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Pacifism and ‘Diversity of Tactics’: A Compromise Proposal


As I watch the reemergence of the age-old debate between advocates of the euphemism “diversity of tactics” and advocates of the euphemism “nonviolence”, I have a proposal to bridge the perceived chasm. First, some definitions and context.

Diversity of tactics is a term used by people who want to tolerate members of a group or movement who engage autonomously in actions that involve property destruction or violence against police and other state agents. Not everyone who advocates this policy believes violence or property destruction of any kind are productive tactics. Perhaps even most people who accept the diversity of tactics approach do so out of an unwillingness to split movements over tactical infighting. Some advocates of “diversity of tactics” use it to mean “let us do whatever we want no matter the consequences to everybody else or the movement”, though an insignificant few would actually argue that those not inclined to destroy property or fight with police should engage in these activities.

Nonviolence is a term used in this debate to essentially mean “pacifism”, or complete passivity even in the face of aggression by state agents or paramilitaries. Advocates believe, at a minimum, that property destruction or violence even in self-defense cast movements in a bad light and give our adversaries and their media ammunition to paint us as undisciplined or antisocial. At worst, some pacifists believe passive nonviolence is a spiritually rooted method of resistance that should be imposed on others who find it horrifying or humiliating.

There of course is not a clean dichotomy between these two approaches. Plenty of people who advocate diversity of tactics actually abhor violence. And many people who favor disciplined nonviolence do so out of perceived expedience, to promote unity; more still believe nonviolence does not have to be purely “passive”.

What goes unnoticed is the huge sector of the movement, and probably an even larger sector of the rest of society, who do not feel comfortable standing on either side of the gap. To many, strict adherence to nonviolence is as unappealing as fighting in the streets. Such folks don’t want to come to a demonstration armed with molotov cocktails or batons, but they would reserve the prerogative to resist arrest or even nonviolently unarrest others, and to protect themselves and others from police violence without using weapons or going on the offensive.

I think it’s easy for most of us to see why the extreme “pro-violence” end of the tactical spectrum is wildly unappealing: it basically means engaging in all-out war against a force that excels at violence. For many, violence cannot be tolerated because it is always immoral; it cannot be seriously claimed, however, that anyone feels similarly about nonviolence. This tends to cause concerned tacticians to lean toward nonviolence as the optimal default, lowest-common-denominator approach.

But strict nonviolence has its deficiencies as well. If you think the masses of uninitiated sympathizers will come running to the defense of a movement that lets police push it around, that accepts or even seeks arrest as a consequence to free speech and assembly, or even civil disobedience, think again. Most people don’t want to be part of a movement that gets its ass kicked on a regular basis and resists only symbolically.

(This is the part where strict nonviolence advocates point to the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-Apartheid movement, or the first Intifada, in which relatively disciplined forms of nonviolent resistance won massive popular support, domestically and internationally. True as this is, don’t forget that these movements were addressing state and societal brutality against entire groups of people as the primary focus of their strategy; state violence was thus an illustration of their point. In the case of a holistic movement primarily focused on elite rule instead of state repression, police violence is a distraction. It may earn you sympathies, but it does not help to make your point in any clearly illustrative manner, as it did in these examples. Besides, it’s never been distinctly clear that the passiveness of demonstrators was more motivating to audiences than the unjust violence of the state forces. Egyptian citizens fought back like hell in and around Tahrir Square, and sympathy toward them could hardly have been greater; indeed, they might have lost decisively if they’d let the regime’s agents kill and disperse them all.)

Some nonviolent tactics are considered by many to be particularly distasteful. The act of intentional or negotiated arrest, which sometimes occurs when police refuse to crack down on an act of civil disobedience, is probably at the top of the list. Getting arrested as an unavoidable consequence of standing up for a cause is noble; getting arrested as a voluntary, symbolic act is widely considered bizarre, at best. Moreover, it frustrates huge sectors of the movement who see an opportunity cost to the resources that go into unnecessary jail support, bail, and legal costs. Perhaps worst of all, voluntary arrest is seen by members of especially targeted communities as flaunting arrestees’ race and class privilege.

It also deserves to be noted that most of the more egregious tactics of either side of this false dichotomy are just plain lame. They’re holdovers from past movements that our adversaries and broader audiences have become accustomed to. Smashing windows, overturning cars, and throwing things at police are self-serving acts with virtually no hope of accomplishing objectives that anybody can actually articulate. Likewise, getting arrested as an act of theater, or insisting that the subjects of police violence not defend themselves involve equally egoistic motives.

Because there is no hope for either side entirely convincing the other to accept or adhere to its approach, and since both sides are actively turning people off from joining the movement, I propose a broad compromise. The wording is just a rough idea; specifics would have to be hammered out by groups more representative than the conflicting parts of my own brain and the various testimonies I’ve heard and read over the years. But maybe something like…

WHEREAS violence and property destruction are seen by significant parts of the movement and society as ineffective, counterproductive, or immoral;

WHEREAS pacifism is seen by significant parts of the movement and society as humiliating, disempowering, or costly;

WHEREAS the debate between hardcore proponents of “diversity of tactics” and those of strict “nonviolence” will never be settled by winning one side over to the other, or either side vanishing;

BE IT RESOLVED that activists participating under the banner of [X] movement will respect the following guidelines:

  1. we will not intentionally get arrested for the sake of getting arrested, unless extenuating circumstances make it tactically expedient, for example following an at-risk individual into jail to provide medical or emotional support;
  2. we will not destroy property as a tactic in and of itself, unless circumstances render it tactically expedient, such as construction of barricades for immediate self-defense;
  3. we will keep even nonviolent actions that are likely to be perceived as aggressive, destructive, or provocational far from activists who explicitly wish not to suffer immediate repercussions of such actions;
  4. we will tolerate activists defending themselves from violence by police or paramilitaries, including:

    1. the wearing of protective gear or carrying of shields;
    2. disabling or returning tear gas canisters or otherwise eliminating persistent, immediate threats;
    3. disarming police with nonviolent tactics if they are in the act of using arms against us or fellow activists;
  5. we will not preemptively defend ourselves from violence except by use of protective gear, video documentation, language, and formations — that is, we will not strike preemptively;
  6. we will tolerate evasion of arrest by anyone who so chooses, as well as the use of minimal necessary force short of violence in the act of unarresting fellow activists who wish not to be arrested;
  7. in the interest of accountability, we will not wear masks or otherwise obscure our faces (except for immediate protection from chemical or other weapons);

Perhaps if some kind of resolution like this can be accepted by everyone but the very fringes, the vast majority of activists can feel less nervous about alienating sectarians bent on holding back the movement in furtherance of their personal agendas, and the rest can engage in sensible actions that neither violate their own principles nor unduly restrain others from standing up as they see fit.

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