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 2 - Diversity of Tactics: What does it mean?

demonstrator with peace symbol

The idea behind Diversity of Tactics is that nonviolent and "not nonviolent" tactics can work together in a protest environment where each option is allowed its space.
"Diversity of Tactics" rests on three main tenets, not always made explicit:

1. No tactic should be ruled out as a policy. Diversity of Tactics is freedom to choose any tactic, violent, or nonviolent.

2. No organized marshals or peacekeeping team should enforce any code of behaviour. At least one protest area should be free of restrictions and devoid of nonviolent action guidelines, especially regarding property destruction.

3. No public criticism of other tactics should be expressed before, during, or after the events.

The seduction of Diversity of Tactics lies in its promise to bring under one unified umbrella the many different approaches to social change. The idea that all of us should stick together across petty tactical differences is enticing. The need for unity is common sense.
However, the Diversity of Tactics concept stretches this logic so that "a diversity" comes to mean "any". Most people would agree that "a diversity of foods" is good for us, but it’s obviously false to claim that "any food" is good for us. There is clearly a difference between healthy foods and toxic food, just as there is a difference between tactics that build broad support for a campaign, and tactics that lead to loss of credibility, injuries, and death.

Violence weakens the social change movement

The Diversity of Tactics concept allows and condones tactics such as those of the Black Bloc, which has historically included the wearing of hoods and masks to conceal identities, physical fights with the police, using sticks and weapons, throwing rocks, paint bombs, billiard balls and other projectiles, breaking windows, smashing cars and media vehicles, and firebombing.

An underlying assumption is that peaceful protesters will be ‘politicized’ by provoking police into responding to violence with violence. This arrogant position not only places nonviolent demonstrators at risk, it leads to alienation and a weakening of the social change movement.

A basic principle of Diversity of Tactics is to not exclude or criticize any action, so even abusive tactics such as physical assault are allowed. Respect for a Diversity of Tactics attempts to bring people "in line" with the idea that violent tactics should be allowed, protected and defended by all protesters and organizations, whatever the cost.

But the ultimate effect of violent tactics such as rock-throwing, bombings, or assassinations is clear and well documented. In this society, a group that chooses violence, chooses to marginalize itself. Widely rejected tactics such as fire bombings or window-smashing not only lead to mass arrests, but also result in a loss of credibility and public support. Some high-profile examples include the Front de Libération du Québec, the Weather Underground, the Rote Armee Fraktion, or the Squamish Five.

At its root, Diversity of Tactics rejects any collective constraint on individual behaviour. Ironically, this mimics the very ideology it purports to fight — the capitalist belief in ’rugged individualism’ and ‘every man for himself’. It echoes the neo-liberal belief in freedom from all regulation. It is individualism run amok.

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.