From Nukes to Occupy
north america / mexico |
history of anarchism |
opinion / analysis
Wednesday November 27, 2019 03:04 by Robin J. Cartwright radicaleducationdepartment.com
The Rise and Fall of the Non-Violent Direct Action Movement in the United States, 1976 – 2012
The "Battle of Seattle," which began November 30th, 1999, was a major event in the history of US radical struggle, and one of the high-points of the "non-violent direct action movement." Exactly 20 years later, Robin J. Cartwright analyzes the the rise, fall, and inner contradictions of the non-violent direct action movement, as well as the lessons we can learn from it today.
NOTE TO EDITOR: Is it possible to publish this November 30th (20th anniversary of the 1999 "Battle of Seattle"?
[The following is a guest post submitted to the Radical Education Department and appearing November 30th, 2019 (https://radicaleducationdepartment.com/)]
Shortly after activists in Seattle shut down the third ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization in 1999, neoliberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “these anti-W.T.O. protestors … are a Noah’s ark of Flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” These anti-WTO demonstrations were actually the largest expression up to that point of a particular trend of leftist protest that had persisted in many social movements since the late 1970s and would continue to do so until the early 2010s. In some time periods this tendency was the dominant practice among activists; in other times it was a dissident minority faction, usually to the left of other factions in the same movement. This trend was characterized by a combination of consensus decision-making with mass non-violent direct action, as well as feminist rhetoric, an impulse towards inclusive community-building, and claims that the movement was leaderless. Many participants in this tendency, but not all, embraced prefigurative politics and were anarchists or anarchist sympathizers. In her history of the origins of this trend Barbara Epstien calls it the non-violent direct action movement. This term is potentially misleading because the movement was not the first or the only movement to use non-violent direct action. Nonetheless, I have chosen to use her term anyway because I do not have a better one to replace it.
The non-violent direct action movement originated in the anti-nuclear power movement of the late 1970s / early 1980s. Inspired by the German anti-nuclear movement, activists organized occupations of construction sites for nuclear reactors, aiming to insure no new plants were built. The processes, organizational structure, and culture adopted by these activists differed sharply from the movements of the sixties and early seventies. The later were influenced by Marxism, the former by anarchism. Sixties movements usually had elected leaders, while the anti-nuclear movement used consensus (which was introduced to the movement by its Quaker participants). Radical political organizations of the sixties often had a single political line, while this new movement sought to be more inclusive and tolerant of internal dissent.
The anti-nuclear movement organized itself into a series of regional federations, each focused on a particular nuclear power plant. The first was the Clamshell Alliance, which attempted to stop the construction of a nuclear energy plant near Seabrook, New Hampshire through a series of non-violent occupations. It was the inspiration and model for a series of other regional federations throughout the country, all of which also attempt to use mass non-violent direct action to disrupt the construction of nuclear power plants.
Each federation was based on affinity groups and spokescouncils, not general assemblies or hierarchies. Participants were usually required to undergo training in non-violence and consensus decision making; many affinity groups were formed by people who met each other at a training session. Lone individuals were usually not permitted to participate in occupations (or spokescouncils) and were typically turned away if they showed up.
The movement met with mixed success. Some occupations were crushed through mass arrests. Others lasted for several weeks before disbanding, faced with the difficulty of occupying a location on a long-term basis. They delayed the construction of some nuclear reactors, but all of their targets were eventually built. Despite this, the legitimacy of nuclear power in the public eye was undermined. Those plants already under construction were completed, but the construction of new plants was not authorized until the Obama administration a quarter-century later.
The movement’s impact on radicals and other social movements was arguably greater than its impact on nuclear power. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 caused a resurgence of a variety of different leftist and liberal social movements in response. The non-violent direct action movement persisted through the 1980s, now as part of the radical wing of these movements rather than as a separate movement focused on nuclear power. The movements of the 1980s mostly tended to be more liberal or, at most democratic socialist, rather than anarchist, and usually eschewed prefigurative politics. They largely rejected consensus and openly supported hierarchy, electing leaders to run their movements. Non-violence was widely embraced in the movements of the 1980s, but they often enacted it through permitted protests, lobbying, voting, and/or symbolic arrests coordinated with the police rather than the disruptive mass civil disobedience advocated by the non-violent direct action movement.
The movement’s impact on the (much smaller) anarchist movement was significantly greater. The majority of the anarchist movement embraced the ideas and practices of the non-violent direct action movement. Consensus became the default form of decision making for anarchists in the US. By the end of the century it had become so widespread in anarchist scenes that many mistakenly assumed that consensus was intrinsic to anarchism. In fact, anarchists have not used consensus for the majority of our history. The CNT-FAI in the Spanish Civil War was not consensus based, and neither was the anarchist-wing of the First International. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that anarchists in the United States adopted consensus on a large-scale; in some countries anarchists did not adopt consensus and continued to use majority or super-majority vote.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Bill Clinton caused most liberal & leftist social movements to shrink (or collapse entirely) during the 1990s. When leftist dissent began to revive in the later part of Clinton’s second term the global justice movement was among the leading and more visible elements. Unlike the movements of the 1980s, the non-violent direct action movement was not part of the radical wing of the movement but was rather the dominant force. Although they were now trying to shut down summits of international financial institutions (or other world leaders) rather than nuclear power plants, the style and all the other elements of the movement were brought back. Like the anti-nuclear movement, the global justice movement utilized spokescouncils, consensus-based decision making, affinity groups, and mass disruptive direct action. It advocated non-violence while purporting to be leaderless. Anarchism again occupied a prominent role; many of the participants were were either anarchists or anarchist sympathizers. As in its other iterations, not all participants fully embraced every aspect of this political culture, but the majority of participants embraced most of its elements.
The main phase of the global justice movement only lasted two years; it was brought to a premature end by 9-11. Protests against the International Monetary Fund’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., scheduled for September of 2001, were expected to be large and militant, but the I.M.F. canceled the summit in response to 9-11. Consequently the scheduled summit protests were called off and small anti-war protests were held in Washington, D.C. instead. Activists in the Workers World Party / International Action Center quickly founded International A.N.S.W.E.R. and began organizing anti-war demonstrations. The center of focus for much of the left shifted away from the global justice movement towards the anti-war movement. The later eventually grew much larger (once the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq) but it was much more timid and was less influenced by the non-violent direct action movement. There were multiple attempts to revive the global justice movement and shut down summits of global leaders in the decade after 9-11, but the police developed a new set of aggressive tactics (the “Miami model”) that proved effective at insuring summits would never be shut down again. In the long run police repression was probably more important in terminating the global justice movement than 9-11 (which might otherwise have only been a temporary pause).
Despite its brief lifespan, the global justice movement had a major impact on both the American left and the international financial institutions it was trying to disrupt. The FTAA and many other proposed free trade agreements were stopped in their tracks by the movement. The WTO’s “Doha round” of negotiations was delayed by two years due to the direct action in Seattle, and then ultimately died. After 2001 the IMF increasingly found that countries wanted nothing to do with it, refused to take out new loans, defaulted on current loans, and threatened to default on additional loans if more favorable weren’t reached. For a time it looked like the IMF might go bankrupt and cease to exist, but it found a new life after 2008 – this time in Europe. Much of this success was primarily due to movements outside the United States. The US global justice movement was a small part of a much larger movement against neoliberalism and its international financial institutions that was centered in the third-world and eventually started overthrowing governments for working with the IMF.
In some respects the period from 2001-2011 parallels the 1980s in that the non-violent direct action movement persisted as a dissident radical faction in the movements of the day, standing in opposition to more moderate trends with a different political style and culture. However, its influence in this period was significantly greater than it was in the 1980s. Consensus decision making, in particular, enjoyed its heyday during this time period, where it became the default form of decision-making for most local radical groups. One participant in the global justice movement, David Graeber, wrote in 2007:
"I joined NYC DAN [Direct Action Network] right around the time of A16. At the time DAN as a whole saw itself as a group with two major objectives. One was to help coordinate the North American wing of a vast global movement against neoliberalism, ... The other was to disseminate a (very much anarchist-inspired) model of direct democracy: decentralized, affinity-group structures, consensus process, to replace old-fashioned activist organizing styles with their steering committees and ideological squabbles. At the time we sometimes called it “contaminationism”, the idea that all people really needed was to be exposed to the experience of direct action and direct democracy, and they would want to start imitating it all by themselves. ... these were pretty ambitious goals, so we also assumed even if we did attain them, it would probably take at least a decade. As it turned out it took about a year and a half. ... While the anti-war coalitions still operate, as anti-war coalitions always do, as top-down popular front groups, almost every small-scale radical group that isn’t dominated by Marxist sectarians of some sort or another — and this includes anything from organizations of Syrian immigrants in Montreal or community gardens in Detroit — now operate on largely anarchist [consensus-based] principles. They might not know it. But contaminationism worked."
When the Occupy movement erupted in 2011, it inherited this model. Inspired by the Spanish Indignados movement and the Arab Spring, Occupy was the largest and arguably most successful iteration of the non-violent direct action movement. Like previous iterations, it used consensus decision making, espoused non-violence, purported to be leaderless, and engaged in mass civil disobedience. The initial core of the movement was mostly made up of anarchists and anarchist sympathizers, but it quickly gained a thick layer of liberal participants, some of whom became more sympathetic towards anarchism, or at least towards anti-capitalism, as a result of their experiences in Occupy.
Occupy differed from previous iterations of the NDA in several important respects. One is that Occupy’s targets were far more numerous and distributed: public squares and financial districts in nearly every city or town in the United States. Both the anti-nuclear movement and the global justice movement drew people from a variety of different locations to target a specific global or regional target, rather than encouraging participants to focus primarily on their own communities. As these movements were much smaller it would have been more difficult for activists to focus exclusively on their own communities; it is difficult to occupy a public location or shut down corporate/government meetings with only fifteen people. By massing people from multiple locations at a single target the anti-nuclear and global justice movements were able to compensate for their smaller size.
Another other major difference, in part, stemmed from the first: Occupy largely dispensed with affinity groups and spokescouncils, opting for general assemblies (essentially enormous meetings) instead. In the global justice movement and the anti-nuclear movement many of the participants traveled in small groups to their target and those small groups were easily turned into affinity groups. In such a context using spokescouncils to link these different groups together made sense. At the height of the global justice movement using general assemblies to make decisions would have been impossible because there were too many participants at the summit protest to fit everyone in the same space. You cannot have a general assembly with fifty-thousand participants.
As a result of of emphasizing general assemblies instead of spokescouncils and affinity groups, the consensus process ran into more problems during Occupy than it had during previous iterations of the NDA. Occupy encampments repeatedly ran into problems with individuals or small numbers of people blocking consensus, leading to gridlock and lengthy meetings. The issue of blocks preventing the group from doing anything or slowing decision making was not a new one, but previous movements largely developed better methods of coping with it. Critics of consensus often see the ability of a minority to veto decision-making as a reason to reject it, but proponents of consensus often regard it as a feature on the grounds that it protects the rights of the minority.
The very first NDA organization, the Clamshell Alliance, dealt with this problem very poorly. At a contentious meeting where they could not reach consensus on several controversial issues, a faction of the organization resorted to metaphorical arm twisting to compel participants to ‘stand aside’ and not block consensus, leading to a split. One participant, Murray Bookchin, wrote of his experience using consensus in Clamshell:
"within the Clamshell Alliance, consensus was fostered by often cynical Quakers and by members of a dubiously "anarchic" commune … This small, tightly knit faction, unified by its own hidden agendas, was able to manipulate many Clamshell members into subordinating their goodwill and idealistic commitments to those opportunistic agendas. The de facto leaders of the Clamshell overrode the rights and ideals of the innumerable individuals who entered it and undermined their morale and will.
In order for that clique to create full consensus on a decision, minority dissenters were often subtly urged or psychologically coerced to decline to vote on a troubling issue, inasmuch as their dissent would essentially amount to a one-person veto. This practice, called "standing aside" in American consensus processes, all too often involved intimidation of the dissenters, to the point that they completely withdrew from the decision-making process, rather than make an honorable and continuing expression of their dissent by voting, even as a minority, in accordance with their views."
Bookchin overgeneralized from his experience and rejected consensus entirely, contending that consensus always leads to the same results as it had in Clamshell. In contrast to the idea that consensus protects minority rights or gives the minority too much power, Bookchin believed that consensus was unfair to the minority and suppressed dissent (as it had in Clamshell). He wrote, “In majority decision-making, the defeated minority can resolve to overturn a decision on which they have been defeated - they are free to openly and persistently articulate reasoned and potentially persuasive disagreements. Consensus, for its part, honors no minorities, but mutes them in favor of the metaphysical ‘one’ of the ‘consensus’ group. … Any libertarian body of ideas that seeks to dissolve hierarchy, classes, domination and exploitation by allowing even [a] "minority of one" to block decision-making by the majority of a community, indeed, of regional and nationwide confederations, would essentially mutate into a ... nightmare world of intellectual and psychic conformity.”
The Abalone Alliance, founded to stop the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo, CA, introduced key changes that avoided many of the problems Clamshell encountered. In 1981 they decided consensus at statewide meetings could only be blocked by an affinity group, not by an individual, and only if that affinity group reached internal consensus to block consensus. They also decided to distinguish between enthusiastic consensus, with all groups supporting the proposal, and lukewarm consensus, where up to one-third of groups stood aside but none of them blocked. This modification to consensus, along with differences in its internal culture, enabled Abalone to avoid the pitfalls Clamshell encountered. The Abalone alliance lasted longer than Clamshell, successfully shut down the Diablo Canyon plant, and spread its model across the country and into dissident wings of other movements. Its restrictions on blocking consensus were copied by all subsequent movements that used consensus on a large scale, with the partial exception of Occupy.
The global justice movement not only inherited Abalone’s restrictions on blocking consensus, it unintentionally introduced other changes that made it less likely for consensus to result in gridlock and endless meetings. At summit protests activists arrived in affinity groups from around the country, and sometimes from other countries, but, unlike in the anti-nuclear and Occupy movements, did not think of themselves as being members of one big organization. Spokescouncils were negotiations between numerous separate groups, and if consensus could not be reached those groups were free to do their own thing. Gridlock was avoided by splitting whenever irreconcilable differences prevented consensus; because activists did not think of themselves as one big group they could split and reunite at will, without animosity. In some cases affinity groups that wanted to do different things each formed their own separate set of spokescouncils. For example, affinity groups that participated in black blocs often formed their own spokescouncils away from the main spokescouncils used by everyone else; they could join the later when both sides felt it was appropriate.
Certain features of Occupy make the flaws of consensus more apparent in this movement than they had been in previous movements. During the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the 2001-2011 period between the Global Justice movement & Occupy, activists who used consensus usually did so in small groups where they often shared similar praxis. If the odds of someone blocking are only one-percent, blocks in a small group may be uncommon enough that they do not pose a problem, but a group with over a hundred members will regularly encounter blocks, causing gridlock and endless meetings in a never-ending attempt to appease a small number of blockers. The anti-nuclear and global justice movements had methods of circumventing individual blocks in large movements, but they were connected to the structure of affinity groups and spokescouncils. Occupy’s decision making was primarily organized around large general assemblies. Consequently, a block could be done by a lone individual (or a tiny handful of individuals), not just by a unified affinity group. Furthermore, because they were all part of one big assembly, it was difficult to simply split into separate clusters of affinity groups that did different things when consensus could not be quickly reached. Occupy also had control of collective resources that were not available to previous movements, like public spaces and large donations, which were not easily amenable to simply having different affinity groups go their separate ways.
In the later part of Occupy some chapters experimented with alternatives but this proved too little, too late. Occupy Wall St. eventually set up a spokescouncil, but it was based on working groups and caucuses rather than true affinity groups. Some encampments experimented with allowing blocks to be over-ruled if they make up less than a certain percentage of members, de facto shifting to a form of super-majority voting.
The principle drawback of consensus is that it makes it difficult to make collective decisions and leads to long drawn-out meetings; this drawback can be mitigated through various modification but in doing so it essentially shifts the decision-making process away from consensus towards some other model. In the Clamshell Alliance they dealt with the issue by unofficially shifting to a more top-down process and compelling dissenters to stand aside. Most other modifications de facto shift towards majority or super-majority voting. Putting limits on blocks, like the Abalone Alliance did, amount to a form of super-majority vote because they require anyone wishing to block to be sufficiently numerous and well-organized to do so. Requiring blocks to exceed 20% of the membership to be valid is functionally equivalent to a majority-vote process where proposals require at least 80% support to pass. Quakers do not mind meetings taking a long time because they believe the process helps bring them closer to god’s will, but god does not exist and social movements need to make collective decisions in a reasonable amount of time to be effective.
Like consensus, Occupy inherited non-violent ideology from previous movements. It loudly proclaimed its adherence to non-violent principles, much as the anti-nuclear and global justice movements had done. Non-violent ideology reached its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, when most activists espoused some sort of rhetorical commitment to non-violence. Social movements of this era often policed themselves to ensure none of their members did anything violent by expelling potential troublemakers and using protest marshals to keep protesters in line. To maintain the illusion of militancy some negotiated staged arrests with the police. The authorities often preferred to negotiate with protest leaders, and have those leaders control their members under the guise of non-violence, than to directly crack down on protesters themselves.
Proponents of non-violence saw themselves as following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement and the Indian independence movement. However, as Ward Churchill argued in Pacifism as Pathology, there is a major difference between the classical non-violence practiced by the CRM & IIM and the non-violence practiced by American social movements after 1965. The former took actions designed to provoke violence against themselves and then refused to retaliate or run away, simply allowing themselves to be assaulted. In contrast, the later adopted non-violence in the hopes that it would lessen the amount of repression they were subjected to (and thereby increase turnout for their actions). Consequently, post-1965 non-violence took on a more submissive tenor that tried to police activists to insure they did not do anything to provoke the authorities.
Today rhetoric about being non-violent is often associated with liberals or moderate leftists, but it was not perceived that way in its heyday. Radical supporters of non-violence thought that since violence is a central feature of contemporary society a complete rejection of all violence is actually more revolutionary than radicals who maintain the need for some level of violence. At its height non-violence was embraced not only by liberals and democratic socialists, but by anarchists and Marxists as well.
There were arguments over non-violence from the start. In the later part of the Clamshell Alliance some activists wanted to use wire-cutters to cut open a fence around a nuclear power plant. Other activists objected they should not do this because cutting through fences was violent and consequently would cause greater repression (and thus lower turnout for the second occupation). Those who wanted to cut open the fence accepted non-violence, but maintained that fence cutting did not count as violence. If everyone agrees that we should never do anything violent, what counts and does not count as violence becomes very important and a source of conflict.
These types of arguments intensified after anarchists in black bloc formation smashed store windows during the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO at the dawn of the Global Justice Movement. Despite the fact that property destruction at subsequent protests in the US almost never happened, there was intense infighting over the acceptability of property destruction. Many activists opposed property destruction on the grounds that it was violent, while others argued that property destruction is not violent or rejected non-violence altogether. The idea of a “diversity of tactics” was originally invent to overcome this infighting. Protesters agreed that different groups could use whichever tactic they wanted (legal protests, illegal but non-violent civil disobedience, and/or property destruction), would keep different actions separate in time and space, and not publicly denounce each other. Initially its most prominent use was at the anti-FTAA protests in Quebec city in spring 2001, but its most developed form was the St. Paul Principles written for the 2008 protests against the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. Newer anarchists sometimes mistakenly assume diversity of tactics is some sort of core anarchist principle extending back to Proudhon or Bakunin, but it was actually invented relatively recently to solve a problem in the Global Justice Movement.
Although most activists, both in the NDA and outside it, continued to espouse some form of non-violence during this time period and for the next ten years, property destruction, the ensuing debate over property destruction, and the acceptance of a diversity of tactics weakened the hold of non-violent ideology on activists. A significant minority outright rejected non-violence, while the majority both tolerated their existence and refused (or were unable) to force them to abide by it. This made it more difficult for the police to get protesters to police themselves; part of the reason the Global Justice Movement was initially successful was precisely because the police had grown accustomed to protesters controlling their own members and were caught off guard when this was no longer reliable. As a result the police started shifting towards other methods of controlling summit protests (mainly brute force).
Events during the Occupy movement made the function of non-violence as a form of internal movement policing abundantly clear, while the same ideology failed to deter police violence. During the Oakland general strike pacifists violently assaulted black bloc militants in order to prevent them from engaging in property destruction.
Note that this violent pacifist justified non-violence in seemingly radical terms (its the most effective way to change the system) yet his actual practice was the opposite of radical – defending a bank’s private property. This contradiction was typical of the non-violence that dominated activist circles from the 1970s through the early 2010s. The absurdity of pacifists being violent in the name of non-violence highlighted the fact that non-violence wasn’t actually non-violent and had the effect of encouraging social movements to obey authority and police themselves. In practice, pacifists put protecting private property ahead of the actual people they assaulted.
Pacifists violently assaulting other protesters in the name of non-violence was not new. During the Seattle anti-WTO protests some of them attacked black bloc militants who were engaging in property destruction. During Occupy, however, their violence against people was captured on video and there was already a large minority of activists who rejected non-violence before the movement even began. Consequently, their views spread and support for non-violence among radicals declined in the wake of the movement.
Subsequent events reinforced these lessons. One of the better known cases of violence during Occupy was the assault of University of California – Berkley student protesters by the police.
The authorities appealed to non-violence to defend this violent act. The Chancellor of the University along with two other senior administrators released a joint statement arguing that:
"some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them. ... to take down tents and prevent encampment, the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy … We call on the protesters to observe campus policy or, if they choose to defy the policy, to engage in truly non-violent civil disobedience and to accept the consequences of their decisions."
From the late 1970s through the early 2010s most of the activists who adopted non-violence did so, at least in part, in the hopes that it would reduce police violence against them. At this protest not only did it not do that, non-violence was actually used to justify police violence against activists. Furthermore, the insistence by the Chancellor that non-violence means activists must not do things he doesn’t like, such as linking arms (a classic non-violent tactic), and instead meekly submit to arrest made it clear that the authorities were using non-violence to justify telling activists what to do and not do, as a means of controlling protests.
In early 2012 Christopher Hedges published his notoriously incendiary article “The Cancer in Occupy,” which demonized the black bloc and insisted that every activist be required to abide by non-violence. His article sparked a number of critical articles in response. Arguably the best known was David Graeber’s rebuttal “Concerning the Violent Peace Police.” Graeber noted that, “there have been physical assaults by activists on other activists, and, to my knowledge, they have never been perpetrated by anyone in Black Bloc, but invariably by purported pacifists against those who dare to pull a hood over their heads or a bandana over their faces, or, simply, against anarchists who adopt tactics someone else thinks are going too far.” The general backlash against Hedge’s article consolidated the growing sense among radicals that non-violent ideology should be thrown overboard.
In the years since Occupy most radical activists have abandoned non-violent ideology and rhetoric, correctly recognizing it as a flawed praxis. Despite the rejection of non-violence, there has not been a resurgence of armed struggle. Most of the things activists do are still non-violent, but the participants do not see the need to publicly proclaim their adherence to non-violence and agree that there are circumstances where violence is justified. Even in the antifa movement, although there is lots of talk of punching Nazis, actual use of violence against the alt-right has only happened a handful of times. Most antifa activity consist of things that are non-violent, like surveillance of fascists, doxing them, organizing boycotts, etc. Although the move away from non-violence is mostly positive, it also opened the door for excessively violent online rhetoric, usually accompanied by gulag and guillotine memes. Some leftists forget that our goal is to make the world a better place, not drown it in blood.
In the years since Occupy ended the Non-violent Direct Action Movement has largely disappeared. Elements of it persist, there is still an anarchist movement for example, but no one really puts together those elements in the way the NDA did. Consensus is no longer the default decision making method for activists. Last year’s Occupy ICE movement, for example, largely used majority vote rather than consensus. The most popular type of decision making structures for activists have shifted from Leninist-style central committees in the 1970s, to elected representational leadership in the 1980s & early 1990s, to consensus from 1999-2011, and now to majority vote today. There are still activists who use consensus (usually anarchists) and activists who adhere to non-violence ideology (usually liberals and democratic socialists) but today it is uncommon to combine the two. Although the legacy of the Non-violent Direct Action Movement will continue to influence social movements for decades, it seems unlikely that it will ever be revived.
The Non-violent Direct Action Movement kept the left alive during a conservative period of American history, and pressed social movements to rely more on direct action and adopt a more egalitarian form. It ultimately turned much of the public against economic inequality, laying the groundwork for later campaigns including the Fight for $15 and Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids. It shows that activists ought to avoid being too closed minded towards minority viewpoints within their own ranks and instead adopt an attitude of “I disagree with what you’re saying but I support your right to say it.” Support for consensus and non-violence were the dominant views among activists for a long time, but the minority of activists who rejected them were eventually proven right. Similarly, views held by a minority of activists today may be proven right by events in the future; excessive intolerance towards minority viewpoints runs the risk of suppressing views that are actually right. The rise and fall of the NDA shows that social movements can change drastically over the course of several decades. What is common sense in one time period is controversial or unthinkable in other time periods. We should not be too confident in the righteousness of today’s activist trends – yesterday those trends were different and tomorrow they will be different yet again. The left changes as radically as the social change it seeks to bring about.
Embedded Video Description: Man tackles bank smasher at Occupy Oakland General Strike
Embedded Video Description: Assault of University of California – Berkley student protesters by the police