Sunday, May 04, 2014

Avoiding the contamination of the provocateur starts with commitment

I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.
--Lily Tomlin

Watching movements implode from a failure of self-disciplined nonviolence is painful. Inadvertently, I participated in both sorts of movements over decades, and only in retrospect am I finally able to apply some conflict forensics that help me understand my own experience.

I was part of a movement in northern Wisconsin to get rid of a US Navy thermonuclear command base that sent commands to all US nuclear subs of all classes. We wanted that cleared out, not just NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), but NOPE (Not On Planet Earth).
I was also part of several peace and justice efforts some 200 miles southwest, in Minneapolis.

The movements in northern Wisconsin were led by and primarily affected by Nancy and Max Rice, founders of Dorea Peace Community. They were convinced pacifists. Max was almost killed in an attack on him by virulent, violent racists in the Deep South during the Civil Rights movement. Nancy was on the board of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and went to meet with them once or twice a year in Nyack, New York. They convinced us to move from protest to resistance and they were quiet leaders for the initial actions. I was first arrested with Max in our campaign's very first nonviolent action on Labor Day, 1983 (although we had been doing nonviolent sabotage in Michigan beginning that summer). Then I was arrested with Nancy at the next nonviolent action. Their grace and calm philosophy permeated everything we did and I learned so much from them. Then we got reinforcements from Jonah House, more radical pacifists used to robust nonviolent resistance and high discipline, Barb Kass and Mike Miles. The core of our leadership was philosophically and religiously pacifist. There were no doubts about our codes of behavior nor about our commitments.

On the other hand, I never knew who or what I might find in Minneapolis. There was a large group of activists who fancied themselves more radical than anyone and who flirted with violence, wore masks sometimes, and regarded all cops and all corporate officials as the enemy. The Minneapolis movement that did the best job in keeping them from doing damage to their movement was the Honeywell Project, since that movement had been destroyed in the 60s by allowing that sort of activist free rein. Turns out many of those 'radicals' were agents provocateurs, either police themselves or agents of the police rat system ("Go out there and stir up violence and we will keep you out of prison for the crimes we've caught you for."). They eventually found that in a Freedom of Information Act motion.

The Minneapolis radicals were pretty puffed up with themselves, always seeing themselves as the real radicals, though I can't think of a single victory they achieved. I guess radical=ineffectual. (Ukraine could have gone so much better than it did if they would have kept their 2005 discipline, for instance).

On the other hand, once the Jonah House folks moved to our woods and were part of our leadership, we met the actual radicals, the Berrigans and others who went nose-to-nose with the War System and fought it to a draw with movements like draft board raids (which helped grind the Selective Service system to a near halt in the Vietnam War era) and the plowshares movement (which features individuals or small groups physically dismantling weaponry and then turning themselves in so the case could be argued publicly). I knew in short order who the radicals were. 

This is why, over the years, I've been interested in and exploring ways to allow movements to grow without the eroding effects of the violent ones who scared away the masses needed to effect real change, and who gave the elite rulers all the justifications to smash our heads. One of my conclusions is that each campaign needs a trained team of nonviolent security workers to confront and blunt all such provocateurs. The so-called "radical flank effect" is often seen as a way to make the rest of us look moderate by contrast and therefore strengthen a movement, but the evidence belies that assumption and turns out that movements with a radical flank are less effective, that is, achieve their stated goals less frequently.

Not so fast, says Mark Anner (2009). Some Central American labor unions have been substantially strengthened and their goals more easily achieved by the radical flank effect of having a threat to organize a transnational left-wing union, which makes management/owners more eager to negotiate with more collaborative, conservative, local emerging unions. Fair point, under the right circumstances, but that sort of radical flank is more politically ideologically radical, not burn-it-down-and-invite-brutality radical. This, I believe, is why the highly disciplined implied threat of self-defense justified rhetorically by Malcolm X might have been on a path toward Dr. King, while the overtly guerrilla army stance of armed Black Panthers invited and got state terrorism and relegated them to a footnote status. Malcolm X was a brilliant, charismatic rhetorical genius, not a military leader. Huey P. Newton began brandishing arms and quasi-Special Forces berets in the streets, virtually demanding police attack. Tragically, the police complied. I was a boy then and hated the police. Now I'm an old man and I get the emotional need to threaten them, but cannot see a single advantage to the community in doing so.

Hirsch-Hoefler, Canetti & Pedahzur (2010) studied the radical flank parties in Israel and determined that they also were purely ideological, both secular and religious, and were essentially challengers from within the electoral system and a parliamentary system at that, where outlier groups can much more easily have a say than in our representative majority-rule democracy. Still, it is of interest that when those radicals attempt to do in the streets what they routinely do in the Knesset, they are thumped by the IDF and rendered unpopular and ineffectual with almost a PLO-level of say-so. This distinction is unresearched, to my knowledge. Simply put, once voting and rhetoric move into the streets, the really only acceptable radicalism is radical nonviolence.

One more academic study of a radical flank phenomenon (Isaac, McDonald & Lukasik, 2006) shows that the demonstrative model of union organizing has not been effective in the private sector but helped vitalize and mobilize a generation of public sector employees. One might wonder, however, if that train has run out of tracks since the economic derailment of the Great Recession, as evidenced by the sincere and doomed efforts by public employees in Wisconsin and by the machinations undermining the US Postal Service. While the study was quite robust, it needs a bit more longitude to gain the validity necessary to establish overarching conclusions. 

In the end, robust and disciplined nonviolence, combined with the reconciliation and invitation that is part of the basic pacifist philosophy, has the most strategic value. When movements learn that (and they could do so by asking practitioners who have done this), they move further, faster. When they incorporate all this into a strategic plan, they generally win. As Lily Tomlin notes, sometimes the efforts of just one key person can shift an organization, a campaign, or a movement. That could be you. Why not?

Anner, M. (2009). Two Logics of Labor Organizing in the Global Apparel Industry. International Studies Quarterly,53(3), 545-570. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2478.2009.00546.x

Hirsch-Hoefler, S., Canetti, D., & Pedahzur, A. (2010). Two of a kind? Voting motivations for populist radical right and religious fundamentalist parties. Electoral Studies, 29(4), 678-690. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2010.07.003

Isaac, L., McDonald, S., & Lukasik, G. (2006). Takin' It from the Streets: How the Sixties Mass Movement Revitalized Unionization. American Journal Of Sociology, 112(1), 46-96.

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