Steve Thornton started his talk at the World Fellowship Center in New Hampshire by describing what nonviolence isn’t. It’s not rarified. It’s not just symbolic. It’s not just for white, church folks. It’s not a strategy. Most important, it’s not ineffective.
In other words, people and movements use nonviolence because it works to get results. And it’s most powerful when used in local struggles.
That’s the point of Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action, (Hard Ball Press), a 101-page book Thornton wrote with 45 short essays on applications of nonviolent direct action by groups in Hartford, Connecticut over several decades. The stories include residents stopping heavy trucks carrying sand and gravel through their working class neighborhood. Housing activists tearing plywood boards off an abandoned building, moving in, and marching to the nearby home of their Congresswoman, whom they convince to support housing legislation. Fifteen block club members confronting the owner of a rat-infested building by leafletting the diners at a restaurant he owns in another part of town. Lesbians picketing a club that ejects customers who refuse to dress “properly” until the owner gives in. The stories include actions related to labor, civil rights, anti-war, student issues, and more. Most of the protagonists are poor and working class. Many of them are people of color. Most of the stories describe actions that resulted in victories.
“Mass civil resistance actions are often illegal, but not always,” Thornton writes in the brief introduction. “In many cases the activists were well versed in nonviolence principles; other times they were completely spontaneous. They came together to act, despite repercussions, because they found the ‘official channels’ to be impotent, or worse, a trap.”
Nonviolent direct action is based on the principles that the means we use in movements contribute to the ends, that our targets should be systems, not individuals, and that withdrawal of consent from unjust systems is the best way to topple them, Thornton said.
When Thornton says nonviolent direct action is also a great antidote to despair, he’s speaking from his experience as a union organizer, nonviolent action trainer, and as a participant in many of the stories he chronicles in Good Trouble.
“When you and your cohorts engage in nonviolent direct action, you are more likely to feel stronger and more self-confident, more autonomous, and less afraid,” Thornton writes.
Try the book, and try nonviolence.
—Arnie Alpert, InZane Times