Training for Nonviolent Action

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Training for Nonviolent Action

An educational process that prepares people for participation in strikes, civil disobedience, sit-ins, nonviolent occupations, and many other methods of nonviolent action. Training readies participants to employ such tactics to pursue social change goals, to provide nonviolent third-party intervention, and to engage in social defense strategies.

Training teaches people practical skills for engaging in conflict nonviolently. Nonviolent action involves not only an intellectual understanding of the subject, but also physical participation. Inevitably, each person who takes part becomes emotionally engaged as well. Therefore, training for nonviolent action usually entails methods of both cognitive learning (such as lectures, talks, and books) and experiential learning (such as role-plays, discussions, exercises, and games) and provides an opportunity to at least identify fears and other strong feelings that people may have about engaging in nonviolent action. Trainers help groups build a sense of community and mutual support. They provide opportunities for participants to express feelings and develop ways to manage them in the midst of confusion and potential violence.

A Brief History of Training for Nonviolent Action

Until this century, nonviolent action was spontaneous, at least in terms of its nonviolent aspects. Although labor strikes in the nineteenth century and other actions throughout history sometimes involved careful planning and preparation, such planning did not address the nature and dynamics of nonviolent power. Specific preparation of individuals and groups to engage in deliberate nonviolent actions began in this century. The Gandhian movement for independence in India used training sessions to prepare people to face almost certain violence from British forces. These training sessions consisted mainly of inspirational talks by the movement’s leadership, including Gandhi himself.

In the United States, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s developed sophisticated training methods, including extensive use of role-plays to understand the likely actions of opponents and to develop ways to protect people as much as possible. The training movement continued and expanded during the anti-Vietnam War movement, the movements against nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the women’s movement. In recent years, training has been a regular part of the more action-oriented parts of the environmental movement and played a major role in the movements against U.S. intervention in Central America and against apartheid in South Africa.

Training for nonviolent action is an international phenomenon. Throughout the world nonviolence trainers have adapted training methods to suit their own cultural and political contexts and the powers they face. Training in a variety of modes and styles is offered in Australia, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, Canada, the United States, and throughout most of Western Europe.

Why Training?

While history demonstrates that spontaneous mass nonviolent action can be effective, experience also shows that extended nonviolent campaigns require more sophisticated strategies and the ability to sustain activities over time in the face of highly organized and resourceful opposition. In these situations, those who engage in nonviolent action must be more intentional about preparing themselves.

Practitioners of nonviolent action must develop a nonviolent discipline and learn skills for dealing with violent situations. The effectiveness of nonviolent action can be damaged or destroyed if participants fail to maintain nonviolent discipline. Training programs provide an opportunity to communicate a nonviolent discipline and to develop methods for maintaining that discipline, even when confronted with the threat or actuality of violence. At the same time, participants need specific skills for defusing incidents of actual or potential violence and for protecting themselves and others. Workshops not only communicate the basics of a nonviolent discipline, but also provide a “laboratory” in which participants can test a range of options for their own behavior when provoked by others. Through role-playing and other exercises, people discover how certain actions and attitudes tend to escalate violence and how others tend to deescalate violence.

Training also prepares participants to face violence. Some people join a nonviolent action campaign in the mistaken belief that, because the group maintains a nonviolent discipline, no one will get hurt. Although the use of nonviolent means often reduces violence, when groups challenge power structures or threaten systems of privilege, those who stand to lose from change are likely to respond with brute force, especially if they control the means of violence, such as police forces or military units. In training sessions, participants identify how opponents are likely to respond to their nonviolent actions. They then explore how they will feel in the face of those responses: the fear, rage, and physical discomfort or pain that may occur. The training group works together to figure out how to manage such feelings and how to deal with the physical threats as well.

The Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, for example, depended on fear among the population to maintain its control. During the 1980s, a group committed to nonviolent struggle encouraged people to face their fears directly in a three-step process. People took part in small group training sessions in private homes, followed by small, hit-and-run nonviolent actions, and then thorough debriefing sessions. By teaching people to control their fear, trainers helped them to take courageous actions that contributed to the fall of the dictatorship.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, and Ralph AbernathyPractitioners of nonviolent action must also build unity among themselves. The power of nonviolent action is proportional to the group morale of the participants. Especially when engaged in protracted struggle or when facing violent reactions, groups need a sense of community and support. Trainers design workshops to assist groups to get to know each other better, to develop stronger bonds, and to integrate all members into the group.

In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) recruited college students from all across the United States to register voters and organize freedom schools in the “Mississippi Summer” campaign. Each student volunteer took part in a two-week-long training workshop in Ohio, each session including four to five hundred students. Community-building was a major element of the training. Midway through the second workshop, the news broke that two of the participants in the first workshop had been found murdered in Mississippi. Despite the understandable fear among the students, nearly all of them stayed with the community, completed the training, and went to Mississippi.

Practitioners of nonviolent action must understand the dynamics of nonviolent struggle and develop strategies for waging conflict. Many social movements falter because leaders and participants proceed without a clear sense of how they might achieve their goals employing nonviolent methods. They fail to develop a sophisticated analysis of the power dynamics at play in the situation — including the goals and strengths of each party involved — and how concerted nonviolent action might influence the course of events. Rather, they move from tactic to tactic without the context of a larger strategy for change. Training workshops are one setting in which participants can cultivate a deeper understanding about how nonviolent struggle works and develop broader strategies.

In 1989, the United Mine Workers of America decided to launch a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign in the course of its dispute with the Pittston Coal Company. The union organized a training workshop for fifty key “lieutenants” in the struggle. While roleplaying, the staffers acted on the widely held belief that direct action is a contest with police to hold “turf,” such as the road where coal trucks enter the mine. Through repeated role-plays and careful debriefing, the staff learned that nonviolent methods operate through dynamics that are more political than material; that power is complex and cannot be reduced to who physically holds what at a particular moment. The group changed their strategy and the coal miners won their campaign against heavy odds and set a new standard for labor action in the United States.

Different Levels, Formats, Time Frames, and Purposes of Training

Training for nonviolent action has been designed to work at different levels. Trainers work with individuals to help them deepen their understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent action and to confront their own fears. Training workshops help subgroups or affinity groups to prepare to give each other support during a particular action and to act in cooperation with other similar groups. Organizations engage in training to address issues of decision making, roles and responsibilities, and medium-term strategy. Trainers also work with entire movements to refine their understandings of nonviolent action and to develop more comprehensive longer-term strategies.

Training has been offered in many formats, including programs of several months duration, intensive weekends, or a few quick hours in preparation for a specific action. It has also been provided to people who are interested in nonviolent action but have no immediate plans to use it, and to people who face imminent danger from confrontation with opponents.

Trainers have provided workshops for nonviolent action in several contexts and for different purposes: training for social change, training for nonviolent third-party intervention, and training for social defense.

Training for Social Change

Training for social change has taken several forms: training for a specific action or series of events (lasting one or two days up to a week), training to plan and strategize for a campaign (lasting several months to several years), and longer-term training to develop strategy for a movement. By far the most common training deals with a single event and the tactics to be employed in it; nonviolence trainers have a great deal of experience with this level of training. Although campaign-building workshops are less common, many trainers have extensive experience providing this kind of planning and medium-term strategizing. Training for long-term strategy is a somewhat underdeveloped mode, but is of increasing importance.

Rosa Parks at the Highlander SchoolA typical training workshop for a specific nonviolent action includes a mix of some or all of the following:

  • Teaching basic theory and dynamics of nonviolent action
  • Gaining commitment to a group nonviolent discipline
  • Organizing people for action: formation of subgroups (often called “affinity groups”), assignment of roles and responsibilities, arrangement of support systems
  • Describing the scenario for the action: the methods to be used, physical layout, and so on
  • Exploring potential sources of violence or disruption and formulating options for nonviolent response
  • Developing communications and decision-making systems
  • Providing information about logistics, potential opposition, and possible legal consequences of the action
  • Building a sense of community, solidarity, and unity in the group
  • Training nonviolent “peacekeepers” or marshals who handle some aspects of logistics, maintain nonviolent discipline, and intervene in tense situations during the action

In addition to some of the elements included above, a campaign-building workshop includes a combination of the following:

  • Exploring the dynamics of nonviolent action in more depth
  • Generating a long-term vision of the changes the campaign seeks to bring about
  • Developing specific and time-bound goals for the campaign
  • Performing a power analysis of all parties involved
  • Analyzing resources available to the nonviolent campaign (people, money, other physical and moral “capital”)
  • Identifying the allies and potential allies for the campaign (various constituencies, news media, political and legal forces, and others) and designing strategies for making potential allies into actual allies and passive allies into active supporters
  • Developing a campaign strategy for education, political pressure, news media exposure, recruitment of participants, and so on, including key events and nonviolent methods to be used in each
  • “Testing” of the campaign strategy using strategy games and role-plays
  • Creating a campaign plan, including a timeline of all actions and events, resources needed, and so on

Training for long-term strategy is similar to campaign-building, but the units of analysis are larger (social, economic, and political trends) and the time frame for action more extended. Long-term strategy may include several campaigns that build on each other toward longer term goals.

Elements of strategy workshops are the following:

  • Deepening understanding of the dynamics and requirements of long-term nonviolent action
  • Presenting models of broad strategies for nonviolent social change
  • Analyzing social/political/economic trends affecting the social change movement in question
  • Appraising the status of the movement itself (levels of public awareness, percentages of population agreeing/disagreeing, degree of mobilization and organization, and so on)
  • Learning the dynamics of social movements, using historical examples and case studies
  • Identifying key building blocks for change (challenges to the status quo, legal suits, demand for new laws, changes in public attitudes, and so on)
  • Arranging building blocks into a long-term strategy for change
  • Testing of the strategy through use of extended strategy exercises
Training for Nonviolent Third-Party Intervention and Social Defense

In recent decades, nonviolence trainers have worked with a variety of third-party interveners in conflict. Some have trained police units in how to intervene in domestic disputes to defuse potential violence. Others have trained teams of volunteers who have placed themselves between military or police forces and a group protesting unjust conditions. For example, nonviolent groups placed themselves between Native Americans and local and federal authorities during the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973. Courageous volunteers have also provided protective “accompaniment” for people under imminent threat of death in the context of civil war in Guatemala and Sri Lanka. This is clearly a growing field.

At the same time, whole communities that are under threat have looked for ways to protect their way of life. Societies have explored options for defending democratic institutions against coups d’état or other forms of oppression or repression from reactionary forces within the society.

Training for nonviolent third-party intervention and for social defense is fairly new and will certainly enjoy further development in the future. Training in these fields has included the following elements:

  • Developing a thorough understanding of the theory of nonviolent action
  • Presenting basic models for nonviolent third-party intervention and nonviolent social defense.
  • Analyzing the social, political, and economic trends that contribute to social breakdown, crisis, alienation, and conflict
  • Presenting the dynamics of third-party intervention and social defense using historical examples and case studies
  • Clarifying the differences between nonviolent response to coups d’état, foreign invasion, communal violence, assassination, and so forth
  • Identifying sources of support within the society in the face of crisis or social breakdown — potential allies or forces to be mobilized for nonviolent action — and developing strategies for engaging those forces
  • Developing a phased plan for training and maintaining local forces for intervention, protection, or defense
  • Testing of strategies through use of extended strategy exercises
New Challenges for Training

In the past, nonviolent action and training for it has been used mainly by groups in opposition to established authority — groups demanding recognition of their rights or independence from an oppressor. As national governments and international bodies recognize the effectiveness and power of nonviolent action, trainers are challenged to deal with new situations. For instance, several national governments have adopted “civilian-based defense” as an element of their national defense strategy — against external aggression or internal threats to a democratic system.  In order to implement such policies on a national basis, training programs will be needed. So far, none exists at that level.

Trainers have also been challenged to assist revolutionary forces seeking to overthrow oppressive dictatorships, such as in Burma. There, rebel military leaders, having witnessed the power of spontaneous nonviolent resistance, seek to develop an effective combination of mass nonviolent campaigns by civilians coupled with continued guerrilla warfare in order to bring down the regime.

Similarly, the United Nations and other international, nongovernmental groups are beginning to realize that peacekeeping forces need other means besides military power to accomplish their goals. More sophisticated training programs for military and nonmilitary personnel in how to engage in nonviolent protection, interposition, and other relevant methods will be of vital importance in the coming years.

Peter Woodrow, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Training for Nonviolent Action
  • Lakey, George. Powerful Peacemaking: A Strategy for a Living Revolution. Philadelphia: New Society, 1987.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
fuga mobilya