Study These Stories as You Do Your Nonviolent Strategic Planning

By Tom H. Hastings

What will greatly increase the chances for a movement victory? A seriously researched and developed strategic plan.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted after being arrested for boycotting public transportation, Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. Photo: Associated Press

The Global Nonviolent Action Database (GNAD) is a treasure chest of knowledge useful to those of us who are students and practitioners of nonviolent civil society struggle, particularly if we are more inclined to winning and less interested in hairshirt actions that might only bring suffering with little chance for policy success. What you will notice in particular is the interlocking nature of these elements of a successful movement to affect public, institutional, or corporate policies.

To illustrate, let’s consider the following aspects of nonviolent movements and campaigns and take lessons from that database:

Nonviolent Discipline

When, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. implored participating campaigners to maintain nonviolent discipline. He said, “Be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.” That struggle pitted a minority against a hostile majority and yet the year-long strict adherence to King’s code of nonviolence gave the campaign victory in the majority US public opinion and victories in the courts.

Media Work

When the poorly paid janitors at the University of Miami sought higher pay and benefits, they only finally succeeded after a savvy campaign featuring good media work that highlighted their conditions and the opulent lifestyle of the university officials. Oscar Wilde was not correct when he claimed, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” The best outreach cannot overcome the backfire if nonviolent discipline is not maintained. Media work can overcome the potentially damaging effects of violence done by those who claim to be acting in concert with a nonviolent campaign when the organizers of the nonviolent campaign strenuously distance their movement from any act of violence. Failure to do so usually results in the diminution of a campaign.


In the British Virgin Islands it appeared inevitable that wealthy developers would be building more resorts in places that were renowned for their natural beauty and environmental sensitivity. One large project — approved by the Premier and sanctioned by the government for Beef Island starting in 2007 — however, was stopped by excellent coalition-building work by the opposition. The cultural heritage activists joined with environmental activists and other local groups, but even more impressively, they sought and got external support for their coalition, including donations and statements of support from thousands of people living elsewhere, effectively strengthening their coalition. While they believe some development might still occur, they also believe it will be done to state-of-the-art practices to preserve ecological and cultural resources.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. King, and Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh march in the Solidarity Day Parade at the United Nations Building. Photo: Benedict J. Fernandez


While different campaigns have embraced various forms of decision-making, the general principle that seems constant is that, once the irrevocable decision is made by the initial organizers to commit to a behavior code of nonviolence, it is then important to agree on the method of making other decisions. Some movements tend to have a small group of deciders who then pass along those decisions to participants. Others adopt a consensus process, more time-consuming but more egalitarian and tending toward greater sustainability if done while respecting the code of nonviolent behavior. The British women who began their peace camp at the US military base at Greenham Common on September 5, 1981, committed to nonviolence and to a consensus decision-making process. This campaign continued through the remainder of the Cold War, even past the point where their stated goal — the elimination of the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Greenham Common USAF base — had been completely achieved.


The general public — and many activists — seem at times to have a very small repertoire of actions — carry signs in the streets to protest, sit down in blockade, and get arrested to resist. Scholar Gene Sharp, however, listed and categorized 198 methods of nonviolent action in 1973, and many more methods have been created since. Indeed, the hard-wired human response to mortal threat is a range from flight to fight to posing to abject surrender and to the only human quality that gives hope to nonviolent conflict transformation — the illimitable creativity of the human mind. The GNAD offers many case studies featuring highly innovative, adaptive methods. One such example is the 1999–2000 effort to save community gardens from demolition in New York City. In 1998, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani decided to permit removal of gardens that were where developers wished to build. A network of activists formed the Esperanza Garden campaign and swung into a highly creative struggle to challenge this, involving actions by activists in plant, poultry, and insect costumes; parades; garden camp-ins; lawsuits in court; garden parties; bonfires; cookouts; human chains in lockdown; a 200-person floating party; replanting bulldozed gardens; and much more. There were setbacks, but good media work, strong nonviolent discipline even when clubbed by cops, and fresh attention-getting actions consistently built the ranks of coalitional partners and swelled the people power vs. corporate money struggle to a level that cost the elected officials increasing losses in legitimacy. Finally, as noted by an Esperanza participant, “the Esperanza campaign radicalized a generation of garden activists and laid the groundwork for the 2002 garden settlement that allowed for the construction of over 3,000 affordable housing units while preserving almost 500 community gardens.”


Some community organizers simply hold that no decision should be made without first pondering the impact on recruitment. It is not enough to assert, “If we do this action in this manner it will tend to attract this demographic.” It is far more effective to estimate both how many will be attracted and now many will be repelled. The net number is crucial. If “punching a Nazi” attracts a few hundred hardcore street brawlers but alienates the rest of the pool of potential participants, that “movement math” should help the deliberative process. A tough nonviolent campaign in Pakistan from 2007 to 2009 featured highly effective participant recruitment to oppose the evisceration of the judiciary and the decimation of the Constitution. As noted in GNAD: “On March 9, 2007, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from his duties on the Court in response to Chaudhry’s challenges to his Presidency.” Started by a small group of lawyers and growing to many thousands of them, they were able to field a half million from many sectors of society to march on Islamabad in 2008, and when they began another on March 12, 2009, the government caved. “That night all of the judges, including Chaudhry, were restored to their position and the lawyers’ movement won its final victory. The judiciary had regained its autonomy.”

Strategic Planning

While there is never a guarantee of success, a seriously researched and developed strategic plan will increase the chances for a victory. In January 2014, the governors of six New England states announced plans to build a natural gas pipeline to carry two billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas per day. Opponents engaged in such effective strategic planning that they were able to direct simultaneous actions, educational sessions, and mini-campaigns to resist the fracking even as they promoted clean energy alternatives. They enlisted the town and county officials in the path of the proposed pipeline to pass resolutions of opposition and when the route was changed in response, more municipalities joined in the campaign. By April 2016, the clear majority won and the plan was ended.Φ

Tom H. Hastings is Co-founder of the Portland Peace Team, a two-time Plowshares resister, Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution at Portland State University, and Founding Director of PeaceVoice. This piece appears in the print version of Nonviolence Magazine, the Winter/Spring 2018: Strategy issue, and it appeared online at Nonviolence Magazine on February 14 here.

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