Mark and Paul Engler have written a very important book, “This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.” In the words of Bill McKibben on the back cover, “This is a fantastic book. It puts a name on a powerful method for making real change fast. And real change fast is in fact what our world requires.”
Those active in the climate movement, which Bill McKibben has done so much to build over the last decade, would benefit from reading this book. This is the case even though “nonviolent revolt”/civil disobedience/risking arrest, has become widely accepted and increasingly widely used within that movement since it began to be used over a decade ago.
Indeed, anyone who is working with a group of people, no matter how small or large, which is serious about defending their rights, changing oppressive conditions, achieving justice or saving our seriously endangered environment would benefit from studying this 284-page, well-researched book. In the words of Michelle Alexander: “We have more power than we realize, and the compelling stories of nonviolent movements around the world told here have much to teach us about how we can use our power wisely.”
What is it about? At the end, the Englers sum up what they see as “key lessons:”
“Momentum-driven organizing uses the tools of civil resistance [disobedience] to consciously spark, amplify and harness mass protest. It highlights the importance of hybrid organizations. . . which can build decentralized networks to sustain protest mobilizations through multiple waves of activity. It goes beyond transactional goals by also advancing a transformational agenda, and it wins by swaying public opinion and pulling the pillars of support. It is attentive to the symbolic properties of campaigns, showing how these can sometimes be just as important as instrumental demands, if not more so. It uses disruption, sacrifice, and escalation to build tension and bring overlooked issues into the public spotlight. It aspires, at its peak, to create moments of the whirlwind, when outbreaks of decentralized action extend far outside the institutional limit of any one organization. It is willing to polarize public opinion and risk controversy with bold protests, but it maintains nonviolent discipline to ensure that it does not undermine broad-based support for its cause. And it is conscious of the need to work with other organizing traditions in order to institutionalize the gains and foster alternative communities that can sustain resistance over the long term.”
Throughout the book the authors refer to the research and writings of Gene Sharp, a World War II war resister who spent his adult life studying the experience, techniques and strategies of nonviolent resistance. Sharp was critical of traditional pacifism as he experienced it in the 50’s, 60’s and beyond. He believed that nonviolent activists “did not need to express love for their adversaries or make hated opponents see the errors of their ways. In fact, insistence on converting the enemy could be counterproductive, Sharp believed. He argued that “the demand for ‘love’ for people who have done cruel things may turn people who are justifiably bitter and unable to love their opponents toward violence.” (p. 7)
The book also frequently references the “Birmingham campaign” of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They explain how this very deliberately determined, well-planned, multi-week action campaign in 1963 was the “strategic turn” within the civil rights movement which led to a massive political uprising throughout the South, which in turn led to the passage within two years of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
I was particularly intrigued by their chapter, “The Art of Disruption.” I’ve been involved in a now-almost-two-years disruptive campaign with people around the country fighting against one of, if not the, most undemocratic federal agencies in Washington, DC: FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. We have been calling upon them to stop rubber-stamping virtually every single gas industry application, for 30 years, for permits to build new pipelines and infrastructure to expand fracking. Our demand: No New Permits!
Twice the group Beyond Extreme Energy has blocked the entrances to FERC for a week, and last September a dozen of us fasted on water-only for three weeks on the sidewalk in front of FERC. For 17 straight months we have gone to their monthly leadership meetings and interrupted them by speaking out and being removed, sometimes roughly, from the room and the building by security.
Mark and Paul Engler write: “Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and illuminate injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see three elements—disruption, sacrifice, and escalation—combining in forceful ways. The persistent reappearance of these elements provides compelling reason to examine their strange and combustive alchemy.” (p. 145) They put forward some of the theory on the need for disruption, and they discuss extensively the experiences of Occupy Wall Street and the international “occupy” movement which was sparked by it.
They describe the two years of research done in the late 90’s by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan into the success rate of campaigns around the world which used violence compared to those which were nonviolent. “Examining the first data set of 323 campaigns, [they] found that nonviolent movements worldwide were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.” (p. 109)
There are nuggets like this throughout the book.
My major disappointment was that the Englers said virtually nothing about the last 10 years of civil disobedience/resistance activism on the part of the climate movement. In 2011 Bill McKibben led over 1,250 people to get arrested at the front gate of the White House over a two week period of time, one of it not the largest actions of mass civil disobedience since the Vietnam war. Yet this is not mentioned.
Given the urgency for the entire world of climate disruption and the “nonviolent revolt” tactics that are taking hold within the climate movement, this was a weakness.
This nonviolent revolt will be manifesting itself soon. From May 4-15 there is a Break Free from Fossil Fuels initiative that will see major disruptive actions involving thousands taking place around the world. And in the May 16-22 week following, Beyond Extreme Energy will be taking action against FERC in DC, as local groups fighting fracking and fracking infrastructure do the same in their local communities.
Indeed, This Is An Uprising.
Ted Glick is a co-founder of Beyond Extreme Energy. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.