Practical Issues > Things To Do > Activism > Groups


"That [strategic nonviolence] has considerable effect on the opponent is undoubted. It exposes his moral defenses, it unnerves him, it appeals to the best in him, it leaves the door open for conciliation. There can be no doubt that the approach of love and self-suffering has powerful psychic reactions on the adversary as well as on the onlookers."--Nehru

Understanding the levels of strategic decision making helps us plan and evaluate our strategic, tactical, and logistical considerations.

Say, for example, that a group of activists want to lock down (use chains or bike locks to fasten themselves to a stationary object) to a fur store's doors in an attempt to disrupt their business. To ensure they are able to get to the door and lock down without interruption, secrecy will be needed. When we examine this plan in light of our policy, we see the goal to disrupt the business is a tactical one and it does not advance our policy goal to convert others. Furthermore, the need for secrecy violates the openness component of strategic nonviolence--also a policy level decision. These two discrepancies would point to the fact that this protest will not effectively advance our goals. Therefore, we must develop another plan of action.

A possible civil disobedience action that would be consistent with the higher levels of decision making could include a sit-down inside the store, where we notify the police and store prior to the action. This forewarning is consistent with the openness policy. Their knowledge of our action may prevent us from entering the store, however, we must keep in perspective that entering the store is only a tactical victory, and its success or failure is of limited value.

On the day of the action, the protesters arrive to find a police line guarding the stores' doors and preventing protesters from entering, but allowing customers to do so. However, persistence and nonhostility are also policy level decisions that guide the protesters' actions. Each protester approaches one police officer and respectfully engages her or him in a one-on-one conversation. The activists respectfully appeal to the officers to step aside so they can enter the store for the purpose of educating and negotiating with the management and customers. Of course, the police do not accept our request, so we stay persistent--and continue to talk with our permanent audience.

"You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live." --Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights activist who was beaten and had his home bombed by opponents.



In a spirit of humility, respect, compassion, and dignity we explain to the officers their role in animal suffering by protecting animal abuse establishments and hold them personally responsible for their actions. We ask them questions such as, "Do you think animals suffer? How do you feel about fur? Would you eat animals if you knew they suffered?" Questions are a good way to engage them in the conversation and make them think. Many police officers will tell us to stop talking to them, or threaten to arrest us for interfering with their duties. Since we expected to get arrested anyway and we must stay persistent, we continue our discussions with them. Again, we reassert that we have no hostility towards them, but we must stop the bloodshed. We further explain how they are ultimately responsible for their own behavior, even though they are just "doing their job." We say we believe in them, have hope in their ability to adopt a more compassionate lifestyle, and try to empower them to live animal-friendly lifestyles. We further appeal to the officers to adopt a vegan lifestyle and educate them about the issues. We encourage sympathetic officers to tell their superiors that they do not want to be assigned jobs where they protect animal abuse establishments from animal rights activists.

It is quite possible that the police will arrest us for talking with them. This benefits us as we successfully engaged in civil disobedience without violating the principles of nonviolent discipline, openness, or persistence. The store owner could also decide to close the store's doors and lock them to allow the police to move away from the protesters and not have to endure our education. Or else, the police may be assigned to stay there for the entire day, at which point we have two options: we continue our discussions with them until the store closes or we escalate our activity by doing something like linking arms and making an activist line in front of the police line to prevent customers from entering the store, resulting in our arrest. Both of these actions would be acceptable as they maintain our persistence, and the affinity group should have foreseen this possibility of this situation and decided before the protest what action the group would take.

However, if we do not stay with the store until it closes or escalate our activities until we are arrested, we violate the persistence principle. If we did not follow through with our promise to engage in civil disobedience, the officers' simple repression of denying us entrance would have been force enough to make us submissive--drastically violating the persistence component of strategic nonviolence and disempowering us.

However, the behavior we display at the protest clearly shows our sincerity, fearlessness, determination, persistence, openness, honesty, solidarity, and integrity. Our educational efforts and self-sacrifice (staying at the protest all day, or enduring the arrests) encourages the conversion process to start in the officers and the onlookers.

As this example shows, our main goal at every protest and action is first and foremost to maintain nonviolent discipline, openness, honesty, and persistence, and all other tactical goals such as getting media coverage, temporarily closing the business, increasing the opposition's expenses, etc., must be subservient and achieved while remaining true to those policy level decisions. Certainly, tactical goals have some importance, however, we must never achieve them at the expense of higher level decisions.

It must be stressed that the above protest example is just one of an unlimited number of possible actions that could be done under the confines of strategic nonviolence. Raids on mink farms, vivisection labs, and factory farms could also be conducted, however, they will require more sacrifices from the activists. The choice of tactics ultimately depends on the how much sacrifice the protesters are ready to endure, what their skills and material resources are, what targets are locally available, and many other variables.

If we lack the human and material resources necessary to conduct the desired actions, then that helps us to create intermediate goals to work for--gaining those human and material resources--so that later on we can implement these more effective actions. Progress towards animal liberation will occur in this step-wise process. Therefore we must have a "big picture" or long-term view of our struggle and effective leadership that can determine our intermediate goals and develop plans for their attainment.


"When we speak of filling the jails, we are talking of a tactic to be flexibly applied. No reasonable person would promise to fill all jails everywhere at any time. Leaders indulge in bombast if they do not take all circumstances into account before calling upon their people to make a maximum sacrifice."--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although strategic nonviolence is a powerful weapon, its use does not guarantee victory. Good leadership is vital to effectively executing a strategic nonviolence campaign. The more competently the leadership maintains consistency throughout the decision making levels and skillfully applies the principles of strategic nonviolence into real life situations, the more effective the campaign will be.

Leadership--the act of leading or directing--is an important and necessary skill. Because it is a skill, some people are more better at it than others, just as some people are more effective at writing grants, debating a vivisector, speaking to the media, rehabilitating and releasing animals, or treating injured wildlife than others. As just one of many needed skills, leadership does not necessitate the creation of a hierarchy.

The potential problem with leaders--be they an individual, group, or combination of the two--is some may desire leadership to gain personal power and control over others. Those who desire a leadership position because they crave power, will often be very unscrupulous in their efforts to maintain that power once they have it. They might threaten, misinform, censor opposing ideas, horde vital information, intimidate, or use hostility and other forms of sanctions against those who challenge their authority.

Strategic nonviolence solves the problem of potential tyrants seeking leadership position within our struggle, by recognizing that activists choose their own leaders. If activists follow a leader, it is because they voluntarily choose to follow that person. If a leader is hostile and abusive, activists can refuse to carry out the leader's plans. Does this sound familiar? It should because it is the foundation of strategic nonviolence--removing the sources of power through noncooperation.

The followers ability to not cooperate with abusive leaders provides the checks-and-balances that will keep the leader honest and responsive to the follower's wishes. In a strategic nonviolence campaign, power-hungry, controlling, and hostile leaders will simply not exist because activists will be empowered enough to recognize the problems, refuse to cooperate with them, and instead follow someone who they deem a competent leader, or simply become their own leader.

In this way, leaders lead by the force of their ideas and by setting a good example, not by rule of force, coercion, and manipulation.


"Always one to practice what he preached, Aung San himself constantly demonstrated courage--not just the physical sort but the kind that enabled him to speak the truth, to stand by his word, to accept criticism, to admit his faults, to correct his mistakes, to respect the opposition, to parley with the enemy and to let people be the judge of his worthiness as a leader."--Aung San Suu Kyi, speaking of her father, Aung San, the great military leader who organized the army to free Burma from British rule before it fell into the hands of a military regime after his assassination.

Leaders have many responsibilities. They must work with the activists to plan the strategy and tactics that will produce maximum impact, offer solutions to problems and organize the implementation of those solutions, and determine the best way to utilize the groups resources. The more the leadership understands strategic nonviolence, the more effectively they will be able to implement it. Therefore, it is their responsibility to learn as much about strategic nonviolence as possible and feel comfortable with it. (For those of you who are future movement leaders, be sure to read the suggested reading listed at the end of this booklet).

Besides having a solid grasp of how strategic nonviolence works, the leadership also needs the ability to effectively evaluate the situation. The leadership must have a clear understanding of their long term, short term, and immediate goals; evaluate the fearlessness, solidarity, morale, and willingness to make sacrifices among the activists to ensure that planned actions to not exceed their ability to handle the repression; determine the needs of the organization; accurately evaluate the group's resources; determine all of the resources that will be needed for a planned action; determine if their resources will suffice to carry out their action, and if not, decide to either change the action or develop a plan to acquire the needed resources; and so on. All of this evaluation and planning will help prevent the potential problems such as squandering too many resources on unimportant tasks, over-exerting ourselves, losing our focus, and/or trying to do too much.

Leaders also need to fulfill other tasks besides planning and evaluating. They must promote discipline, empower activists, maintain group morale, gather support for the issue, negotiate with the opposition, serve as an articulate spokesperson, psychologically and emotionally prepare the troops for the hard times ahead, constantly train new leaders, and set a good example for others to follow.

It is often the leaders' selfless acts of bravery that inspire other activists to greater heights of noncooperation. But, by being on the front lines, it also leads them to be one of the first casualties. Because of this, leaders must constantly be training and empowering all activists to become their own leaders. This ensures that the struggle will continue, even if they are imprisoned, injured, or killed. This training can be done by giving speeches, organizing conferences, one-on-one training, and the development of brochures, leaflets, and other documents that explain strategic nonviolence and other leadership-related information.

While the leaders try to implement these tasks and continuously and simultaneously evaluate a complex set of variables, they must always keep perspective by maintaining the big picture view of the struggle.


"Those [activists] demanding to see outcomes too soon may quit before the real opportunities to win become clear. Lack of persistence, a major cause of failure in nonviolent conflict, is often the product of a short-term perspective. Explaining to supporters that certain events have only tactical significance and that they must try to see the larger picture in terms of policy objectives and operations will keep supporters informed, motivated, and patient."--Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler

Our ultimate goals cannot be achieved through one letter, one protest, one raid, one speech, or any one tactic. By being aware of this fact, we realize the importance of making sure all of our tactics are in alignment with each other, striving for the same goal to help construct--a little at a time--our ultimate goals.

Think of it this way. If creating animal liberation was building a castle, each encounter with the opposition and public would be a brick--some bricks would be our protests, others our speeches, others our tabling efforts, others our nonviolent and nonhostile raids on fur farms, and so on.

However, if we randomly hurl these bricks in the same direction we will only have a pile of bricks. Therefore, we need to have a plan. The policy decisions and operational plan represents the blueprints needed for the castle. But plans do us no good unless they are followed and have people to implement them.

Workers--who represent the activists--are needed to build the castle, and they also need the skills and knowledge to do their job efficiently and correctly. Good leadership is also needed to effectively direct the workers and implement the designs on the blueprint. Communication and solidarity between the leadership and other workers are also needed to ensure the job is executed smoothly.

However, it takes more than bricks and workers to build a castle. It also requires a strong foundation on which to build and mortar to hold the bricks together. The foundation and mortar represent the other activities needed to sustain the movement such as raising funds (through writing grants, direct mail appeals, fund raising events, etc.), doing research and investigations, and other such activities.

With all of these ingredients--leaders, workers, blueprints which are conscientiously followed, communication, solidarity, needed skills, a strong foundation, and mortar--the lowly bricks, which are insignificant by themselves, can create a strong, stable, and towering structure that is impervious to attack.

This castle analogy serves us well because achieving animal liberation is a huge accomplishment that will take some time, but--like the castle--we can drastically accelerate its attainment with the aid of a good plan that is skillfully executed. The analogy also shows how relatively insignificant our tactics are in comparison to our goal, but also illustrates that those tactics only help us if they are utilized in accordance with the plan.

This big picture view should help us keep the struggle in perspective so we gain understanding of what matters and what doesn't, are patient enough to do the needed support roles such as fundraising and research, and remain motivated because our expectations are not unrealistic. Most readers probably see all of this to be common sense. But understanding common sense and implementing it are two different things. It is time to ensure we implement this common sense.

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