Globalising Nonviolence: Maturing America

comments on “diversity of tactics” by George Lakey and Starhawk

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"Diversity of tactics" has since the demonstrations in Seattle 1999 against the World Trade Organisation become a slogan of the new global justice movement (or "anti-globalisation movement" as some say). Diversity of tactics is an expression which for some means a powerful mixing of movements' different action styles - huge legal demonstrations, professional lobbying, creative adbusting, street theatre, silent everyday resistance, covert sabotage, Internet-hacking, urban riots and nonviolent civil disobedience - a broad resistance repertoire range that becomes impossible to stop. By only excluding armed struggle it is assumed to be stronger than more exclusive tactics. For others it simply means a misguided acceptance of violent riot-making, a contradictionary message that becomes ineffective and non-strategic. Two experienced US nonviolent activists George Lakey and Starhawk, took after 1999 opposite positions; Lakey criticising and Starhawk defending tactical diversity. Now, 2006, after some years of experience with this tactical approach we who organise the War Resisters International conference on Globalising Nonviolence wanted to know how Lakey and Starhawk today perceived the situation. If we want to globalise nonviolent resistance we need to reflect on how to deal with other approaches to a global justice struggle, especially violence. So we asked Lisa Westberg, a theology student, yoga teacher and urban gardener in Bronx, and Erik Kylin, a media-activist and TV-producer, to interview Lakey and Starhawk. (Ed.)

By Lisa Westberg & Erik Kylin

Somewhere at the end of the last millennium, movements of people taking to the streets to make sure their voices would be heard around issues of globalisation, mono-economies, social injustice and neo-colonialism stumbled upon what the media named the “black block.” In Seattle, Prague and Genoa, individuals mostly dressed in black and with their faces covered made property destruction and violence their way of protest, seemingly unconcerned that their actions would cause many to question the seriousness of not only their intentions, but of the anti-globalisation movement as a whole. Today, there is less protest all around, with occasional rioting in cities across our globe, and occasional peaceful protests, like at the meeting of the G8 in Scotland. Still, for those of us concerned with globalizing nonviolence, an important question is how to relate to people who don’t want to plan ahead or engage in preparatory meetings, who prefer to improvise in the moment, who are ready to use stones, sticks and petrol bombs, and who are willing to be beaten up, jailed and despised by the public eye? So far, “diversity of tactics” has been called a solution, and “everyone having their way, and that is the democratic way” the argument.

George Lakey, senior nonviolent trainer and director of Training for Change, and Starhawk, nonviolent trainer, author and witch, are two Americans well-known for being hard at work to advocate for and educate people in nonviolent strategic direct action. They agree that diversity of tactics will neither save us into the future nor is it serving the movement well at the moment, but their differing views on how to relate to those in favour of spontaneous direct actions of the violent kind are food for thought. Persuaded by his own analysis of what is most democratic, Lakey would not be in the same protest as someone who would not show a clear plan of action or who would be willing to use violent means. While Starhawk agree with Lakey on the need for planning and for nonviolent means, her analysis of the people involved in the movement differ, as does her views about what democracy really looks like, and so she would be and has been in the same protest as black block activists. From the perspective of being very involved with the contemporary North American context – and I urge the readers to keep this in mind – both are optimistic about a future movement of global protest, if we would only remember the lessons learned. To be successful, we need to do the following: 1 - keep a focus on attractive campaigns rather than events; 2 - think more creatively about protests; 3 - involve in transparent organizing; and 4 - expand the vision of what truly committed nonviolence is to include a concern for the environment and environmental justice.

Some history

Lakey is surprised when I say that diversity of tactics is still alive in Sweden and other parts of the world. For both Lakey and Starhawk, this is outdated and a non-issue - in the States that is. According to Lakey, his view on diversity of tactics as being undemocratic and exclusive is enough to end any debate. For Starhawk, the main argument is that “the situation in the world is not Seattle anymore.” The institutions that needed to be shook up indeed have been, and today’s challenges are of a different sort.

Both Lakey and Starhawk are old enough to have witnessed and been part of the civil rights movement. Lakey often come back to tactics used by Martin Luther King - Dr King as George names him, and the logic behind the nonviolent policies that characterized his followers. Starhawk completes the timeline with ample witness to the changes in politics and social securities taking place in North America since the early 60s. North America today is determined by the war on terrorists/terrorism and ordinary people are obsessed with a security culture. Mobilizing vast stretches of the population to get on their feet and into the streets is then the greatest challenge. “You caught me at a point where I am swaying back more towards traditional nonviolence than I might have been a couple of years ago,” she says. “Tactics common in Europe like property destruction just does not communicate to anyone anything anymore…”

The flooding of New Orleans, with the immense amount of ordinary people who travelled down and helped out with practical work and networked across race and class boundaries on one hand, and the utter lack of basic infrastructure and public resources on the other, shows where the USA is at today, she says. It really became an eye-opener to many Americans: as people saw the system crumbling all around them, instead of trying to figure out how to overthrow the system, people now shifted to think about what kind of system to actually have that can keep people alive?

Diversity of tactics today –

Lakey’s argument

What then is at stake when talking about diversity of tactics and the future of a nonviolent global mass movement? Lakey is fast to point out the importance of not characterizing each other. All of us who has walked peacefully in and out of a demo only to find out the next day – in the Daily News – that the event was full of wicked folks and malevolent intents can feel how the media is attributing to the resentment towards “those anarchists,” making ordinary citizens and peaceniks alike defend ourselves with “I am not like them.” But Lakey point out there is also a lot of that kind of labelling of others going on within the US social change movement, doing harm especially to young people. “So many people just got shot down and out by this,” Lakey says regretfully. His advice is “be specific – work on specific goals, and don’t judge people by the way they look.” Keep exploring what the principles are that enables us to come up with strong and effective strategies.

Lakey’s main point in the March-April 2002 article “Diversity of Tactics and Democracy” in the anarchist paper Clamor is that diversity of opinion serves democracy, while diversity of tactics undermines it. Telling the tale of the young movement Otpor in Serbia, organizing to bring down Milosevic’s government, he shows an example of a very fast learning curve towards adopting a completely nonviolent policy, in response to the power holders’ violent infiltrators who provoked property destruction and instigated riots. This scenario reminds Lakey of the US during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, when similarly “the stakes were too high to have the luxury of everyone doing their thing.” Diversity of tactics really only benefit the privileged, argues Lakey, those of us who are not singled out because of the way we look and are targets for systematic oppression of all sorts. It is also benefiting the young, who can run fast and who does not have people back home dependent for their lives on your return, people who very well may feel invulnerable. “A strategy isn’t democratic if it intrinsically alienated the majority of oppressed people and shuts the door to their participation,” writes Lakey, and is quite satisfied that these arguments still hold to very effectively end the debate on the potential of diversity of tactics in the USA.

Starhawk’s response

Starhawk’s responded to Lakey in July 2002, in “Getting our Tactics Right: Lessons from the Calgary G8 Mobilization,” published on her website. Diversity of tactics’ undemocratic nature also shows in that it keeps people from involving in the complex, and yet so necessary discussions on strategy, she writes. “You do your thing and we do ours” is the ruling logic, killing potentially fruitful exchanges between difference of opinions and experience, and between people with different special skills. Furthermore, coordinated planning becomes very difficult, which in itself is undemocratic. If people don’t know what is going to happen, how can they have an opinion about it then, Starhawk asks? With sadness in her heart, she has witnessed how the choices for which nonviolent tactics to use at a demo become unnecessarily safe and passive as organizers attempted a promise to participants that they will not end up in situations where they may get hurt. This way, non-violence became dull, ineffective and unattractive. One way to save the situation is to work towards transparent organizing, where no-one is trying to hide anything from anyone – not even the police.

Everything has its time

Starhawk, obviously never uncritically in favour of diversity of tactics, claims there was a time when it served its purpose, however. She explains: nonviolence has been framed by a certain group of people exerting control over what other people are going to do and restricting them. This has created irritation and resentment. But the movement and the world can not afford that the perception among the younger is that nonviolent actions are safe and passive. Working with people who have not made a nonviolent commitment in advance, then, help lift some of the stigma surrounding nonviolent actions. Rather than don’ts, we need to have agreement on what we will do, and make many a serious attempt to act creatively and to embody the vision of the world that we want to create. One such visionary example from real life was at a legal peace march in Iowa, when the police was getting ready to crack down hard with dogs on a group of black clad youngsters. Like a whirl of saving angels, middle-aged women dressed in blue for water each grabbed a kid in black and swirled away, pressing them tight to their bosoms. Events like this has broken the ice between more traditionally trained nonviolent activists like Starhawk, and the group of younger activists that came out of Seattle. “Kids are learning and maturing so fast,” says Starhawk, and better to have the chance to talk to them than to shut them out all together and leave them to their own madness. Rather, we ought to do more work together, to learn from and influence each other. “But I am out of there when they start throwing rocks - if for no other reason that they are younger and faster than me,” Starhawk giggles!

Visions for globalising nonviolence: Lakey

Strategy, coalition building, negotiations

When it comes to his visions of globalizing nonviolence, strategy is for Lakey the # 1 key word. There may off course always be a need to improvise tactically in the moment, but most important is a clear strategy that gets agreement amongst those who want to participate. With clear strategies, coalition building become so much easier, as does the option of opting out when things don’t develop the way you - individually or as a group - had expected. In a “post-diversity of tactics- America”, Lakey sees a lot more negotiations. He is using the current “End the war on Iraq” opposition as an example. Here, two rivalling organizations sit at long meetings months in advance, negotiating for a final solution, sometimes achieved at in the very last moment.

Turf and Division of Labour

Absurdly enough, there is also the turf issue. Rivalry over turf is strategically a dead end, Lakey says. The result if that the power holders get to decide the place of battle, or: what areas the protestors have to make their protests at, creating a situation where the movement become reactive instead of proactive, “never a good thing.” The solution is “division of labour” if you want to do spontaneous actions, do it over in that place - nonviolent direct action will have their go over at that place. Would then Lakey block physically someone from the other camp to enter “his” turf? Well, yes, he responds, exemplifying again with the civil rights movement and the so called nonviolent stewards or marshals, trained to contain outside activists trying to change the character of a demonstration. “As we all know, invasions do happen – also by the police, he says, and we need to have the capacity to defend ourselves nonviolently.”


Lakey ends the interview with stressing the importance of working in campaigns, and here, he is not happy with Starhawk, doing the “event-thing”. “Life gets strategically so much easier to do effective work when we think in terms of campaigns rather than events.” The idea of an event creates a psychological sense of scarcity, where the revolution needs to happen that week and the inevitable conflicts become at a much higher stake. Gandhi, Chavez, Dr King – Lakey can’t think of one single direct action strategists who has not favoured working in campaigns. With a sense of psychological space, the movement also become more thoughtful and have time to think about how to make the campaign attractive. A contemporary example of this is the No to sweatshops-coalition, composed of mostly young people at college, who has proved to be way more effective in achieving their goals and getting media attention than the spontaneous action activists.


If we are to succeed in globalizing nonviolence, we need to be way more proactive, says Lakey. For example, we need to go to the other camp ahead of time. Dr King used this with the some gangs in Chicago, preparing to take part of Kings nonviolent campaign with violent means. Dr King responded with sending some of his most trusted people to meet with the so called Black Rangers on their turf. A personal friend to Lakey, Jim Orange, was beaten up some 30 times as the rangers were testing his nonviolence stand and tactics. Eventually, several of the rangers did the training themselves and became very effective nonviolent activists in the struggle for civil rights.

Visions for globalising nonviolence: Starhawk

Clearly, Lakey and Starhawk are in the struggle together, convinced that nonviolent direct action is the most powerful tactic of political change. Whatever may have appeared as important differences between the two has faded as the situation in the world changed, she says. >From having had a focus for many years on delegitimising institutions and shaking them up, Starhawk and her friends and allies now have to work on making nonviolence available to people. We have not done that yet, she says, but one of the strengths with nonviolent direct action is that it provides a very principled way to take a strong stand and yet do it in a way that people can feel comfortable with it in relation to the level of risk they take.

Discussing what to do with the anger that is causing people to turn to violent means or resort into passivity, Starhawk argues that classical nonviolence have a problem stemming from a Christian morality of trying to suppress anger and make us into perfect human beings. This is just not going to work for a lot of people, she says, and will also take some vitality away from the political action.

When asked to envision the global nonviolent future, Starhawk is talking, very inspired, about the young people. “They are like little engines of change, unbelievable organizers, so intent on building another world,” she muses amazed. Finally, she is urging us to take a close look at the ecological crises affecting particularly the poor areas of the world. If we are really committed to nonviolence, we need to look at how we are going to respond to this. “We can’t talk about nonviolence only in the sense of refraining from violence, but look at creating a world that we all want to live in and developing the skills and the tools that are necessary – and then do it!”

According to Starhawk, of what she has seen of activists in some countries in Europe, the age-span is greater than in the US, something she is attributing to the social infrastructure allowing them to be involved in the struggle for life. True as this may be, Starhawk and Lakey are two living examples of admirable older Americans who have dedicated their lives to undo the injustice brought about by their own government, and trying to make sure their own actions do not further harm other human beings and the resources of our world. Joining forces, we would even leave it better off to our kids.


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