Friday, August 19, 2011

Peaceful Resistance and Community Organizing

Anna Hazare is a name that has been hyped through world news broadcasts for the last couple of months.  Said to be working from a Gandhian influence, Hazare has been using similar protest tactics (such as peaceful resistance) to ensure government action against corruption.  In terms of government action, Hazare’s movement to demand the institution of anti-corruption laws and now the creation of an anti-corruption agency.  He has even instituted fasts-to-the-death.  

When reading articles about Hazare, I was forced to question his comparison to Gandhi.  Were they using peaceful resistance in the same way?   I did not feel at peace about comparison of Hazare to Gandhi, especially his use of fasts-to-the-death.  Hazare’s first was instituted with a condition that he would not eat until the government passed an anti-corruption bill.  Primarily, Gandhi campaigned for India’s independence because of the injustices being committed against its citizens.  He fought against injustices such as “untouchability,” alcoholism, ignorance and poverty.  His fasts were motivated to fight these injustices and bring unity, never to demand independence from the government (  Hazare’s specific demands upon the government through fasting does not reflect Gandhi in that it lends to violence, and some have argued is violent in and of itself.  

When I read about Hazare’s fast-to-the-death, I was first struck with the potential this had to initiate violent retaliation.  The public has indeed been energized by Hazare to stand up against government corruption, and he is now a national symbol.  The fact that he is such a valued symbol to the people of India, makes me questions his tactics.  What if he dies because the government does not meet his demands?  I imagine it would cause chaos. Unlike Gandhi, Hazare has a very tangible opponent on which the people can reflect their anger, which amplifies the potential for violence.    

All in all, my point is that protest and peaceful resistance must be used carefully, as it can easily be distorted into riot.  Consider the London Riots over an unprovoked police shooting.  While citizens were impassioned for the right reasons, (the injustice of this incident) the result was destructive rioting.  It seems the human psyche can easily cross the line to violence, when passion is evoked, so even if the intent is peaceful, the result can be violent. 

How does this relate to the urban context?  I have begun to think about peaceful resistance in the context of urban communities and its effectiveness in community organizing.   Can peaceful resistance be used to bring awareness to injustices in our current climate?  It was very effective in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, and a whole generation of African Americans were empowered to speak out against injustice and helped to change significant legislation.  Could this work today?  

As mentioned above, I think that it can be a very powerful tool, but it has to be used delicately.  In the wake of flash mobs, not only in Philadelphia but in cities like Chicago and Germantown (MD), teens have been motivated to demonstrate their frustrations.  While I am not sure the exact nature of their frustrations, I can imagine they might about: the educational system, police brutality, gun violence in their communities, parents having to work multiple jobs, blatant acts of racism, etc.   In the absence of guidance, these youth started a movement to action that quickly turned violent, but if mobilized by someone with a vision, things could be different.  

I believe that figures like Gandhi or groups of people like community development organizations can be necessary in guiding in peaceful resistance, but things can become dangerous when the focus is too concentrated upon the figure or group.  There has to be a point where that figure or group can step away.  This point must be when the community members are empowered to organize themselves.  Along with empowerment, there must be a sense of unity binding the community together.  Like Gandhi, I believe the point of resistance is point out a structural injustice and unify people towards finding a solution.     

I can picture protest and peaceful resistance being effective is many urban injustices.  Thinking back to the spring, students in the Philadelphia school district I think formulated a very successful act of peaceful resistance with walk-outs at Audenried and West Philadelphia High Schools (  Student leaders mobilized students to come together at the School District building to show their resistance to the schools becoming Promise Academies.  While officials and some parents were upset by it, I think that it was great example of peaceful resistance and students dealing with their frustrations in the productive way. 

  • What do you think about peaceful resistance?   
  • Do you have examples of it being used in the urban context?

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