The secret ingredient that makes nonviolence so powerful

Just Stop Oil supporters have been accused of being ‘destructive’, but equally, of not being forceful enough. On the one hand, we’re seen as yobs who rampage around smashing up petrol pumps; on the other, as hippies who hold hands in front of oil terminals.

The way Just Stop Oil is making change happen has nothing to do with either of these caricatures. We are resolutely committed to nonviolence – which means our actions take every precaution to prevent harm to others. 

Nonviolence is often represented as a pious, purist position – too purist for some critics, who want to see people wage a war of violent militancy against the oil industry and its partners in government. But that’s a misrepresentation. 

In fact just as nonviolence rejects harm, it also rejects being passive and mild. Nonviolence is challenging and confrontational; it shakes things up and triggers strong reactions. But it does all this without the use of physical or emotional coercion.

Take the Sunflowers action, when two supporters threw a can of soup at one of the National Gallery’s most iconic paintings. It created an intense outpouring of shock and outrage, without harming or endangering anyone – not even the painting itself, which was protected under glass. The action radically disrupted the norms of behaviour you’d expect in a famous art gallery, without using any force to create harm or fear.

One of Just Stop Oil’s theorists of nonviolence, Rowan Tilly, has a favourite metaphor to describe the power of actions like this one:

“Ancient Buddhist texts talk about tuning the strings of a lute to a perfect tension: not too tight and not too slack. Too tight and the strings will snap; too loose and they won’t produce sound. But that perfect mid-point between tension and relaxation – that’s the sweet spot where we get sound, vibration, impact and which we aim for in all nonviolent action.”

We’re so used to thinking of things in either/or terms – force OR passivity – that it’s hard to grasp the way nonviolence weaves between the two. It borrows energy from force but bends it away from aggression and intimidation – turning it into a disruptive act that instead challenges the status quo, exposes injustice and provokes dialogue. 

In fact nonviolent action sets up a chain of events in which injustice effortlessly comes to light. For this reason, accountability is an essential link in the chain. In nonviolent action, everything takes place under the public gaze and with full acceptance of legal consequences. We don’t hide our faces or identities: we have self-respect for what we do and are willing to go through arrest and even imprisonment to reveal the injustice at the root of our system.

Accountability also reveals our human vulnerability. In a nonviolent action, we’re unarmed and defenceless – and yet we fearlessly confront overwhelming power, whether that’s the roar of traffic on the motorway or the van loads of police who rush to defend the oil terminal. Everyone knows the iconic image of the lone man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. A defenceless human, facing a huge machine, becomes an image that’s remembered forever. It’s a paradox, but vulnerability is powerful!

People are often surprised to learn that nonviolence can allow for property damage. It does, as long as this damage is proportionate to the injustice, and carried out carefully so as to avoid collateral injury. Intention is key in this instance: we’re not damaging property so as to bully an opponent into accepting our demand.  The actual damage caused is symbolic which is far more powerful in its reach than any literal or economic damage caused. It disrupts business as usual, wakes people up and confronts the overpowering machinery of oil with our vulnerable human selves.

While we take every possible measure to avoid harm, we also put ourselves in very high-risk situations – which shows the measure of our concern and demonstrates the scale of the climate catastrophe. Risk to others, while drastically lower, is also a factor which we can’t deny, especially in high-stakes actions such as our disruption of the M25 in November last year.  Yet it’s still far less than the daily disruption and harm caused by regular traffic jams. In fact, blue-light emergency vehicles are at far greater risk of getting stuck in everyday traffic congestion than in one of our actions – which let them through. Read a deeper exploration of this dilemma here

In fact, nonviolence calls on us to face the consequences of our actions fully. We can’t just brush away risk or danger – not when millions, if not billions, of lives are at stake. Nonviolence means walking a tightrope between risk and safety. When it succeeds, it’s an electrifying balancing act which can work miracles in the most impossible situations.

And that’s what we need right now – actions powerful enough to defy the odds that are overwhelmingly stacked against us. Force won’t do it. Passivity won’t do it. But nonviolence – with its startling combination of power and vulnerability – has the potential to move mountains. 

Join Just Stop Oil on a slow march at midday every Saturday, at Parliament Square until we win.

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