CONSTRUCTIVE CONFRONTATION: A PEACE ACTIVIST'S VIEW


CONFLICT RESEARCH CONSORTIUM

Working Paper 93-9, July 20, 1993.

By Paul Casey

Peace Activist


This paper was written with a small grant from the Conflict Resolution Consortium, University of Colorado. Funding for the Consortium and its Small Grants Program was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The statements and ideas presented in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Conflict Resolution Consortium, the University of Colorado, or the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.


Copyright (C) 1993. Paul Casey. Do not reprint without permission.

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Given the fact that there are so many activist/organizers in Boulder, I was surprised when Guy and Heidi asked me to do this. At first I thought my primary qualification must be that I was the only one to say yes to them. Then when I read the brochure and saw that I had been scheduled with the former Mayor and the Commissioner I thought, I guess they must think I am a pretty dangerous character.

My experience in this area began during the Viet Nam War. I was involved in the first stages of the movement against nuclear power as part of the Clamshell Alliance in Maine during the mid-1970s, and have been involved in various peace, social justice, and environmental groups since then. These experiences are the basis for what follows--which is an outline of the ways that groups advocate given positions as suggested in the ground rules.

Before I get to that outline, I would like to try to define what we mean by the term "demonstration" in this context. I would define "demonstration" as a public display of disaffection with a government policy, environmental problem, safety hazard or other grievous situation which people find insupportable. A basic strategy common to all demonstrations is to achieve some form of visibility around a given position and to educate and persuade others to join in that position or abandon the counterposition.

I recently had a visit from a college classmate of mine whom I had not seen since before graduation, over eighteen years ago. We discussed what it had been like to participate as twenty-year olds in our first act of civil disobedience. Riding out to the SAC (Strategic Air Command) base from Amherst to Chicopee, Massachusetts with two other students, I have to say I felt a certain amount of fear in trying to imagine the response of the military and state police we were about to face. Fear could have been the basis for a number of bad responses that day. At this point I had no nonviolence training.

Since that time I have had several opportunities to see the value of this kind of training. Two years ago, during the Gulf War, I participated in one of many nonviolence trainings at the Rocky Mountain Peace Center. There were probably more than 150 people in the room. Although the core of nonviolence as a philosophy involves confrontation of injustice, the practical tools it can provide are essential to effective action. A careful explanation of some of the basic principles involved in nonviolence provides a solid foundation for activists to confront situations which can otherwise very easily get wild. This in not to say that anger, for example, is not valid as a motivation. It is just that the results of relying on anger alone are not very beneficial in the heat of the moment around any given issue. I base this statement on experience--not a naive misreading of adversarial possibilities. In fact, a good portion of the trainings are devoted to role playing responses to the hostility which my be encountered.

In addition to this general training, there are peacekeeper trainings in which participants are taught techniques for helping to keep demonstrations on a even keel more actively through direct assistance or intervention, should the need arise.

Finally--and usually before these trainings actually occur--the Rocky Mountain Peace Center holds open meetings in which members of the community spend many hours reflecting and analyzing a given issue before deciding on a course of action. This type of strategizing often lasts up until the time immediately preceding any given action. Topics discussed include the consideration of which slogans are best for signs (e.g,. is the language too soft or too harsh), transportation issues, support for those deciding to be arrested if civil disobedience is intended, press releases, media interviews, props, art work, speakers and topics covered, musicians etc.. This is only about half of the kind of detailed work which takes place in a well organized demonstration.

Just as an aside, there may be many other related actions which are not strictly "demonstrations" which support the overall effort around a given issue. Again in reference to the Gulf War, we had marches, vigils, rallies, an all day teach-in at the University, a teach-in for children, workshops on conscientious objection and tax-resistance, study groups, town meetings, counter-recruiting efforts, organizing professional networks, civil disobedience--again this is an incomplete list. All of these activities were part of a large cross referenced information network which evolved very rapidly once the intention of going to war was made plain by our government.

The basic point I am trying to make here is that there is a great deal of careful planning around this type of action. It is not as though one sunny morning hundreds of people wake up and are simultaneously moved into the streets by the invisible hand.

One of the goals of all of this work is to mobilize as many people as possible who want to voice their position about a given issue. To that end, a great deal of time is devoted to publicizing the event, phoning those on mailing or petitions lists, doing media work. The more people in attendance, the more likely the attention of the media will be attracted--which of course is a basic goal.

Now it is true that for any demonstration there are many people present who come without any kind of preparation. The presence of those who have done trainings is obviously important. It clarifies the intention, creates a sense of higher purpose based upon sound principles, and seeks to take responsibility for actions. I am not a sociologist, but Guy and Heidi probably know if there are studies to show whether a threshold number exists in terms of the prevailing mood of a crowd. At one point two years ago, when large numbers of people were attracted to rallies on the downtown mall, it became useful to pass out brief guidelines outlining a few nonviolent principles, since many of these people might otherwise have had little exposure to those ideas. Basically, these principles suggest a simple code of behavior, including abstention from drugs and alcohol, refraining from intentional damage to property, and perhaps most important in terms of what we are discussing today: respecting the opponent.

In spite of all the planning and trainings there is always room for spontaneity. This can be the best part of a demonstration and it can also be the point at which things can go awry. Although nonviolence involves intentional confrontation of injustice, the nature of confrontation in a demonstration may not always be nonviolent. It has been my experience, over the years, that violence, when it occurred, was most often instigated by those outside the group demonstrating. When it did happen from within the group, it was usually done by someone who was not at all in sync with the group's purpose. Since, as I mentioned before, gaining the eye of the media is important to the strategy as a whole, it is not difficult to image how quickly you can be discredited when events go badly. You can spend a whole day in relative calm and never hear the sound of a camera shutter, yet if a fight breaks out, you will see a near instant ring of photographers catching all the action. They just seem to prefer excitement.

There is another side to this issue though. At this point I can think of several examples where response or reaction to demonstrators by others has had varied results. During the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in New Hampshire during the mid-1970s, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested by a fairly reactionary Governor who thought he would teach them a good lesson by locking them all up in armories (since they exceeded the capacity of the jails). The demonstrators were detained for about two weeks. The governor's intent was to suppress this sort of activity forever. But what happened during those two weeks became the basis for the anti-nuclear movement which gained great strength for the next decade. During that two weeks friendships were built, solidarity grew, and ideas developed in greater depth. Detention became intensive education.

Closer to home, and along the same anti-nuclear lines, we had a large scale civil disobedience action at Rocky Flats some years ago. By day's end several hundred people were arrested. Many people were arrested in affinity groups and some of these groups chose to lock arms and legs to make their resistance to being dragged away more effective. It became apparent to many observers that one of the security guards was being overzealous in his attempts to break up these human chains. People were being hurt. The level of agitation rose to a pitch. Fortunately, fast action on the part of several protesters lead to the guard being removed from duty for the day. This involved communicating concerns inside the fence with those managing the Plant and with the State Patrol outside on the highway. I mention this because it illustrates the importance of even minimal, but rapid, resolution of what could otherwise have been a disaster. Here respect for the opponent was critical. In this case it did not mean toleration of abusive behavior, but the means and willingness to communicate about the problem effectively with the other side. I cannot help saying that the headlines last week about the Rocky Flats Plant finally giving up production of weapons made me think that there are many people here in Boulder and elsewhere who can take a certain amount of pride in the role they have had over the years in getting this to happen.

I see another area for discussion, which again has to do with the Gulf War. In this case, many people demonstrated locally in an effort to show their opposition to an international policy by the U.S. government. Although we did not have the effect we wanted in terms of changing that policy, I see our efforts as a sign of the great vitality of our community in making a free and democratic expression of our views. Although at one point a group of people went to Washington for the January 26 rally, we never had a chance to speak directly to those making the policy we opposed. There was little in the way of adversarial exchange in this area--apart from those times when people on opposite sides of the issue faced off. There were counter demonstrations at times. I understand that local officials became stressed out over the continued activity--which did more than ruin the grass on the Courthouse lawn. So this became adversarial in terms of form, but did not directly engage the substance of the issue that was moving people. There could have been an effort beyond the resolutions which the City Council and the Commissioners passed--even though these were significant in themselves--perhaps a delegation of elected officials could have gone to Washington.

I do recall one meeting at Baseline Junior High which was helpful in terms of direct conflict. I think Commissioner Page was there and concerns were exchanged. One detail I recall from that meeting was that I did not want to see an overly formalized method of protest, however convenient that might be for traffic control. And I guess I need to mention that I did not think it very wise for the Mayor, to use the term "60s want-to-be" in reference to young protesters. After all, this is the age group which was being sent to war in thousands at the time--so they had a greater stake than any of us in this conflict. Again, my point is, you must exhibit respect for the opponent.

Let me give a word on the role of the media. On the one hand, it is important for a proponent of a given position to gain visibility for their efforts--and media exposure can be crucial to that end. But irresponsible journalism, misrepresentation, and discounting of efforts and positions can increase levels of frustration among proponents who want a fair and accurate presentation of their position. Increased frustration can lead to harsher tactics and more polarized positions.

It is also worth mentioning that internal conflict often exists within any effort to organize demonstrations. Although there my be unity of purpose around goals, arguments about tactics are not uncommon. Here, as in negotiation, there are hard and soft styles.

Finally, there can be no doubt about the overall effectiveness of nonviolence movements as a whole, in which demonstrations play a crucial part. Just look at a map of the world and try to recall which countries have experienced important nonviolent political changes in the latter half of this century. The U.S., India, the Philippines, most of the Eastern-bloc countries, to name only a few. Many millions of people have participated in these movements and the lives of many have been affected. The work of understanding the peaceful process of change is obvious.

(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Paul Casey for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on April 10, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.

© 1993. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.