CBC Toronto - Photo By Timothy Neesam

Tahrir in Toronto

Waging Nonviolence

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads marchers on a five day, 50 mile march in March 21, 1965 (CP Photo).

We usually think of revolution as an armed struggle for independence - like the one in Libya, which, although it began peacefully, is now a bloody war.

But the most remarkable revolutions are those where people power - not guns - bring down a regime. Recently it happened in Egypt, Tunisia, and before that, Eastern Europe. Nonviolence played a role in the People Power Revolution of 1986 in the Phillippines, and the American civil rights struggle from 1955 to 1968.

The week of March 28th, Mary Wiens will bring us the story of Torontonians who have devoted their careers to the cause - and who believe non-violence is more effective than armed struggle in bringing down a dictator.

Metta Spencer
Metta Spencer

Metta Spencer

Peace activist Metta Spencer is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. She says successful revolutions are much less spontaneous than they appear on the surface.

"Now, the Egyptians and to some extent, the Tunisians, had worked two or three years in advance, strategizing, studying with the Otpor folks from Serbia, getting their ducks in row," says Spencer. "They were ready to do a nonviolent resistance movement. They had discipline and they understood how to do it."

"Then everybody starts looking and watching what's going on TV, and saying 'well, they're getting away with it and we should try that too'. But they don't know how to do it. They haven't planned, haven't strategized, and they immediately resort to violence. But that's not the smart way to go about it; you really need years of preparation."

Gene Sharp
Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp

Spencer says that one of her greatest influences is Gene Sharp, who's been called the father of the field of non-violent resistance. Sharp's crisp analysis of non-violence, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been translated into 30 languages.

The CBC's Carol Off asked Gene Sharp why some authoritarian governments see him as a threat.

"If they saw how aged I am and how frail," Sharp answered, "they would see how ridiculous that must be."

"I've been studying what makes this kind of a struggle a major tool or set of tools for freedom and justice. And to do that you don't need guerilla warfare. You don't need the barrel of a gun or all that sort of thing. Dictators don't like people to know that they can free themselves. That is very threatening to a dictator. And rightly so."

Mary Wiens interviewed Gene Sharp. Listen audio (runs 6:44)

Srdja Popovic
Srdja Popovic

Srdja Popovic

Srdja Popovic was a leader in Otpor, the student group instrumental in the nonviolent overthrow of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in Serbia in 2000. Popovic talks about why a sense of humour is more powerful than a gun in bringing down an autocratic regime. In his story about a stunt involving a barrel, Popovic explains why ridicule is a dictator's death knell.

"One of the funniest was a situation where we used a big petrol barrel, and painted a cartoon picture of Milosevic on the barrel, with a slot where you could put a coin into the barrel and hit the barrel with a baseball bat," Popovic remembers. "Of course it makes a lot of noise. It was 2000 in the main street of Belgrade, where shoppers concentrated. After a certain period, police will arrive and sit in a car nearby and observing the situation. So they really don't know what to do."

"If they leave people hitting head of Milosevic for just a coin, they will of course encourage others to mock him. And they don't know whom to arrest because after all, these people are just shoppers. There's no visible opposition. So what they did was even more stupid. They arrested the barrel and took it into a police station. Which gave the press opportunity to take a photo of the barrel."

Mary Wiens interviewed Metta Spencer and Srdja Popovic on Metro Morning Listen audio (runs 7:40)

Ramin Jahanbegloo

Ramin Jahanbegloo knows firsthand the risks and benefits of nonviolence. A philosopher and former inmate of Iran's Evin Prison, one of the world's most notorious prisons, Ramin learned how to apply non-violence as taught by its greatest modern practitioner - Mahatma Gandhi.

"You have it in practically all prisons, these kinds of prisons, in Latin America or South Africa or Eastern Europe. People try to destroy your mind, destroy your body, try to dehumanize you. And I think that nonviolence, the force of nonviolence, gives you a new humanity."

"It permits you to find the mental capacities, exploiting this love and compassion which can exist in human beings. We have the story of Buddha and Jesus Christ. And it happened also to Martin Luther King and Gandhi, how in front of all this violence, they knew how to give back love."

Harvey Skinner
Harvey Skinner

Harvey Skinner

Nonviolent revolutions don't happen overnight. It is only in the last stage - as in Egypt, or in the peaceful overthrow of many governments in Eastern Europe - that they seem spontaneous - even inevitable.

One place where the revolution is still very much in the making is along the fault lines between Israelis and Palestinians, where many individuals and groups, in their own way, are committed to non-violence in many different forms.

It includes a very quiet initiative by a group of Canadians. CISEPO, founded by Mount Sinai's Dr. Arnie Noyek, is now headed by Dr. Harvey Skinner, Dean of Health at York University. Call them the Quiet Canadians.

The Canada International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO) doesn't hold rallies, or put up posters. Instead the group holds academic meetings and publishes papers in academic journals, like The Lancet (78KB .pdf). They've built co-operation between these very different groups through projects with universal appeal, like an infant heath screening program (512KB .pdf).

Qalandiya checkpoint
Approaching the Qalandiya checkpoint
(Harvey Skinner)

It's healthcare collaboration as a form of non-violent resistance.

"A lot of co-operation occurs," says Dr. Skinner. "But it occurs very quietly. If we can, as Canadians, create an umbrella for (Israeli and Palestinian) colleagues to meet and then do this again and again, it's doing a little a lot. If you sit across a table, you find out we have more in common, especially those of us who are in health, and it can build over time, respect, trust, co-operation. And we keep doing this again and again."

"We're building what we call a network of co-operation. Doing it quietly. Not front page in the media. Nothing's bleeding here, right? You get a terrorist attack in the region, instantly you get press. We hold a meeting like this - quite remarkable. Not even that much interest in the press."

Mary Wiens interviewed Harvey Skinner. Listen audio (runs 6:02)

A brief presentation by Harvey Skinner (3.8 MB .ppt) outlines the key points CISEPO has learned about laying the groundwork for political change, and photos from CISEPO's many trips to the region.

In the tense world that Israelis and Palestinians share, keeping those collaborations going - for more than two decades now - amounts to a small miracle.

Ali Abu Awwad
Ali Abu Awwad (Pangea Day)

Ali Abu Awwad

Another growing organization in the region is The Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance. One of its most eloquent voices is a young activist named Ali Abu Awwad.

In a recent speech, Awwad described what happens when all these separate initiatives that make up the larger campaign of nonviolence begin to merge.

"I'm not begging for peace," says Awwad. "Peace will come. And I remember that Gandhi once said, there is no way for peace. Peace is the way. You first do peace without any condition; then everybody will identify the way."

"I believe, I believe, and I believe, that material can easily damage material. Airforce can easily attack houses. But material will never succeed in damaging human beings."

Hear more from Mary Wiens, Harvey Skinner and Ali Abu Awwad. Listen audio (runs 6:02)

Caroline Chikoore
Caroline Chikoore

Caroline Chikoore

There's growing speculation about the mercenaries supporting Gaddafi in Libya. Some of the hired guns may be from Mugabe's army in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, protestors in Zimbabwe are also under daily siege for their role in Zimbabwe's nonviolent movement.

Caroline Chikoore left Zimbabwe because of her work in the women's movement. Every year, she was part of the Valentine's Day marches - women from all over the country who gather to hand out roses and march, as they put it, for love.

"When I left the country," says Caroline, "I knew if I continued operating within the country, I would also face prison at some point. Anyone who is active against the government knows they will face prison."

But for Caroline, even more serious than the risk of jail was that of losing her reputation for integrity.

Caroline's job was to lobby the government to improve the lives of women and children. Her story illustrates how complicated life can be under a dictatorship; more than an outsider can possibly understand.

"It's very difficult, especially where you feel by negotiating that I can bring my message across; maybe by negotiating I will win. And you don't realize by negotiating you compromise your position, and end up in a position of weakness they can use against you."

Mary Wiens interviewed Caroline Chikoore. Listen audio (runs 6:02)

Links of Interest

External links will open in a new window.

Penser la non-violence (in French), Ramin Jahanbegloo (7.4 MB .pdf)

Gandhi and the struggle for non-violence, Ramin Jahanbegloo (in English, French and Spanish) 5 MB .pdf

Speech before the Inter-Asian Relations Conference, Mahatma Gandhi, April 2, 1947.

The Atlantic: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance, Lee Smithey, Feb. 2011. Smithey writes about why Gene Sharp has been called "the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action".

Foreign Policy: Revolution U, by Tina Rosenberg, Feb. 2011. The connections between a young generation of democracy activists and what young Egyptians learned from Serb students who helped overthrow dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

CBC Radio, As It Happens, Feb. 23/2011. The CBC's Carol Off talks to Gene Sharp about the influence of his ideas in the Middle East. You'll also find Carol Off's essay about the origins of the Serbian group, Otpor, and the spread of nonviolent strategies to the Middle East. Carol was fascinated, but not surprised, to see the Otpor flag flying in Tahrir Square.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Dr. Gene Sharp [905KB .pdf]. A guide on waging nonviolent regime change. Contains twenty-three case accounts of how nonviolent struggle has been used in the twentieth century.

Waging Nonviolence, New York journalist Bryan Farrell writes about Toronto's G20 demonstrations and the failure of nonviolent protestors to understand one of the most basic principles of nonviolent action. "They bear responsibility," Farrell writes, "for not figuring out a way to distinguish themselves from the anarchist vandals. Nearly every anti-globalization demonstration is hijacked by this group and nonviolent activists should have a plan for dealing with them by now." The site wagingnonviolence.org was founded by Eric Stoner.

Comment on this story

What do you think about the role of non-violence in revolution? Send us your thoughts.