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The Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest
"History is not an accident, it is a
choice." — Bayard Rustin
The purpose of Nonviolent Resistance is to affect peoples' thinking and
build political movements for social change. From that perspective,
Nonviolent Resistance is a broad concept encompassing education,
organizing, alternative social structures, personal-witness,
noncooperation — and, of course, direct action protests.
Some nonviolent actions are large-scale (boycotts, mass marches,
strikes, civil non-cooperation, etc) others are engaged in by small
groups (pickets, sit-ins, freedom rides, occupations, etc). Regardless
of size, the point of a demonstration is to influence people towards
affecting some kind of social/political change. When we study the actual
impact of nonviolent protests it's like peeling away the layers of an
onion, with each layer representing a different audience. From the core
to the outer layer, the effect of a nonviolent protest on each audience
varies in the number of people who are influenced, the intensity of the
effect, and our control over the content of the message they receive.
At its simplest, the four basic layers of the protest onion are:
- Participants. The nonviolent resistors engaged in the
- Observers. The individuals at the businesses or institutions
the protest is targeting, and the uninvolved bystanders who encounter or
observe the protest.
- Grapevine. Those who directly hear about the protest from
some other person whom they know (including through personal social
media such as Twitter, FaceBook, & etc).
- Media. Those who learn of the protest through impersonal mass
Participants are the first (inner) layer of the audience onion. For most
small-group actions this layer is the least in numbers, though that
might not be the case for a mass action. Nonviolent Resistance affects
the people who engage in it more deeply than anyone else, and with
participants we have the greatest control over the content of the
When you're a veteran of protest politics it may be hard to remember how
your first mass march, your first sit-in, your first arrest
affected you. But over and over in their Veterans Roll Call statements, people talk
about how their participation in the Freedom Movement permanently
changed and shaped their lives. In some circumstances and for some
people, taking part in direct action is a profound expression of
defiance and courage, for others it can sometimes be a living rejection
of the conformist societal norms that previously governed their lives.
In some instances, nonviolent protest can be life-changing affirmation
of dignity and self-worth — I AM a
Man — and a living experience and expression of
human solidarity — I Am Not Alone. And, of
course, actively planning and participating in a protest provides a
depth of political education that no leaflet, speech, article or
manifesto can match.
For participants, direct action organizers have the greatest control
over the message they experience. In this context, "message" is far more
than just the content of the slogans, speeches, signs, and leaflets that
express the event's politics. As we all know, "Actions speak louder
than words." Therefore, the "message" of a protest is a compound of
the explicit politics conveyed by words, and the implicit content
conveyed by what we do, the way we interact with and treat each other
(and those whom we encounter), the emotions we share, and the bonds that
we (hopefully) build. Unfortunately, some leaders concentrate so much on
planning an action's explicit political content (words), and how the
media will view the demonstration, that they overlook the importance of
shaping how it affects those taking part. Which is one reason we see so
many sterile, boring, repetitive
Of course, over time the personal effect of any given action tends to
decrease as someone repeats that kind of protest. Baring some unusual
circumstances, someone's 10th sit-in affects their consciousness less
than did their first. Which is why repeating the same action over and
over with the same people often leads to diminishing returns. Though, of
course, sometimes dogged stubborn repetition is necessary (a strike or
boycott picket line, for example). But even in those cases, a creative
nonviolent resistor can, and should, look for ways to vary the
experience of the participants.
Observers are the second layer of the audience onion. Observers include
both the people at the institution/businesses the demonstration is
targeting and the passers-by who happen to encounter it. These people
have a direct, personal experience of the action, but for most of them
it is at one-remove from the participants. For small-group protests the
number of observers is usually greater than the number of protesters,
and that might be the case for a mass-action as well. The effect of the
action on observers is less intense than on the participants, but
greater than with the two outer layers. And we have less control over
what they experience and how they perceive our message.
Marshall McLuhan made famous the now-hackneyed cliche, "The medium is
the message." For a protest action, it's more accurate to say that
"The medium is a crucial component of the message," as important as the
signs, leaflets, chants, and speeches. One aspect of a demonstration's
"medium" is the tactics employed — rally, picket-line,
sit-in, occupation, etc. Another, and probably more important, aspect is
the demeanor and discipline of the protest participants. During the
Southern Freedom Movement, young, Black, protesters nonviolently defying
segregation with discipline and determination was a message in and of
itself beyond the content of the specific demands, targets, and
rhetoric. When Malcolm-X organized Black Muslims to protest police
brutality in Harlem by facing the precinct station in silent, orderly
rows, their quiet discipline was a powerful message delivered through a
nonviolent medium. A message quite different, and far stronger, than
rowdies smashing windows, spraying graffiti, or setting trash fires as
we occasionally see today.
In essence, nonviolent direct action is speaking truth to power. Our
society conditions us to accept and obey both custom and authority. A
protest says "NO!"
"No!" is the most powerful word in the English language.
No! We don't accept segregation any longer!
No! We won't allow ourselves to be abused
No! We won't support a war for oil
No! We won't allow Wall
Street to rule our lives!
When people see others saying "No!" through a protest, it (hopefully)
awakens in them the realization that they too can say "No" in their own
lives. This is one of the most important effects that a demonstration
can (and should) have on observers. But in order for that effect to
occur, the action has to be designed to encourage sympathy and support
rather than fear and opposition.
Obviously, bystanders are not the adversaries against whom the protest
is directed. And in most cases that is also true of the people who work
at the institution or business being targeted because they are rarely
the decision-makers. Therefore, it does no good (and some harm) to
direct rage, hatred, and hostility at bystanders, clerks, and mid-level
bureaucrats. Of course, for some kinds of disruptive nonviolent actions
those who are inconvenienced are, in a sense, unwilling and unhappy
participants who will probably have at best a mixed reaction and at
worst quite a hostile one. But even for them, our stance should be one
of education, not anger at those who do not bear responsibility for the
abuses we are protesting.
Yet before we can begin education we have to allay fear. It is
astounding how many people are made nervous and upset by even the most
peaceful nonviolent demonstration. By definition, a protest is a
defiance and disruption of social order, and that violation of everyday
tranquility is frightening to some folk even when there is no threat
whatsoever of violence. The problem for us is that what people fear
they come to hate and oppose. (Which exposes the fundamental fallacy
of terrorism whether committed by a government or an underground
band — yes, in the short-run terror can violently coerce
people into obedience, but in the long-run it creates ever more
enemies.) So for us, an essential rule of effective nonviolent direct
action has to be: Don't frighten the observers!
Which brings us back to education, because that which is strange and
unfamiliar is for many folk frightening. In this context, signs, chants,
and speeches are not all that effective. For one thing, at a half-block
or across a wide avenue, the chanted words become hard to make out even
if amplified, and at that distance signs start to become unreadable. But
even if the words are perfectly clear, they're still part of an
"us-them" paradigm which contributes to observer fear. Therefore,
nonviolent protest organizers need to assign some of their best
people — those most able to communicate with strangers
on a friendly, non-hostile basis — to work the periphery
of the action handing out flyers, talking to bystanders, answering
questions, and even, if feasible, explaining the underlying issues to
those being inconvenienced.
3. Grapevine. I heard it through the grapevine!
Those who hear about a protest, and form an impression of it, from
someone they personally know are the third layer of the audience onion.
Hopefully, the number of people who hear about an action should
significantly exceed the number who participate in it or directly
observe it. But because they are hearing about it at second or third
hand rather than experiencing it themselves, the intensity of impact is
less than with participants and observers, and our control over the
content of the message that comes through to them is greatly diminished.
In the real world of people-power politics (to say nothing of commercial
advertising), word-of-mouth is far more effective than media sound bites
or column inches. Word-of-mouth can be via conversations (face-to-face
or phone), or through some social media such as FaceBook or Twitter. The
key point is that the information comes from a personal acquaintance
because that kind of connection usually carries more weight and greater
influence than anything received from the mass media (even if the person
they're hearing from did not personally participate in, or observe the
Thus, an important goal of nonviolent direct action is to be talked
about in a positive (or at least neutral) fashion, one-on-one or over
social media — "Did you hear about..."
While violence on our part against people or property will certainly
generate a lot of talk, that kind of negative buzz does not build mass
political movements for social change, in fact it does the opposite.
What gets the grapevine humming in a positive way are nonviolent actions
that incorporate Audacity and Humor. Audacious
nonviolence should provoke a "They did what!?" response that
spreads far and wide. In this context, "audacity" means nonviolently
breaking the paradigm of business-as-usual social behavior. Audacity is
doing the unexpected. Audacity is violating cultural taboos in ways
calculated to provoke a reaction without alienating potential supporters
(or, at least, not alienating them too much).
When an audacious action is not feasible, sometimes humor is almost as
effective. Laughter and ridicule undermine authority and diminish its
ability to compel obedience. You can weaken, unbalance, and ultimately
overthrow the king quicker by laughing at him than by screaming futile
fury at him. Humor appeals to observers and potential
supporters — rage frightens and alienates them. Humor
disarms and confuses adversaries — anger triggers
ingrained patterns of defense and counter-attack. Humor is more
sustainable than anger because rage is exhausting, few people can
sustain intense fury over long periods of time. Humor, however, is
energizing, both in the short-run of a single protest, and in the long-
run of an extended campaign.
Humor and audacity work hand-in-hand, reinforcing each other. Humor
reduces and defuses hostile reaction to broken taboos, and nothing
spreads faster by word-of-mouth (or Twitter tweets) than tales of
4. Media (if any).
Those who learn of a protest, and form an impression of it, through
impersonal mass media (TV, newspaper, radio, websites, etc) are the
fourth and outermost layer of the audience onion. If the mass media
covers a protest, the number of people who hear of it that way will
almost certainly be larger than any of the inner onion layers. But the
impact will be far less than on participants, observers, and those who
hear about it through the grapevine.
Leaving aside the small-scale media organs we ourselves might control
(newsletter, website, YouTube clips, maybe a radio show), our influence
over the content of what people hear about an action from the mass media
is almost nil. The corporate media operates on its
own — often hostile — agenda which
rarely supports changes to the established order. I learned this the
hard way back in 1964 when 800 completely nonviolent protesters were
dragged out of Sproul Hall while the cops kicked and beat on them, and
then the headline in the morning paper read "Berkeley Students Riot!"
Today, as I write this 47 years later, the mass media coverage of the
"Occupy Wall Street" protests is telling the public that the
demonstrators have no clear idea or purpose behind what they are doing
even though their detailed 21-point "Declaration of the Occupation" has
been all over the web for more than a week.
Therefore, given that the media may not cover a protest at all, and the
low-intensity impact if they do, plus our inability to influence media
content, nonviolent resistors cannot rely on the commercial
media to achieve our ends or build a political movement for social
change. Which means that the effectiveness of an action cannot be
judged by the amount of media coverage it generates (if any). Nor should
tactics be chosen based on assumptions of how much media attention those
tactics will (or won't) generate.
Since the purpose of a nonviolent action is to build a political,
people-power movement, if it positively affects the first three layers
of the audience onion towards that end it is a success regardless of
media coverage. More than 90% of all the nonviolent protests conducted
by the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s had no media coverage
whatsoever, not a single radio sound bite, not a single newspaper
sentence, yet they profoundly changed the participants, observers, and
grapevine as well as their communities and the nation as a whole.
Yes, at times the media is needed to publicize an issue and the struggle
around it. So sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to engage in
protests designed for the media. But media-oriented actions are just one
instrument in the Nonviolent Resistance orchestra. Just as you can't
compose a symphony using only bassoons, neither can you build a movement
using nothing but (or mostly) media-oriented events.
And, of course, the fact is that protests of all kinds are only one
component of building a political movement for social change. Like the
tip of an iceberg, demonstrations are what is visible to outsiders (and
the media), but that tip exists on a foundation of outreach, organizing,
conversations, education, meetings, planning, and many other forms of
quiet, non-glamourous, hard work.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2011