Silver’s analysis supports what is already known about the dynamics of nonviolent action, and also supports a long-held perception among members of the American peace community that news outlets are obsessed with violence to the exclusion of other worthy events. However, you would not likely know this from reading about the protests in most major publications.
When nonviolent activists are repressed by force—even when they are breaking the law—public opinion tends to turn in their favor. Nonviolent activists are more likely to be thought of as “reasonable people” than are violent activists, who are perceived as extremist and threat to public safety. Reasonable people attract allies, sympathy and material support. Extremists attract repression and social isolation. Gene Sharp, the Harvard scholar of nonviolence, coined this dynamic “political ju-jitsu,” because the force that the opponent uses to squash the movement tends to backfire by attracting more support for that movement.
There are diverse examples of this dynamic. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama knowingly put unarmed school children out into the streets to face police dogs and fire hoses. The images of that confrontation between a nonviolent community seeking justice and the police were branded upon our national consciousness and led to an expansion of public support for Civil Rights. The injustice of systemic violence against African Americans already existed, but the issue was not thrust into public debate until it was laid naked by violent repression of the nonviolent movement.
A second example: Thousands of mostly working and middle class Christians waged a massive sit-in campaign between 1987 and 1990 to promote an anti-abortion agenda. The campaign culminated in a nationally organized multi-year wave of nonviolent blockades of medical clinics. In 1988 alone there were 188 nonviolent clinic blockades in which more than 11,000 people were voluntarily arrested. The strategic logic was to endure mass arrests to bring attention to the pro-life movement through the media. The approach more or less worked until new laws and legal action by women’s organizations made blockading a medical clinic too costly to bear. Anti-abortion violence increased after the new laws took effect and the movement found itself increasingly isolated.
Public intellectuals in the American peace community have known about these dynamics for years, including the propensity for American media to fixate on violence and confrontation. Elise Boulding, a founding matriarch of women’s studies and a pioneer in the American peace community, articulated the bias toward violence and confrontation in her seminal work Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History. She understood the American fixation with violence to be an expression of a male dominated society. In the case of some movements, this fixation has been exploited to advance public knowledge of key issues. The central deciding factor in how these confrontations are understood by the public, however, is the degree to which the movement expresses and maintains nonviolent discipline.
So far the Wall Street occupation and its satellite demonstrations in hundreds of cities throughout the U.S. and Canada have largely expressed and maintained nonviolent discipline. Small episodes of violence and property destruction have been damaging to the movement as a whole, but they do not fully capture the spirit and intention of the protests. Organic social movements –like churches and political parties –sometimes attract fringe characters, but the presence of these fringe characters and their sometimes-irresponsible behavior do not define the work of thousands of others.
As Robert Borosage has written, what the Occupy movement lacks in measurable policy objectives and talking points it more than makes up for with moral clarity. There is a pervasive sense that the true meaning of the bank bailout, high corporate profits, partisan political paralysis, the mortgage crisis and long-term unemployment is that America has lost its moral direction. As long as these fundamentally moral failures persist, and as long as the Occupy demonstrations remain committed to nonviolent direct action, the movement will likely continue to grow.
What is less certain, however, is whether American mainstream media will take upon themselves the more useful tasks of analyzing these underlying moral failures and of providing a fair hearing to the people most damaged by the economy. So far, media coverage tends to focus on dramatic encounters and confrontation without going deeper into the underlying causes or dynamics. America needs greater depth of insight by media into the present crisis.
It has happened before that peace and social justice scholars –expert analysts of the present crisis –have informed and deepened public debate through mass media. Given the naked failures of the generals, politicians and economists to understand and explain the world over the past ten years, it seems like a good time for all media organizations to make space for peace and justice scholars on the front pages and in news reports and analysis.
Commentary by Jesse Laird, a Portland, Oregon activist who teaches courses in the humanities and studies human rights education.