
That’s the moral force of these protests. Amen and amen.