Since the 2009 release of After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance
, the world has seen a surge in nonviolent movements. In country after country, people have used the power of mass gatherings to overthrow corrupt and tyrannical leaders. Around the globe, young people have organized to protest against police violence, environmental threats, and Islamophobia; and in support of immigrant justice, better education, and jobs that pay a living wage. In their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic on Nonviolent Conflict
, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan shared their finding that “historically, nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more effective in achieving their goals than violent resistance campaigns.”
No matter how effective they are, it’s easy to see that nonviolent movements are rarely popular while they’re happening. Looking back through history, patterns suggest that this has always been true. From Gandhi on, every leader and group profiled in this book was criticized, maligned, and dismissed for their efforts to make a better world.
In 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, a group of white ministers wrote a letter calling the demonstrations he was leading “unwise and untimely” and “extreme measures.” They urged Dr. King and the black community to withdraw from the protests. “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets,” they wrote. Not in the streets.
We hear the same refrain today.
By definition, nonviolent resistance is disruptive. Sit-ins, marches, and blockades are designed to be inconvenient. Participants purposefully disturb people in an effort to wake them up to the uncomfortable truth that something needs to change.
We also have abundant evidence that the people who lead nonviolent campaigns are complex, flawed human beings. When we look back at movements that happened in the past, we often put leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. on pedestals, as if they were saints. In fact, every leader and movement has failings as well as successes.
Throughout history, women leaders in nonviolent resistance have seldom received due credit for their work, as male leaders are often recognized over their female counterparts. For instance, Dolores Huerta’s role in the farmworkers’ movement has long been overshadowed by that of César Chávez. Even the movement’s famous slogan, “Sí se puede,” which Huerta coined, has been wrongly attributed to Chávez.
As Gandhi began advocating for the rights of Indian workers in South Africa, he couldn’t yet recognize the full humanity of black South Africans who labored beside them. Leaders who are principled in the struggle for freedom and justice may falter when they finally achieve a measure of power. After he was elected the first president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel quickly became an uncritical supporter of the United States. Throughout the Velvet Revolution he had insisted on the importance of “living in truth,” but as a politician, he voiced support for the deceptive arguments of the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq, even though people across the world—including most Czechs—strongly opposed the war.
The first edition of After Gandhi
profiled the struggle for democracy in Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her long years of house arrest. In 2010 Suu Kyi was released, and she became the head of the opposition party and was then elected state counsellor. Yet in this position of influence, and despite her inspiring voice for nonviolent struggle, to date she has failed to speak out against the terrible campaign of violence waged against the Rohingya people, a persecuted group in Myanmar. We can no longer hold Aung San Suu Kyi up as a champion of nonviolence.
Though it can be disappointing and even heartbreaking to consider leaders’ failures, it’s essential to remember that nonviolent actions are taken by ordinary people— just like us. And like you.
This rings true today more than ever. As people of all ages around the world take up tactics of nonviolent resistance— from social media in their homes to mass marches on the streets—we’ve only begun to imagine what’s possible in the quest for justice, equity, and peace. —Anne Sibley O’Brien & Perry Edmond O’Brien with Tharanga Yakupitiyage, November 2017
Copyright © 2018 by Anne Sibley O'Brien (Author/Illustrator); Perry Edmond O'Brien (Author). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.