Written in spring of 2011, while the world was captivated by the Arab Spring and long before the first protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park, this look at the history of civil resistance in the twentieth century - starting with Mohandas Gandhi and tracing around the globe - provides important insight into the wide breadth of non-violent uprisings (both successful and unsuccessful) that form the historical origins on the current Occupy movement. Many of the movements that are discussed brought about incredible change, through strategic, non-violent action. As the Occupy Wall Street movement ages and continues to face increasingly violent reactions from police and authorities, it is important to revisit the tactics of non-violence that have at times had success in the twentieth century as well as the circumstances that surrounded those successes and to look to how these precedents can provide direction to a growing, changing social movement. Brian Urquhart, for the New York Review of Books:
What we now call “civil resistance” often takes the form of mass rallies and demonstrations, as in Prague in 1989 and Tehran in 2009. People also engage in strikes, boycotts, fasts, and refusals to obey the law. All these have been evident in the largely leaderless, but Internet-coordinated, overthrow of the government in Tunis and the mass protests in Cairo, whose outcomes probably won’t be clear for some time. Civil resistance usually cannot survive systematic and violent repression or a totalitarian police state, and it is still often suppressed by authoritarian governments and oligarchies. At least in the Arab world, this seems to be changing.
Gandhi’s example and teaching were a basic inspiration for the United States civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From A. Philip Randolph’s threatened March on Washington in July 1940 to protest exclusionary hiring practices in defense industries to King’s successful actions of the 1960s, carefully planned and targeted, nonviolent, civil resistance was the essence of the movement’s operations.
Its strategy included inducing opponents to react brutally, thereby inviting sympathetic support from the press and public and thus encouraging the federal government to intervene on the side of law and order. King and the SCLC were masters of this technique. They selected Birmingham, Alabama, for their 1963 campaign, because the commissioner of public safety, “Bull” Connor, was a dependably violent racist hothead who could be relied upon to use dogs, cattle prods, and water cannons against peaceful demonstrators. Connor’s brutalities invited TV coverage that made him a national villain and sowed the seeds for President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act.