Standing up to repression

In this 2012 essay, originally written for War Resisters’ International, Howard Clark reflects on the relationship between nonviolent strategy and dealing with fear. Social movements require solidarity and a spirit of learning in order to channel their defiance.

Howard Clark
18 November 2014
Riot police outside Fortnum & Mason

Riot police outside Fortnum & Mason, 2011. Demotix/Alex Milan Tracy. All rights reserved.Fear is something that every social movement has to deal with, whether in situations of severe repression or in relatively open societies. Discussing fear under the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean social commentator Manuel Antonio Garretón referred to two archetypal childhood fears: the fear of the dog that bites, and the fear of the darkened room. The specific threat that we can see, assess and work out how to handle, and the generalised threat of an unknown – a room where something bad might be waiting for you. In a dictatorship or under an occupation, the presence of fear is tangible – yet there are always episodes where somehow people overcome that fear and take action. In relatively open societies, the fears may not be so obvious – yet they are there, somehow always a factor in maintaining obedience and conformity, in inhibiting people from questioning authority or sometimes simply from being who we want to be.

With the help of people who care for us, we can generally overcome these archetypal childhood fears – either those people are with us or they help us know what to do. And it's more or less the same with social action – either through togetherness and solidarity, or through personally preparing ourselves, people in social movements overcome the barrier to action. When we have the motivation, and when we believe we are doing right, we find ways to put fear in its place. And we do this not just once in our lives, but repeatedly in a variety of situations, and against a range of threats. We see the example of someone else, and learn from it. We feel a passion, a hope or a desperation that 'drives out fear'. We find some shields, or sometimes we ourselves can serve as shields, a little bit of protection, going places together, making sure there will be witnesses to an action. We keep open 'safe places', somewhere to retreat and regroup. We find ways of turning the threat against those who make it – we 'name the violence', record the repression, and publicise it in order to undermine the legitimacy of those responsible for it.

I say 'we' because every activist – even those whose physical wellbeing is not in danger – has moments of fear and times when they have to assess risks. And I say 'we' because, as Barbara Deming used to say, by listening to each other's stories and by acting in solidarity and playing our part in exposing violence and brutality, 'we are all part of one another'.

Repression alone is weak

Looking at fear from the point of the view of those who hold power, nobody can rule for long by fear alone. Even dictatorships and even occupations rely on more than repression – they need sources of support, internally or externally. Today, Palestinians are resisting not just the violence of Israeli occupation, settlement and expansion, but also the efforts of those who they perceive as trying to 'normalise' the situation – that is, to hide the criminality of Israeli policy behind a cloak of 'normality'. The Pinochet dictatorship in Chile became notorious for its ruthless attempt to eradicate all organised opposition. This reign of terror was laying the foundation for a subsequent phase – repression and torture would continue but with a facade of 'normalisation' where capitalist prosperity would be presented as one of the benefits of 'strong government'. Such 'normalisation' required ceding some social space for people to organise, which in turn entailed risks for the regime that new forms of opposition would emerge.

Pinochet's dictatorship was eventually one of the more than 20 authoritarian regimes to be toppled since 1979 by mainly unarmed movements of 'people power'. These episodes have been studied not just by researchers interested in civil resistance but also by the remaining authoritarian leaderships. They recognise that overt state repression is a two-edged sword. It is meant to be a sign of strength, intimidating opponents and especially potential opponents. Yet it also indicates weakness, not least the regime's failure to convince the population to internalise restrictions. The most severe measures of state repression against unarmed protesters – massacres, murders and torture – often prove to be counter-productive. This is not automatic – it usually requires movement action in activating new sectors or new forms of opposition. It often takes time, requiring movement persistence. The end result, however, is likely to be that regime violence against unarmed protesters undermines the regime's own legitimacy.

The changing face of repression

In most of the world, the days of naked military dictatorship have gone. In Latin America, it seemed that the 2009 Honduras coup was turning back the clock, but in contrast June's 'parliamentary coup' in Paraguay maintained its legal facade – the traditional authoritarian right returned to power through constitutional manoeuvring without overt recourse to direct military intervention.

Putin's Russia has been used as an example of how authoritarian leaders have become more sophisticated in handling dissent. The opposition's utter failure electorally – at national and provincial level – showed the success of technocratic strategies of 'managing democracy' and strengthening the centres of power on which the regime depends. Repression and intimidation remain, yet it is more selective – not least the combination of assassinations of investigative journalists and direct pressure on media outlets. Dissent is also 'channeled', especially into government-controlled 'non-governmental organisations', and so contained. It is not clear where the current crackdown fits into this – perhaps it is a question of timing and opportunism, bashing the opposition while they're weak, and making an example of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band disapproved of by most of the population.

In societies with a longer tradition of representative democracy, the patterns of repression have been changing also. Since the announced 'war on terror', there has been less of what used to be called 'repressive tolerance'. Many movements complain of 'the criminalisation of protest'. Indeed, often police have orders to punish protesters simply for turning up on demonstrations, using pepper spray or 'kettling', a supposed crowd control technique called which has now been ruled lawful by the European Court of Justice ('kettling' – sometimes called 'corralling' – involves confining protesters in a restricted space, usually with just one exit, sometimes none). Meanwhile, in the anti-'austerity' demonstrations in Greece and in Spain (where I live), it seems that riot police have a licence to carry out violence more freely than since the days of dictatorship. The activities of 'infiltrators' and agents provocateurs pose other problems for movements.

Should we see this kind of repression as a sign of weakness? Potentially. In various countries, already some police complain about being used to do the state's or the banks' or the nuclear industry's dirty work: for instance, German police deployed against the Castor demonstrations to make sure nuclear waste trains can reach Gorleben, or Spain's largest police union, which condemns the use of police in house evictions.

One of the keys to nonviolent strategy is establishing groups and through them movements which put people in touch with their own sources of power – the power of communicating, of organising and building support, of opening social spaces, of refusing or disrupting what is wrong and of showing an alternative. To withstand repression and to handle other fears, these groups need solidarity, members taking care of each other. They also need a spirit of learning, which means the flexibility to adapt to the changing situation, and to draw lessons from their own actions or events that affect them. Such groups are then in a position to carry out effective forms of nonviolent defiance that steer a course between submission or bravado posturing. Ultimately we all need hope that the inhuman shall not triumph.

Herded into a football stadium in Santiago de Chile in 1973, shortly before he was killed, the singer Victor Jara composed his last poem:

“...Within these four walls only a number exists

which does not progress,

which slowly will wish more and more for death.

But suddenly my conscience awakes

and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,

only the pulse of machines...”

Originally published in The Broken Rifle (War Resisters’ International), December 2012, No.94.

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