Non-Violent Activism


A friend of mine is out at Standing Rock in North Dakota supporting the tribes in their actions to protect the waters of the Missouri. On the other side of the equation are the people behind the Dakota oil access pipeline who have brought in militarized police using pepper spray, rubber bullets and more, despite the peaceful nature of the protests.

Before my friend left her home in Vermont, she spent time being trained in non-violent activism. The man who trained her is a seasoned activist and was well aware of the potential dangers she was willingly walking into. He knew just how easily things can get out of control in times like these. The instructions he gave her feels like guidance for us at this time for all of our encounters with “the opposition” Here is what he told her:

Stay Neutral. To me this equated with the art and practice of mindfulness; our ability to learn to be present moment to moment without judgment. When we can learn to be the observing witness, we are more readily able to respond as opposed to react. And from this place truth reveals itself and life-affirming solutions become possible.

Remember that there is a human being standing in front of you who has needs. It is so easy to dehumanize and demonize those on the other side of the fence; those who disagree with us, those who hold different truths.

Why are you here? Know what it is that you stand for and be able to articulate that to the other side-not through demands and accusations, but through thoughtful questions and discourse.

Be helpful. To this I would add, be kind. Even when the one before you feels like the enemy, can you offer basic human respect? Recognizing the value of their life in no way means you condone what they are doing. It is, instead, the recognition that all life is sacred, separate from what it does or does not do.

Know your rights. This one reminds me of a powerful personal example of mine. I was at an outdoor concert and not far from me was a man smoking cigarettes, repeatedly. It was making it hard for me to breathe. I could see that this was going to continue all night long, so I took a walk to gather my thoughts. In my walk, I noticed signs at the entrance prohibiting smoking. To be sure I checked in with an organizer. Same answer: No smoking allowed. Walking back I went over to the man and introduced myself. I told him that I was sorry to bother him, but that the smoke was really getting to me. He was immediately defensive saying there was no way I could smell his smoke. He demanded to know where I was sitting. Right before I got indignant, I remembered; the law is on my side. Instead of trying to prove anything to him, I merely told him that smoking was not allowed in the venue. Immediately, he backed down, said he had not been aware of that and apologized. When the appeal to human decency fails, knowing your rights is your ace in the hole.

Two closing thoughts: There is always a good reason why people behave as they do, whether we understand it or not. And despite what we see modeled all around us, real change does not happen through guilt, blame, shame or punishment. As Rosamund Stone Zander wrote, “People change in an environment of love.” Perhaps the litmus test of these times will be how much love we can generate.