Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Movement metrics and the sum of all tactics

How do we assess our nonviolent movements? How do we evaluate the situational advisability of particular tactics? Is devising tactics a matter of reading over the menu and ordering up the fave of the day? Or are there methods for choosing methods?

At least we need a few filters. None of the answers to these questions can be certain, but unless your planning committee is composed of total tyros, you can make some educated guesses.

Will the tactic under consideration be possible? That is, are there enough willing participants and can they pull it off? This is not always possible.

Most importantly, the Prime Directive: How will this affect recruitment? If it will grow your movement and you can do it, it is generally advisable. If that tactic will alienate more than it attracts, it's inadvisable, even if you have high commitment people willing to do it.

Of course, all this is malleable, with the possible exception of actual violence, which almost always seems to alienate more potential sympathizers and turn off more potential participants than it draws into the movement or movement supporter ranks. But even some high risk, high consequence actions can help build some movements, under the right conditions, so all the factors are important to consider.
For example, it is a poor idea to have a demonstration that features a crowd of clearly angry masked activists throwing things and taunting police. That is a near guarantee to violate the Prime Directive, invariably alienating far more people than it attracts. Some say the argument for that sort of action is that it is only property destruction and that the property of corporations, or polluting property, or oppressive government property--all that property is fair game. Of course, the vast majority of people consider that simple vandalism and will not join in. They not only generally disagree with it, but even if they felt a slight attraction to it, they realize that they can possibly do some jail or even prison time for such actions. Recruitment barriers are high, both morally and in direct costs.

Knowing this, the last time I did a Plowshares action--that is, using hand tools to disarm or dismantle some weapon or component of a weapon system--I did three things to try to get over, under, around, and through these logical objections.

One, I suggested a meeting of all key 14 organizers of the mass action campaign working to shut down the weapon component--in this case, the command facility, located in northern Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan, that would send launch orders to 52 percent of the nuclear arsenal of the US, that which are on board SSBNs, the nuclear ballistic missile-carrying subs. The two of us who were planning to do this Plowshares action explained what we had in mind and I asked the group, "So, what do you think will be the effect of our action?"

The response from one of the main organizers was instant, "It will kill off our campaign."

We spent the next two days figuring out how to make our action strengthen the campaign. It was a group process that produced a good action, good publicity, a good trial, and a historic court decision from the efforts of an outstanding team of lawyers and expert witnesses. Crowds came frequently to the jail to demonstrate support while we awaited trial and the courtroom was packed every day during the trial. In the end, the jury found us guilty of property destruction and, most noteworthy, acquitted us of sabotage, since they felt we proved the command center had no defensive function, purely an offensive function, and sabotage convictions require the offenders to interfere with the defense of the US. The Christian Science Monitor ran a story about the implications and the Asahi Shimbun sent two reporters from Japan to use our action as the lead-in on a story about the Plowshares movement.

Most tellingly, my old farmer neighbors in northern Wisconsin went out of their way to tell me, "I am in favor of the military, but you did the right thing." It didn't take too many more years to increase our coalition and shut down the command center.

We maintained a positive, friendly attitude toward the workers at the command facility, toward the sheriff and deputies, and we outreached constantly to the public with every tool we could think of, explaining ourselves and why we took hand tools to dismantle a portion of the United States nuclear arsenal. We harnessed the values we knew our neighbors held dear, we rejected violence again and again, and we sought the approbation of credible intellectual and moral leadership of our bioregion, some of whom testified tellingly as our character witnesses. We had former military officers and a former nuclear weapon designer testify on our behalf. In short, we showed great respect for the process (OK, I did have one moment of Courtroom Tourette Syndrome, I confess, but that was at sentencing, not during the trial), for the fair play assumptions, and for basic community values. I even yielded to our attorneys' orders to wear a tie (for one day and Never Again!).

While tactics can be nearly illimitable, way beyond the Sharp 198 list, their resonance with strategy is paramount. The ideas that inform your choices are almost more important than the choices, as long as you are willing and able to create the context that makes those tactical choices appealing and effective.

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