Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression

Robert J. Burrowes 
RINF Alternative News

In a recent article, full of insight, Professor Bill Quigley identified ten different illegal actions police often take ‘to prevent people from exercising their constitutional rights’ to take nonviolent action to address a grievance. He noted that these police tactics are commonly used by law enforcement agencies in big protests across the US. See ’10 Illegal Police Actions to Watch for in Ferguson’

I would like to complement Professor Quigley’s fine article by identifying ways in which the risk of police or military personnel using illegal and violent tactics can be minimized and, in many cases, thwarted, wherever in the world the nonviolent action takes place.

If you want a nonviolent action to be maximally effective, there are two preliminary points to consider. First, spend time developing a carefully elaborated nonviolent strategy that will guide each and every aspect of your campaign. For an explanation of nonviolent strategy and a 12 point strategic framework to guide you, see ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach’ And second, make sure that each nonviolent action that your group undertakes is governed by its strategic goal, not its political objective. If you are not clear what this means, see ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions’

If your nonviolent tactic (demonstration, strike, blockade…) is the strategically chosen and focused tactic for this stage of your campaign, and you undertake it with the strategic goal (not political objective) clearly in mind, then, irrespective of the immediate police response (including if it is illegal, violent and/or makes use of provocateurs), your strategic goal will be achieved, your campaign will be advanced and any violent response by police or the military will be either politically irrelevant or strategically advantageous to your campaign.

With these preliminary points in mind, let me now identify 20 things you can do to minimise the risk of police/military attempts to defeat your nonviolent action by acting illegally, using violence or employing provocateurs.

Police and military personnel may be violent at nonviolent actions for various reasons. In my experience, the most important ones are because they are directed to use violence as a form of political repression and because they are afraid. There will often be several subtexts to their fear, such as the fear that underpins racism or religious bigotry for example. If you want to understand this more clearly, see ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’ Thus, in addition to considering the many other aspects of any nonviolent strategy, the planning process might consider ways in which any action can be made less vulnerable to violent repression.

Nonviolent action can be very effective in limiting the use of violence for three interrelated reasons: its capacity to create a favourable political atmosphere (because of, for example, the way in which activist honesty builds trust); its capacity to create a non-threatening physical environment (because of the nonviolent discipline of the activists); and its capacity to alter the human psychological conditions (both innate and learned) which make the use of violence possible in the first place. This includes its capacity to reduce or eliminate police/military fear and its capacity to ‘humanize’ activists in the eyes of both opponents and their police and military agents.

Consequently, while it is never possible to eliminate the risk of police/military (or provocateur) violence at a nonviolent action, it is possible to minimize this risk by identifying the factors which account for the outcome and by controlling as many of these factors as possible. Failure to do so increases the risk of undesirable outcomes. In essence, minimizing the risk of police/military violence requires the meticulous planning and implementation of any action. This should include all of the following that are locally relevant.

1. Make a strategic decision that the campaign will be nonviolent, then make this commitment explicit and widely known. If you want to debate the precise meaning of ‘nonviolent’ in your context, you might find the ‘Matrix of Nonviolence’ a useful tool. See The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense p. 100-101.

2. Develop a ‘Code of Nonviolent Discipline’ which reflects this commitment and, given the political advantages of this code, insist that any activist who wishes to participate in the nonviolent actions of the campaign sign it before doing so: If an activist is seriously committed to your campaign, they will not object to signing (and identifying provocateurs at any action will then be easier). Based on a study of many campaigns around the world, a typical code would include the following points:

* I will speak the truth.
* I will treat each person (including workers, police/military officers and media personnel) with respect.
* I will harbour no anger or hate. I will suffer the anger and assaults of my opponents.
* I will protect opponents and police/military personnel from insults and attack.
* I will act in accordance with the decisions and planned program of the organising group and will respond promptly to requests from the action focalisers. In the event of a serious disagreement, I will withdraw from the action. I will not initiate or participate in any spontaneous action.
* I will accept responsibility for my actions; I will not use secrecy.
* If my arrest is sought, I will accept it voluntarily; if I am taken prisoner, I will behave in an exemplary manner.
* I will protect the property of my opponents and police/military personnel.
* I will not run or use any threatening motions.
* I will not bring or use any drugs or alcohol.

3. Conduct nonviolence education programs so that activists fully understand what a commitment to nonviolent discipline entails. Within these education programs, provide opportunities for activists to share their feelings and fears in relation to any action and to discuss how the group might organise itself (in affinity groups, for example) so that each person is adequately supported to behave in a disciplined and nonviolent manner.

4. Conduct nonviolence education programs specifically designed for those activists who wish to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be members of nonviolent peacekeeping teams. If there is no local group that teaches nonviolent peacekeeping in your area, see ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense’ pp. 235-238.

5. Write individually to any relevant political leaders (such as the President/Prime Minister and/or their equivalents at state/local levels, and their deputies) and to the most senior police and/or military officers (and their deputies) who will be involved in responding to your nonviolent action. Inform them of your campaign and its purpose, and specifically advise them that the campaign and the actions within it will be explicitly nonviolent. Include a copy of the code of nonviolent discipline.

6. Identify the military and/or police forces (including the federal, state, military and/or naval police) as well as any ‘special operations’ groups which will respond to your nonviolent actions. Select appropriate individuals (paying attention to what is locally appropriate in relation to gender, racial and religious ‘balance’) to a police/military liaison team and have them liaise regularly with the senior police/military officers who will be responsible for the police/military response. See ‘How to do Police Liaison’ and ‘Nonviolent Activism and the Police’ If they offer you a deal or make threats, here’s how to respond: ‘Police Deals and Threats: How Should Nonviolent Activists Respond?’

Given that secrecy, like sabotage, is strategically counterproductive — see ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions’ cited above for a full explanation — keep police/military officers fully informed of all action plan details and give them a personal copy of the code of nonviolent discipline. Request the opportunity to address all of the police/military personnel who will be involved in policing any actions so that you can fully inform them as well. It does not matter if this is refused, which is likely.

7. Organise members of the police/military liaison team(s) to visit local police stations/military installations in order to talk respectfully to individual officers about the campaign and to give them a personal copy of the code of nonviolent discipline. Listen to their fears and concerns as well; reflect these, if appropriate, while remaining clear about the gravity of the issue in your view and your commitment to taking nonviolent action to address it. This contact is designed to reduce police/military fears and to counter any ideological conditioning (such as ‘all protesters are bludgers’) which has dehumanized activists in the eyes of the police/military personnel. Don’t worry if this contact is not allowed. Keep asking. As your campaign unfolds, what wasn’t possible before will sometimes become possible later. As individual officers become aware of your campaign, your commitment and discipline, some will find ways of helping you unofficially.

8. Treat individual police and military officers with respect and courtesy: they have families, concerns and, in their own way, want the world to be a better place too. Remember that they have far more in common with us than with the elites whose interests they are paid to defend. Give them opportunities to realise this. Of course, not every police and military officer will respond to this. Some are badly psychologically damaged and have been chosen for these psychological characteristics to perform a role within their police/military structure that is violent. But if you choose to treat them all as considerate human beings, you will get the best response possible in the circumstances. We are trying to change the world: Give people as much room as possible to join us.

9. Issue a news release to the relevant corporate media, progressive media and on social media (and write letters to the editors of local newspapers if necessary) which briefly explains the issue and draws attention to the nonviolent commitment of your group, advises that political leaders and the most senior police and/or military officers have been informed of this commitment, and includes a copy of the code of nonviolent discipline.

10. Organize the police/military liaison team (who should not otherwise participate in the action on the day) to meet the police/military personnel just prior to any action. If possible, they should speak to each officer individually and give them a copy of the code of nonviolent discipline. If this is not possible, one of the focalisers or a member of the liaison team should remind the police/military (over a public address system) of the nonviolent commitment of the activists. This might mitigate the fear of individual police or military personnel who might have been warned, as has happened often enough, to expect activist violence.

If you anticipate that authorities might deliberately use police/military personnel at your action who speak a different language so that they can thwart your attempts to communicate with them, which has happened rarely, you will also need at least some activists who can speak any relevant languages and the code of nonviolent discipline will need to be printed in all relevant languages.

Are you starting to wonder why I am emphasising the importance of advance and ongoing dialogue so much? Time and again throughout history, military and/or police forces have defied orders to repress nonviolent activists. The effectiveness of the dialogue between Chinese pro-democracy activists in Beijing in 1989 and the troops of the People’s Liberation Army was so effective that the Chinese dictatorship’s first attempt to clear Tiananmen Square on 20 May was completely thwarted. And in 1991, the dialogue between the nonviolent activists in the ‘Living Ring’ (who had surrounded the Russian White House following the Soviet coup) and the Soviet troops led to the latter’s refusal to attack the Russian White House and kill Soviet civilians. I could go on.

11. If the tactic is strategically chosen, it will be consistent with the strategy and have a clearly defined strategic goal while nominating exactly where and when the action will take place, how many activists will be involved and what level of nonviolence education and experience they will require in order to be disciplined and effective in the circumstances. Consider preparing an ‘action leaflet’ to explain the main details of any action to relevant audiences on the day.

12. Plan each tactic in complete detail. For example, if the action involves some form of intervention (such as sitting in front of a bulldozer or blocking access to a military base or work area) which increases the risk of confrontation with workers (with whom you should also liaise in advance) and/or the police/military, make decisions about such details as whether the activists will stand, sit or lie down; whether they will face or turn away from the workers and/or police/military; what posture they will adopt; whether they will sing (what?), remain silent or do something else; and whether they will be connected in some very obvious way (tangled in a ball of wool, for example) which makes removal difficult. This detail is important because, for example, it is more difficult to violently assault people who are sitting quietly. In response to a tax resistance protest in Beit Sahour in Palestine in 1988, Israeli troops besieged the town and ordered the tax resisters to disperse. However, in an act of defiance designed to eliminate any excuse for the troops to fire, the activists sat down in the street and quietly held hands.

It is worth noting at this point that tactics that involve such actions as ‘locking on’ to something (with various types of metal locks and pipes, for example) or damaging equipment (called monkeywrenching in some contexts) are misconceived. They are based on the fallacious belief that the political objective of the action is what is important, not its (obviously undefined) strategic goal. See ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions’ cited above.

13. Consider tactics which emphasise dispersion rather than concentration. The capacity for tactics involving dispersion to minimize violence has been illustrated in several campaigns. For example, during the 1930-1931 independence campaign in India, the main type of repression (imprisonment) used against people throughout India who manufactured salt was relatively mild compared with the violent beatings given to the activists who intended to occupy the Dharasana salt works. Even more effectively, the 1959 potato boycott in South Africa — to protest the use of Pass offenders being used as ‘slave’ labour on potato farms — could not be broken by the government, farmers and merchants combined and made repression effectively impossible. See Albert Luthuli ‘Let My People Go: An Autobiography’ London: Collins, 1962. pp. 217-219.

14. If tactics involving concentration are chosen, consider organising them in a novel way or investing a traditional practice with new meaning. For example, in circumstances in which demonstrations are banned, the action may take the form of a funeral procession or, as has been frequently the case in Tibet, a religious ceremony.

15. Conduct roleplays so that activists are given the chance to learn how to deal with various contingencies, such as police intimidation (with their uniforms, ‘protective’ gear, weapons and vehicles), kettling (confining activists to either arrest or move them), painful noise (administered by a long range acoustic device), and various weapons, chemical and otherwise (such as pepper spray, tear gas, batons, water cannons, and rubber/wooden bullets).

It’s a tough call, but history clearly shows that activists with the courage to calmly withstand repression at this level, as many have done in many countries around the world, make huge gains for their campaign. For example, at an ‘illegal gathering’ in Rangoon in Burma in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi used some carefully chosen words to maintain crowd discipline after they were threatened with violent dispersal by the military; no one moved. (In contrast, the disorganised and undisciplined crowds at Amritsar, India in 1919 and Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960 were shot as they ran away leaving many people dead.) Activists protesting against the use of torture in Chile were often sprayed by water cannons loaded with dirty sewer water or water mixed with dangerous chemicals and the women of Greenham Common were subjected to sound, light or electromagnetic zapping technologies. And, of course, the satyagrahis at Dharasana in India on 21 May 1930 were beaten over the head with steel-tipped clubs, resulting in 320 injuries, including many fractured skulls and two deaths. In each of these three cases, the activists withstood the repression.

Make sure the individuals in your campaign are given maximum personal support to develop this level of courage. Set up roleplays and then invite people to develop courageous nonviolent responses to various violent contingencies: find out what your fellow nonviolent activists are doing to neutralise the impact of pepper spray and tear gas, for example. If some people discover they are not ready for this level of engagement, give them other opportunities for involvement until they are ready. Rome wasn’t built in a day!

16. Have a contingency plan for each tactic which may be subjected to police/military violence. This plan should be known by all participants in advance of the action, it may be described in an action leaflet distributed as people arrive for the action, it should be explained again by the action focalisers at the beginning of the action, and it should be capable of implementation in a matter of seconds. If appropriate, the plan should emphasise the importance of maintaining lookouts during the action in order to eliminate the possibility that activists will be caught by surprise. The plan should include the preparation of simple actions designed to counter the prospect of violence and it should include simple actions for responding to violence should it start to occur. For example, at Ixopo in South Africa in 1959, a group of protesting women was ordered to disperse. But before police could be ordered to conduct the baton charge, the highly organised women sank quietly to their knees and began to pray. In response, the police ‘hung around helplessly’. See Luthuli p. 196.

17. Ensure that activists have been fully briefed on the risk of arrest and its legal consequences, and have had adequate opportunity to make an informed decision about this. The article ‘Should I be Arrested?’ might be a useful reference. If some activists are not willing to risk arrest where this is a possibility, devise other involvements that do not involve this risk (or devise tactics involving dispersion). These days, in many contexts, it is unwise to assume that arrests will not occur. If arrests are anticipated/intended, organise an ‘Arrest Support Team’ (which will usefully involve one or more supportive legal people) for your action and make sure they have a full list of those who are planning to be arrested, noting whether or not these arrestees intend to accept bail and who they would like informed of their arrest. Subsequent legal support will need to be organized.

18. Appoint two action focalisers who are competent to explain and direct the action on behalf of the organising group. And have sets of backup focalisers as well in case the first two are arrested by ‘snatch squads’ of police targeting leaders. Focalising includes identifying the strategic goal of the action, indicating its nonviolent nature (and asking people to respect this discipline or to withdraw from the action), creating the appropriate mood (for example, one of celebration or mourning), drawing attention to any action leaflet, outlining any safety precautions or contingency plan, and facilitating the action through the stages agreed upon during the planning process. This will assist people to understand the nature of the action and to resist the initiatives of individuals or groups with a competing agenda.

19. Organize clearly identified marshals and peacekeeping teams (which are able to deal effectively with activist, provocateur or worker violence) to be present at any nonviolent action where violence is a distinct possibility.

20. Arrange for independent witnesses (such as civil liberties monitors and legal observers) and the media, progressive and otherwise, to be present at any action where there is a risk of police/military violence. Violent repression of disciplined nonviolent activists violates major cultural and political norms. For this reason, the police and military would prefer to conduct any violence in secret. Even if the corporate media doesn’t report police/military violence (and/or lies about your behaviour), progressive and social media are likely to report the truth.

If, despite all of the above, the police and/or military personnel are still violent, the activists should maintain their discipline so that police fears about the reaction of activists are quickly dispelled and so that the inhibitions against the use of violence are brought quickly into play. Maintaining discipline in this context requires a great deal of courage. However, by making unnecessary noise, running away or responding in kind, activists contribute to the chaos which makes a continuation of the violence more likely. This has been demonstrated historically on many occasions, including those noted above.

In contrast, a disciplined group which remains motionless (preferably in a pose of cultural significance, such as one of prayer or meditation) and which remains silent or perhaps hums or sings (possibly a religious hymn or a national anthem) is less likely to be attacked, and, if it is attacked, is less likely to be attacked for any length of time. In the tactical sense, disciplined action of this nature should minimise the number of casualties; in the strategic sense, it should generate the highest level of support for the nonviolent activists and their cause.

It will not always be feasible to undertake all of the above, particularly for mass demonstrations involving huge numbers of people from different parts of a country. But if we keep the above points in mind, and implement those points that we can, we will continue to progressively improve the effectiveness of our efforts to nonviolently shape the world we envision and be increasingly better prepared to thwart elite efforts to stop us.

Finally, if you are inclined to join the worldwide movement to end all violence, you are welcome to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’

If you are somewhat overwhelmed by the above information, it’s only because you are not used to planning and implementing nonviolent strategy with the same attention to detail as our military counterparts. But if we are going to take the necessary risks to save our world, we might as well do it strategically.

Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He has been arrested about 30 times. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is and his website is at