Nonviolence vs. Diversity of Tactics: The case for nonviolent protest at the G8/G20 summits

By Philippe Duhamel and Dave Martin

This three-part blog supports peaceful protest, and nonviolent action in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  The authors challenge the concept of Diversity of Tactics, which has been used to encourage and condone violence, at great cost to the social change movement.

Part 1: G8 & G20 protests and Diversity of Tactics
Part 2: Diversity of Tactics: What does it mean?
Part 3: Choosing a diversity of nonviolent tactics

Part 3 - Choosing a diversity of nonviolent tactics

Street demonstrations against coal mining in New Zealand

There are basically two different types of tactics: violent and nonviolent. To bring about change, each relies on radically different mechanisms.

Violence relies on intimidation of the opponent, with a clear threat of destruction. It is rooted in the belief that opponents change only when they fear for themselves and their possessions. Pushed to its limit, it is terrorism.

Nonviolent tactics are rooted in the belief that opponents can change willingly or, when that fails, that they can be forced to concede and change through organized mass noncooperation. This includes strikes and boycotts, or nonviolent direct actions such as civil disobedience, blockades, sit-ins and civil resistance raids. Pushed to its limit, this is about People Power becoming strong enough to challenge and change corporate and governmental power structures.

Some tactics don’t mix

Like an ecosystem, an effective social change movement rests on a delicate balance that can be disrupted. Fighting police is the tactical equivalent of spraying Agent Orange on a rainforest – the impact is devastating, indiscriminate and widespread – only the most hardened species survive. When violent tactics are introduced into a mix of creative nonviolent tactics, the environment is quickly reduced to projectile-throwing, masked, mostly male, black-clad monoculture. When the Black Bloc have thrown their last rocks, then run and hide, and only the police remain.

So not all tactics are compatible with each other. Violent and nonviolent tactics rely on different change mechanisms, and operate under radically different, and incompatible strategic dynamics.

Agents provocateurs

A key feature of many high-profile protests has been the government use of paid undercover agents to foment and carry out acts of violent provocation – the French named them "agents provocateurs" in the 19th century.

Supporters of Diversity of Tactics consistently fail to address this question: If throwing rocks and smashing property are such powerful threats to capitalism, why does the State pay people to do it?

The answer is that security forces recognize how much such tactics help them do their job: controlling and repressing protests, while justifying their enormous budgets with dramatic media images. What better way to justify the staggering $933 million security budget for the 2010 G8/G20 summits in Huntsville and Toronto?

Who knows for sure if the Ottawa fire bombing on May 18 2010 was not encouraged or conducted by provocateurs? In the early 1970's, half the bombings carried out in Quebec were the work of the police. On the eve of the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, a group calling itself "Germinal" was the target of a high-profile police entrapment operation, and its violent plans became the subject of prime time news.

A radical, nonviolent mass movement can impose far greater political costs on the system than a few smashed store windows. A movement that condones violence is easy to discredit, derail, and repress.

Violence is an injury to all

It seems logical that ‘peaceful’ and violent protests can be segregated and divided into zones at events like the G8/G20 summits. The argument is made that protesters should not let tactical considerations divide them. It is suggested that protesters can simply agree to disagree, and allow all of the possible tactics to be staged together, or at different times.

Aside from issues of principle, the problem is that the designation of "green" or "yellow" zones carries no guarantee that those spaces will not be invaded by the police, or that peaceful demonstrations won’t be used as a cover and hiding place for rock throwers. In fact, this is exactly what has happened elsewhere.

There will inevitably be confusion between peaceful “family-friendly” events and other potentially violent events. And protesters at events like the G8/G20 summits will be lumped together by most media, and most of the people who follow those media. The irresponsible violent actions of a few individuals will be the defining image of the protest, instead of the responsible peaceful actions of the vast majority.

Reduced political space

One of the greatest casualties of Diversity of Tactics is the absolute reduction of political space for collective, nonviolent direct action, and civil disobedience.

Nobody wants to do a peaceful, sit-in blockade while taunts and rocks fly over their heads. In Seattle in 1999, and in other instances since, black-clad "protesters" have been seen provoking police while truly courageous protesters were doing peaceful civil disobedience actions on the front lines, taking the brunt of the police attacks as they were provoked. Black Bloc communiqués have claimed that their role was to "protect" the nonviolent activists. In fact, they were jeopardizing their safety.

Conclusion

The Diversity of Tactics concept needs to be openly debated and challenged. Three simple questions should be answered:

1. What tactics are going to be explicitly excluded. For instance, will throwing projectiles, molotov cocktails, setting fires, etc. be rejected?

2. How will we actually prevent the rejected tactics and behaviours from happening?

3. If rejected tactics happen anyway, how should we distance ourselves from them?

Without clear answers to these questions, organizations and individuals should reject coalitions and groupings based on Diversity of Tactics.

Nonviolent action is the only way to build a successful mass movement for social change. Without nonviolent action, there is no real respect for true diversity of tactics.

Philippe Duhamel is a trainer, organizer, and nonviolent activist based in Montreal. He has trained on five continents on the principles of nonviolent struggle, direct action planning and strategic civil resistance. In 1988, as an organizer with the Alliance for Non-Violent Action (ANVA), M. Duhamel crossed the barricades to attempt a "citizen's arrest" of the G7 leaders in Toronto. Ten years later, he was the main organizer of Operation SalAMI, the group that put the "altermondialiste" movement on the map in Quebec. M. Duhamel is now a volunteer organizer and trainer with Greenpeace, and blogs on NewTactics.org.

David Martin has worked for 30 years in the Canadian non-profit sector on environmental issues. Mr. Martin was Climate and Energy Coordinator for Greenpeace Canada from 2004 to 2010, and now serves as a policy adviser. He has been arrested in numerous nonviolent direct actions beginning in 1980. Most recently, he was charged and fined as a result of a November 2009 sit-in at the office of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, calling for Canada to support action on climate change.