Nonviolence Still Wins the Public—and Major Changes

Czech dissident/president, Václav Havel (1936-2012), after nonviolent ouster of Soviets

by Barbara G. Ellis

In mid-December, a man died who for years worked for a nonviolent overthrow of Soviet control over Czechoslovakia that finally happened in 1989. He was Václav Havel, playwright, leading dissident against Soviet domination, and long-time political prisoner. He was the “voice of the crowds” that grew increasingly rebellious after decades of occupation. Result: A demonstration of more than 100,000 in Prague’s Wenceslas Square on a bitterly cold November day in 1989 that set off in a “velvet” revolution ending Soviet rule 44 days later. [1]

Just as in the first days of the Arab spring revolt, thousands of Czechs faced a well-armed, riot-trained, and brutal police force ready to do mayhem and murder. But the nonviolent response stunned them because it was totally unexpected. As one foreign writer described the event:

In Czechoslovakia a massive nonviolent protest in 1968 fizzled out, but twenty-one years later, on November 17, 1989, a spontaneous upsurge against Soviet occupation turned into the largest demonstration in the history of the country. Hundreds of demonstrators were injured when the security forces charged the crowd. Over a hundred thousand marchers gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague, sat down… and [sang] nursery rhymes. They held candles and waved flags. Their leader Václav Havel, speaking in virtually the Gandhian idiom, exhorted them to refrain from violence. …. This was, he declared, “a rebellion of truth against lies, of purities against impurities, of the human heart against violence. “

The Prague demonstration had a chain reaction across the country. Protests and participants grew daily. Thousands of strike committees were formed. Peaceful crowds, holding nothing but candies and flowers, were beaten up by truncheon-wielding police. …

On December 7, the Prime Minister of the Communist government resigned. On December 10, a government of ‘national understanding’ was announced. By the end of December 1989, the Soviet-dominated regime had surrendered and the Federal Assembly had elected Havel, as the president of Czechoslovakia. [2]

The almost overwhelming negative public reaction to police-state brutality was rare, perhaps because the usual Western response in such street conflicts had been either fight or flight—or never demonstrate. This was an unmovable sit-down—and with singing—even as the heads and bodies in the front rows took the clubbing. But then came police exhaustion, especially with the prospect of having to beat and/or arrest thousands and hundreds more joining them by the minute. The police surrendered and, with what dignity they had left, departed only to find the global media depicting them as beasts. Their victims were seen by a world audience as similar to the non-resisting martyrs in Rome’s Coliseum, reportedly linking arms and singing as wild animals or gladiators made a bloody end to their lives. That reportedly stunned spectators into silence, especially stoics such as Seneca to see them walk his talk and remembered and revered to this day. [3]

Western history is full of failed revolts of peasants bearing clubs and pitchforks—usually over starvation or taxes—being mercilessly smashed by a king’s or emperor’s troops using swords and guns, crucifixions or heads on pikes by city gates. But when they are unarmed and nonviolent, the enforcers are branded as brutes, the dead and injured as heroic and worthy of statues or world-famous paintings. For example, in Manchester, England back in 1819, nervous city officials ordered 1,500 Waterloo cavalry veterans to use sabers, gun butts, and horses to attack a Sunday afternoon family crowd of 50,000 gathered to hear five speakers advocating voting rights for commoners. Results: 18 dead, 500 wounded, the speakers and a London Times reporter all imprisoned for “holding an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent.” The British government blocked the news, but when the public learned of the “Peterloo Massacre,” their shock and fury fell on the army and Manchester’s leaders. Artists whipped out paint brushes and pens. The poet Shelley further blackened their reputations for posterity with his “The Mask of Anarchy,” reminding survivors that: “Ye are many, they are few. [4]

Cavalry attack at Manchester August 16, 1819 shocked Britain

These British soldiers were little different, except in choice of weapons, from their successors facing Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution (“Quit India”) seven decades ago. The Brits had tried every weapon—truncheons, fires, bullets, bayonets, jailings, torture, hangings—to stop India’s juggernaut for independence from Britain after World War II. They were down to the tactic of religious sacrilege of pouring cow urine on thousands as they sat quietly, once again, on train tracks to paralyze India and British corporations. Yet Gandhi’s millions would not be moved. Such scenes, books, and newspapers turned world opinion against the centuries of British atrocities by their enforcers. Nonviolence earned India its independence after nearly four centuries of domination and occupation. [5]

Now, sit-ins are not new to wrest monumental changes, especially from American corporations toward their workers . One labor historian noted:

The sit-down strike was …. reportedly used in 15th and 18th century France, early 19th century England and even in ancient Egypt by a group of stonemasons. The early part of the 20th century saw occasional sit-downs in the U.S., France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Spain, England, Wales and Poland. [6]

Perhaps the most famous and largest sit-down protest in American history was in 1936-37 by 44,000 employees at General Motors’ huge complex in Flint, Michigan. Strikers used it for 44 days as their winning weapon to stop unsafe work conditions such as “speed-ups,” as well as long hours, low wages, and blocking unionization with the United Automobile Workers. Initially, when they refused GM orders to leave the buildings, the ensuing strike also became the first “Occupy” camp in this country. It got the same degree of heavy mainstream media coverage as the MSM spent on last fall’s Occupy camps. And national empathy and support from the working public. [7]

GM’s 44,000 workers also had the advantage of seeing sit-down success before they tried it. An epidemic of nonviolent sit-down strikes in the area worked—and fairly quickly. It took only one day (January 29) at Firestone’s rubber plant for management to sign a favorable contract, and 48 days at Goodyear’s plants. Altogether, 48 sit-down strikes around the country followed for the rest of 1936. [8]

So on December 28, GM’s thousands of workers sat down to wait out management’s surrender to a UAW contract. They knew what would happen to the company’s 43% of market share if cars weren’t delivered to dealerships on time. GM officials turned off electricity, heat, and for days tried vainly to block deliveries of food, warm clothing, and blankets by Flint’s women. [9]

The sit-down strikers were nonviolent, yet company police fired tear gas into one plant and scattered protesters with a power-wash from a well-aimed fire hose. Those venturing outside were beaten. Then, GM coaxed city police and the National Guard into bombarding one building with gas. Instantly, the UAW Women’s Emergency Brigade smashed windows to save workers from being smothered to death. Gunfire wounded 14 strikers. GM’s viciousness blackened its reputation all across the nation—and undoubtedly lost millions in sales to Ford, Chrysler, and other automakers. [10]

The king-like mentality of police and the military never changes, despite their being part of the 99% and taking oaths to uphold the Constitution, which most seem never to have read nor understood.

So it was in the American South during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s when thousands of white racists joined lawmen to keep nonviolent African-Americans from desegregating public places and transit systems, schools, pools, and voting rights. Again, media photo coverage did much to reveal to most Americans what blacks were willing to suffer to overthrow nearly 300 years without civil or human rights: cattle prods, hoses, vicious dogs, clubs, bombs, fires, beatings, jailings, and worse. The recent film Freedom Fighters documents the animal behavior employed to hold back the dawn of equal rights. [11]

Of greater interest to Occupiers is a film depicting the rigorous weeks of training in 1960 of a group of Fisk University students. Their mission was to desegregate Nashville’s lunch-counters which eventually led to desegregating all the Tennessee city’s public places. Sessions were led by The Rev. James Lawson, an expert on Gandhian direct nonviolent civil-disobedience after researching them in India. They would not be moved no matter what verbal abuse or physical assaults came down from lunch-counter proprietors and staff, customers, or lawmen. How not to react and sit for hours on a restaurant stool could only have been achieved by disciplined resolve, solidarity, nerves of steel, and youth’s tough control of bladder-and-bowel systems. Within three months (February to May), Nashville’s lunch-counters were desegregated. Several of that nucleus had been so enthusiastic about the surprising results that they started the national Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to move into other campaigns that eventually desegregated the South, but the rest of the country. [12]

Their famous example was repeated by another group of students also using nonviolence to protest tuition increases at the University of California/Davis. They sat, arms linked, heads bowed, and silent before the archetypal police bully, sneering and chortling as he pepper-sprayed them repeatedly. That video and photos, seen by millions on the Internet and in the world’s newspapers and magazines, was worth ten-thousand words. And it did not favor the police. [13]

When asked why the UC/Davis tactic wasn’t used in the January 28 Oakland Occupy event to use two empty buildings, one Portland participant said: “It’s pretty hard to sit down and be nonviolent when the cops are throwing concussion bombs and tear gas at you.” To which another Occupier veteran said: “If they’d sat down and been nonviolent in the first place, the cops wouldn’t have tossed bombs and gas at them.” The YouTube video seen by millions revealed black-hooded, ski-masked individuals in the front lines holding garbage-can shields and taunting riot police. [14]

If Occupiers have learned anything since the movement’s September founding, it should be that those who delight in publicity from pitched battles with the police aren’t winning friends or favorably influencing the 99%. They’re turning off potential recruits, vital to Occupy’s growth and its tremendous power to change this country’s direction.

Worse, many cities are now gradually fusing police departments with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, access to sophisticated weaponry from the Defense Department to be used against protesters is not so wild a dream. Indeed, the British government is reportedly exploring the use of nerve gas, banned in war by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, but not for ‘peaceful’ domestic purposes such as …riot control.” [15]

Sound cannons, another weapon of war, were first used to disperse airport birds, but then employed in Iraq and against 2009 G20 Summit protesters in Pittsburgh. They were recently used on police pickups to clear Occupy encampments in Oakland and New York’s Zuccotti Park. With a near 1,000-foot range, these LRADs (long-range acoustic devices) operating at 300 decibels, can break eardrums and incapacitate. They undoubtedly will replace water-guzzling cannons for crowd control. For the upcoming (May) NATO/G8 summits in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel undoubtedly will employ them, along with the just-ordered 3,000 state-of-the-art face masks for police. And at his request, the Secret Service will use taxpayer money to pay for rooftop snipers and “aerial-surveillance.” [16]

A sound cannon clearing OWS’s Zuccotti park on November 15

Against this increasingly deadly armament, tips on escaping kettling or police lines, or employing flashlights and toy smoke devices may provide thrills or fantasies of being Davids defeating Goliaths. But they will do nothing to advance the main purposes of Occupy except needlessly burn up energy, imagination, time, bail money—and give the movement a bad name. A good example happened early this month when an Oregonian headline and story falsely claimed Occupiers smashed a glass door of an upscale restaurant, spray-painted a Honda, broke windshields of an Alfa Romero and BMW, and threw garbage in the streets. One perpetrator admitted guilt next day in an anonymous Portland.indymedia post that the deeds were done by fellow anarchists flying a “black and red flag” out to attack the 1%. They were avenging wrongs symbolized by the carmakers’ histories and the lifestyles of the rich, as well as world oppression in general and Portland police shootings in particular. [17]

Rest assured, car lovers among the 99% (even those driving beaters) had to be outraged at the Occupy movement after reading The Oregonian’s story. Not to mention readers appalled by garbage tossed in the streets of a city where people sort it by type and clean up after their dogs. No correction appeared in the newspaper, of course, so story and photo caption of a bandana-clad youth undoubtedly will stay in the public mind he was an Occupier.

By contrast, not a cop nor hooligan—nor MSM crews—were in sight when Occupiers recently marched and rallied with two union locals (SEIU 49, Laborers 483) to Dishman Community Center to protest the downsizing of 400 front-line workers at the Legacy hospital chain and the potential draconian cuts to city maintenance workers. And a few days earlier, only a half-dozen bicycle troopers lounged across from the Old Post Office in the trouble-free Letter Carrier union’s rally and march that included dozens of Occupiers. And neither cops nor red and black flags turned up at the spirited Valentine’s Day demonstration of Occupiers and others picketing the Division Street New Seasons store for firing a 10-year employee seemingly for organizational activities. If ever revenge was called for, it has to be for centuries of atrocities by the 1% against the working classes, not the least of which is today’s colossal downsizing rates—15,000,000 unemployed—and the 1%’s union-busting tactics.

The explanation appears to lie in the fact that union outreach, among the many Occupy projects in Portland, is part of the unsung, heavy, and hard work it takes to end corporate rule in America and equalize the staggering economic gap between the 1% and 99%. Cop-fighting exhibitionism isn’t the forte of Occupiers doing the movement’s heavy lifting.

A visit to Portland Occupy’s headquarters at St. Francis Catholic church reveals a daily (and nightly) beehive of Occupiers involved in such meetings and activities aimed at achieving Occupy’s goals:

• Replacing the city budget with one designed from input and participation by neighborhood associations, social agencies, and the needy.

• Working with the Mayor on a resolution for responsible banking.

• Forcing a major global grain conglomerate to return jurisdiction to Longshoreman’s Local 21 for cargo handling at Longview, Washington.

• Staging a teach-in on how to end corporate control of government and elections by bringing down ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

• Considering support to nearly a dozen union locals requesting help in labor disputes (Ironworkers, Oregon Education Association, etc.).

• Promoting ballot measures (e.g., terminating the police horse patrol) at the city’s Charter Review Commission.

• Stopping evictions of homeowners either with protesters in their yards or at auctions of foreclosed homes on the county courthouse steps.

• Helping a neighborhood association fight 7-Eleven’s plans for a store at a high-crime, high-traffic location.

• Organizing the long-term unemployed into a political force to get President Obama and/or Governor Kitzhaber to sign Executive Orders restarting the Great Depression’s WPA which employed millions on public works projects.

• Working with SEIU’s outreach in East County to help the houseless and unemployed.

• Traveling to Salem to join other Oregon Occupiers in lobbying legislators to pass laws against corporations being considered as people.

Nationally, Occupiers have the investigative capabilities to help jail banksters and real-estate thieves responsible for Great Depression II. They also have the skills and endurance to bring single-payer health insurance to every American. All such efforts are instruments of the movement’s spread even in the smallest community— and achieved nonviolently. According to the multiplier effect of the Rule of 250, one pleased recipient spreads the word to at least 25 others who do the same and, with electronic speed, 250 people are passing the good word. With print media, the ratio has been one letter-to-the-editor represents 100 people. More quickly becomes more. Thus it is with those joining Occupy and sticking to its mission of helping the 99%.

In midst of a national call for “mass action against the suppression of the Occupy movement” at month’s end, it was fortuitous that the Portland group just hosted famed activists Margaret Flowers, MD, and Kevin Zeese of Occupy DC as leaders of a nonviolence teach-in to a packed house. Zeese, an Occupy pioneer, recently warned about violence killing the movement—either by police, the 1%, attempts at co-opting by political parties and liberal nonprofits—or public shunning:

People are not drawn to violent movement. Such tactics will shrink rather than expand our base of support. Property damage justifies police violence to many Americans. There is a wide range of diversity of tactics within a nonviolent strategy. Disciplined nonviolence is often more difficult because anger and emotion lead people to want to strike back at the police when they are violent, but disciplined nonviolence is the tactic that is most effective against the violence of the state. [18]

Nonviolence as a weapon for vital and major changes requires the greatest physical, emotional, and spiritual courage of convictions possible in men and women, like that shown by those Czechs. Like those Civil Rights protesters. And those UC/Davis students. They refused to be moved despite the “terrible swift swords” raised against them by the 1% and their enforcers. Thus far, so are dedicated Occupiers in big cities, small towns, and hamlets busy investing time, ideas, energy, money, and elbow-grease to projects fulfilling the movement’s chants for the 99%. “End Corporate Greed” and “Banks Got Bailed Out/We Got Sold Out” are certainly among them. Add “Nonviolence.” As for a sit-down song, why not Verdi’s spine-tingling chorus “Song for Liberty.” If that combination inspired and freed the Czechs, and “We Shall Overcome” did the same for African-Americans, it can do the same for Occupiers refusing to be moved in the goal of turning the odds against corporate-controlled America. [19]


[3] Ibid.
[4] http// Shelley, Percy Bysshe. (23 September 1819/1990). “The Mask of Anarchy, Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester.” The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry. (New York: Oxford University Press), 38, 91.
[5] Author’s recollection of final days of Gandhi’s “Quit India” cause.
[6] The idea for sit-down strikes, this article says, came from a intra-union baseball game in Akron when players sat down to protest using non-union umpires.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Mullins, Lisa. (2007). Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement.(Miami: Barnhardt & Ashe Publishers Inc.).
[12] Ibid.
[19] Verdi, Giuseppe. (1842). “Song for Liberty.” Nabucco. Greece’s Nana Mouskouri and chorus, World Music Awards: