Citizen Action Monitor

“Counterpower” by Tim Gee — Pt 4: How Physical Counterpower helps movements win

No 382 Posted by fw, December 28, 2011

This series is based on Tim Gee’s Counterpower: Making Change Happen. Gee conceives of Counterpower as the ability of the powerless to remove or neutralize the power of the powerful. He posits three types of Counterpower – Idea Counterpower, Economic Counterpower and Physical Counterpower.

This post, Part 4, again excerpted from Chapter 1, How Counterpower helps movements win, offers a selection of examples from the past to illustrate how determined citizen activists can win campaigns by effectively deploying Physical Counterpower.

Physical Counterpower

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” —John F Kennedy

Gee writes: “The ‘right of revolution‘, is part of the philosophical foundations of the modern state,” It’s reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘social contract.’ Typically, revolution involves physical violence.

There are, however, alternative forms of Physical Counterpower that are nonviolent.”  One kind of nonviolent Counterpower consists of refusing to cooperate, such as, for example: civil disobedience; constructing barricades; declaring specified geographical areas to be autonomous and independent of the state; and refusing to be subject to coercive government power.

Coincidentally, Gee asserts that passively waiting for the next chance to vote “is as ineffective as wishing for justice.

Another kind of Physical Counterpower encompasses being obstructionist, actively getting in the way, most commonly known as nonviolent direct action.

  • One of the best known examples is the Boston Tea Party, which combined “a mass meeting of activists to display the Idea Counterpower of reasoned argument, with the promotion the Economic Counterpower of a boycott”, and when this wasn’t enough, with the boarding of tea ships in Boston Harbor to toss tea overboard in a direct act of Physical Counterpower.
  • Nonviolent direct action was also used to great effect in the US Civil Rights Movement when, on February 1, 1960, four black students held a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina. They were refused service. Next day 300 students showed up; and 1,400 the day after that – including supportive white students. In the face of verbal racist abuse and physical assault – while police stood by and watched – the lunch counter demonstrators refused to be baited and withstood the onslaught. In short order, the students’ nonviolent Physical Counterpower gained sympathy among Whites, resulting in a loss of business for White’s Only lunch counters. Economic Counterpower turned the tide and lunch counters became integrated. Moreover, this nonviolent direct action tactic was quickly adopted by others and used in other segregated public spaces – libraries, museums and galleries, and public parks. The 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated the nationwide desegregation of public institutions.

New methods of nonviolent action emerged in the 1990s —

  • In response to the British Government’s introduction of an ambitious road building program, Friends of the Earth (FOE) escalated their opposition to the plan by employing a series of Physical Counterpower tactics beginning with a 10-month camp-out on the site of one of the proposed road development sites. Their stated cause – to protect areas of natural beauty and the threat of house demolitions in nearby communities. FOE’s campaign sparked copycat actions by other groups at other road-building sites with ordinary citizens joining the activists to help sustain the campaign. Most impressive was the flood of creative direct action events unleashed by the campaign. For example, to prevent tree removals there were tree sit-ins, construction of tree houses, and people suspending themselves from trees in netting, and eventually entire ‘sky villages’. To prevent house demolitions people staged sit-ins on rooftops, sealed themselves in house basements, and even built tunnels allowing evictees to return to their homes. Some intrepid souls locked themselves in holes in the ground where roads were going to be built. Others built a giant tripod with a person sitting on top to blockade a security access road. The cost of police operations to clear out determined activists was in the millions. Media coverage was worldwide. Over time, different groups of campaigners joined in as legal observers and as organizers of mass on-site rallies.
  • Although three road projects eventually went ahead, the government axed plans for an additional 77 projects. Campaigners may have lost some battles but they won the war. In addition, Counterpower as a strategy was a big winner: Physical Counterpower had created an economic headache for government; the effectiveness of a mix of Counterpower techniques had spread among new adopters; and NGOs and grassroots organizers gained public respect and support.
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This entry was posted on December 28, 2011 by in evidence based counterpower, social movements and tagged , , , , .
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