Power as Subordination and Resistance as Disobedience: Nonviolent Movements and the Management of Power


Stellan Vinthagen | Asian Journal of Social Science – TRANSCEND Media Service

Chapter Seven

1 Jan 2006 – This text is a summary of chapter 6 in my dissertation in Swedish: Nonviolent Action: A Social Practice of Resistance and Construction. A preliminary version has appeared as a conference paper at the IPRA-International Peace Research Association conference in Finland, 2000, and in Gandhi Marg Vol. 22, No. 2, July-Sep 2000, Delhi. I am especially thankful for the comments given by the IPRA Nonviolence Commission, Sean Chabot and Senthil Ram.


On 22nd November 1999, solidarity activists made their way into the military training camp of Fort Benning in the USA. They entered in memory of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, who, on this day ten years earlier, were killed by the military of El Salvador. For the occasion the activists dressed in mourning and entered the camp carrying coffins and crosses. Names of people who had been killed or tortured by regimes in Latin America – were written on the crosses. Some of the activists wore white death-masks; others painted their faces blood-red. Amongst the activists were Hollywood star Martin Sheen, Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, and a civil rights activist from Guatemala, Adiana Portillo-Bartow.

During one weekend, 12 000 people of varying backgrounds and nationalities gathered to take part in a protest meeting against the US army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning. 4 408 of these people took the final step onto the grounds of the military training camp where officers from Latin America are educated in warfare and interrogation techniques. The purpose of the action was to shut down the facility by occupying it. By a persistent and peaceful presence, they hoped to disturb the business-as-usual of the camp.

Soon the police arrested them. Through discussions and training, they had prepared themselves mentally for arrest. Each solidarity activist risked several months’ imprisonment. Some were taken away singing. Some quarrelled with the police about obedience to a system that violates human rights. In accordance with the guidelines of the action, activists did not use any violence against people when defending their occupation. Some sat down, others  prayed, or held one another’s arms. They did not run away. They stood their ground, facing the strongest empire in world history – the USA – with their undefended bodies.

The action was public, advertised in advance to the authorities, and those arrested took complete personal responsibility for the “offence” they committed. The following year another 3 000 activists were again arrested. It still goes on. This is one example of a special kind of resistance action, called nonviolent action (sometimes also called e.g. nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience or civil resistance).

A nonviolent movement is here understood to be a movement where people in their action repertoire let their nonviolent means express their (nonviolent) goals. In a nonviolent movement activists contest “violence” or “oppression/injustice”, while they themselves avoid using such means (Vinthagen 2005). Nonviolent movements relate to a tradition formulated  by Mohandas K. Gandhi, the person who created the concept of “nonviolent resistance” or “satyagraha” (Gandhi 1999:Vol. 8:31, 80). My interest lies in political nonviolent movements which make claims to contest a dominant or hegemonic power, and act within a society where organised violence and oppression is legitimised, normalised or de facto accepted by a vast  population.

In the anti-colonial liberation movement in India, nonviolent resistance was given  both a practical and a theoretical content within a certain context and dynamic relations, which furthered a development and diffusion of the nonviolent repertoire (Chabot 2003). Social movements using nonviolence in their efforts to obtain changes in society are not a rare phenomenon in the world. Such movements sometimes made progress even against  brutal regimes (Ackerman and Kruegler 1994; Zunes 1999:302-322; Sharp 2004). Movements that have followed and developed the Gandhian repertoire, are, for example,

  • the civil rights movement in the USA;
  • the international anti-apartheid movement;
  • the “tree-huggers” in the Indian Chipko movement;
  • the movement against nuclear weapons in Great Britain during the 1960s and the peace camps near nuclear weapon bases in western Europe during the 1980s, among them the famous Greenham Common women’s peace camp in England; and
  • the ongoing struggle by hundreds of thousands of farm workers in Brazil, who are occupying land.

To peace research, nonviolent movements are of interest since they undermine wars, injustice, and dictatorships by employing peaceful means. The condition of peace by peaceful means is the core of peace research. Nonviolent movements point to a possibility of peaceful social change even under difficult conditions. Since power is one of the main difficulties determining the success and failure of a nonviolent action, this investigation focuses on the fundamental possibilities available to nonviolent resistance in managing power in conflicts.

Other research needs to investigate the specific dynamics, meanings and typologies of  power emanating from concrete contexts and interactions of nonviolent movements, in internal and external relations, during and after the social changes for which these movements strive (Vinthagen & Chabot 2002). Expressions of power may depend on what kind of conflict, resistance or relationship one is investigating. Here the discussion will only deal with  power and resistance in general.

Resistance to Power (read on…)

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Power as Subordination and Resistance as Disobedience–Nonviolent Movements and the Management of Power



Stellan Vinthagen is a Professor of Sociology and a scholar-activist. Vinthagen is the Inaugural Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is also a researcher.


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