Gene Sharp's 198 Methods, Number 23 - Destruction of Own Property

Destruction of Own Property

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Destruction of Own Property

An unusual method of nonviolent protest is the voluntary destruction of one's own property in order to demonstrate the intensity of one's feelings of opposition. Where there is danger from the act of destruction, all persons are removed to safety in advance so that there is no physical harm to anyone.

Early American colonial patriots publicly destroyed letters when they disliked their political contents. When New York merchants in July 1770 decided to break with the general policy of nonimportation of British goods, they sent letters of their decision to Philadelphia and Boston. "When a copy of the letter reached Princeton, James Madison and his fellow students garbed in black gowns, solemnly witnessed the burning of the letter by a hangman while the college bell tolled funereal peals.”[124] "At Boston, a meeting of the trade at Faneuil Hall voted unanimously that the New York letter, 'in just indignation, abhorrence and detestation, be forthwith torn into pieces and thrown to the winds as unworthy of the least notice,' which was accordingly done."[125]

In support of the movement for economic sanctions against England, the merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, promoted an association for the nonconsumption of India teas, whether or not duty had been paid on them, beginning on November 1, 1774. At the instigation of the merchants, schoolboys collected tea from private houses and it was publicly burned on November 5, Gunpowder Plot Day — the anniversary of an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London.[126] In Providence, Rhode Island, on March 2, 1775, the day after the total halt to the use of tea became effective, a bonfire was made of three hundred pounds of tea which had been collected from the inhabitants.[127]

In the Province of Massachusetts Bay in February 1775, Colonel Leslie, a British officer, sailed from Boston to Marblehead to seize artillery which colonists had taken to Salem for safekeeping.

He landed his detachment successfully on a Sunday morning; but, when the alarm reached the nearest meeting-house, the congregation turned out and took up a position upon some water which barred his route. They refused to lower the draw-bridge on the plea that there was no public right of way across it; and when Leslie attempted to lay hands on a couple of barges, the owners proceeded to scuttle them. The soldiers drew their bayonets, and inflicted some wounds. . .[128]

A segment of the Doukhobor religious group in Canada has a long record of burning their own homes in protest against government regulation or government repression for (sometimes more violent) acts of resistance.[129]

In 1918 and 1919 woman suffragist members of the Women's Party publicly burned copies of President Wilson's speeches in Washington, D.C., on the gounds that he advocated freedom and democracy while not, in their opinion, doing everything possible to give women the vote at home.[130]

Other examples of symbolic acts include the burning of imported cloth during the nonviolent Indian struggles (as a symbol of renunciation of dependence on foreign countries and of determination to build a free, self-reliant India)[131] and the destruction of the statue of Stalin in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution.[132]

In some cases this method may include destruction of documents provided by and technically owned by the government or some organization, which persons are required or expected to keep in their possession or carry for long periods of time-for most practical purposes such items thereby become the property of such persons. Examples are passes, party membership cards, passports, identity cards, and conscription registration and classification cards. For purposes of this classification the item in question is seen as de facto the property of the person who has it in his possession, although de jure it belongs to the government, party or other body.

For example, in 1960 following the launching by the Pan Africanist Congress of the campaign against the pass laws in South Africa, the rival African National Congress called for the burning of passes. “We did not desire to leave our shackles at home," wrote Albert Luthuli. “We desired to be rid of them. I burned my Reference Book, others burned theirs and the bonfires began to grow in number.”[133]

On October 15, 1965, during an antiwar rally outside the Army Induction Center in New York City, a youth burned his draft card while Federal agents looked on.[134] The New York Times reported that during anti-Vietnam war rallies throughout the country on August 16, 1967, five young men burned draft cards as a protest in Philadelphia, sixty-seven did so at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and in Los Angeles at least eight burned their cards. In the latter city several veterans were reported to have burned their certificates of discharge. Many other draft cards were turned in undamaged throughout the country to offices of Selective Service or U.S. Attorneys.[135]

Gene Sharp, reprinted with permission, from The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part Two: The Methods of Nonviolent Action.  Method #23, pp. 140-142.  First published in 1973.  Seventh Printing.  Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1998.

  • [124] Arthur Schlesigner, The Colonial Merchants and The American Revolution, 1763-1776 (New York: Columbia University, 1917), p. 227.
  • [125] Ibid.
  • [126] Ibid., p. 525.
  • [127] Ibid., p. 486
  • [128] Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution (New York, London and Bombay: Longmans, Green & Co., 1908), vol. I, p. 282.
  • [129] New York Times, 11 March and 9, 11, 18 and 24 June 1962.
  • [130] George Lakey, "Cultural Aspects of the American Movement for Woman Suffrage, Militant Phase," unpublished mss., Philadelphia, 1968, p.14, and Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liverwright, 1920), p. 277.
  • [131] Gene Sharp, Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1960), p. 41 and passim.
  • [132] George Mikes. The Hungarian Revolution (London: Andre Deutsch. 1957), p. 82.
  • [133] Albert Luthuli, Let My People Go: An Autobiography (New York: McGraw Hill Co., 1962, and London: Collins, 1962), p. 223.
  • [134] New York Times, 16 October 1965, p. 1.
  • [135] Ibid., 17 Oct. 1967.
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