The Power of Strategic Nonviolent Action: Strategy for Change

Students consider nonviolence as a strategy for intentionally building public support in both the Civil Rights Movement (as expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the Occupy movement.


by Marieke van Woerkom

To the Teacher

On September 17, a group of protesters occupied Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street. They tried to bring into the public eye their dissatisfaction with the excesses of Wall Street and the inequality between the richest 1% of Americans and the other 99%. They called their movement Occupy Wall Street. As it spread across the country, interest in the movement grew, as did the discussion about Occupy's strategies, tactics, and demands.

In the months following September 17, Occupy protesters were in the news for being pepper-sprayed (while seated), beaten, and shot with rubber bullets. And yet in the face of these violent actions by police and security personnel, the Occupy Wall Street movement remained remarkably nonviolent.

On November 15, Occupy Wall Street protesters were forcibly removed from Zuccotti Park by police in the dead of night. Many have wondered what this will mean for the movement. Having lost their iconic "home base" what will Occupy's next steps be? Is this perhaps the end of Occupy?

The lesson below will look at nonviolence as a strategy for intentionally building public support--in both the Occupy movement and in the Civil Rights Movement.



Ask students whether they saw or are aware of the video clip of protesting students at UC Davis being pepper sprayed by campus police during a protest against tuition hikes. Ask them to a) share what they know about the incident and b) share their thoughts and feelings regarding what happened.

In case students did not see the clip, consider playing it at: Afterwards, ask for reactions.

Elicit and explain that on November 18, the students had organized a protest against tuition increases. They sat down and locked arms, a classic nonviolent technique, which made it more difficult for campus police to remove protesters from the path they were blocking. Campus police had been given orders to disperse the students. They used pepper spray (a toxic chemical) to do so. But despite being pepper-sprayed in the face, the UC Davis students remained nonviolent. The scene was taped and the video quickly went viral, triggering public outcry.


Strategy for Change 

(18 minutes)

Ask students to read Dr. Martin Luther King's speech on May 4, 1966,"Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom" (see the handout below). Ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts or feelings about what you just read?
  • How does what Dr. King said in 1966 about the Civil Rights Movement relate to what is happening with Occupy Wall Street today?
  • How does Dr. King explain the workings of nonviolence?
  • What do you know about the violence faced by the students in the lunch counter sit-ins?
  • How did they handle it? What did that achieve?
  • According to Dr. King, how did the lunch counter sit-ins work? What were the different phases?
  • Where does Dr. King say the Civil Rights Movement derived its power?
  • What does this suggest about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its next steps?
  • When people talk about nonviolent action, they often add the adjective strategic. Why do you think that is?

Occupy Wall Street's Next Steps 

(18 minutes)

Randy Shaw, a Bay Area-based attorney, author and activist, argues that the Occupy movement's nonviolent tactics are key to its continued public support. In an essay on the website Beyond Chron (November 21, 2011), Shaw recommends that protesters adopt several particular nonviolent tactics. Ask students to read excerpts below.

First, the tactics must bring some victories. Otherwise, the public will conclude that the cost and public inconvenience of confrontational protests are not worth it.That's why returning homeowners to their potentially foreclosed homes is important, as was getting banks to back down on debit card fees.

Second, constant creativity and avoiding repetition is a must....Creativity means ... rotating targets so that one event deals with foreclosed homes, another with tuition hikes, another with taxing millionaires etc. This avoids the public getting weary of being inconvenienced by activists doing the "same old thing."

Third, minimize inconvenience to non-targets, particularly small businesses. This means avoiding random bridge blockades or other tactics that chiefly anger the 99%, and ensuring that public street takeovers do not hurt the livelihoods of nearby sandwich shops or other small businesses. Many in urban centers are owned by persons of color, and often women of color, who support the Occupy cause.

Fourth, the public is more likely to look favorably on mass events, as it shows a "base" for public disruption. This means fewer but larger confrontational protests are preferable to weekly events whose low participation undermines public perceptions of Occupy's support.

Finally, Occupy's ability to sustain direct action confrontations over time will be boosted by ongoing incidents of brutal police violence.... Campus police treating students as if they were violent thugs reaffirms Occupy's chief message that excessive income inequality is undermining the nation's core values. This critique has resonated with millions, and explains why in Occupy's case the public will accept crisis tactics on a sustained basis and support for the movement will grow."

After students have read the excerpts, lead a discussion in your class around some or all of the following questions:

  • Some might say that Shaw's advice is about "tactics," while King's speech is about "strategy." Do you agree? What is the difference between a tactic and a strategy?
  • Shaw argues against inconveniencing those who might be allies (the 99%). What if anything does King say about this?
  • Based on what you know about the Civil Rights Movement, do you think the organizers back then followed Shaw's advice?
  • How does Shaw evaluate police response to nonviolent actions? 
  • From what you know of the Civil Rights Movement, what effect did police violence against nonviolent protesters have on the movement and its level of support? 


Means to an End 

(6 minutes)

Ask students what they think of the saying "the end justifies the means." 

  • Do they agree/disagree? 
  • Ask students to provide examples to support their argument. 
  • How do they think Dr. King might respond to this question, based on what they just read?

Next, read what Nathan Schneider wrote on the Waging Nonviolence website:

"A simple definition for nonviolent resistance is simply to do something one should be doing (even if you're told not to) or to not do something you shouldn't be doing (even if you're told you must). It's using means worthy of the ends you want to achieve, acting in accordance with the world you want to create. Once you reach your goal, after all, it's really hard to do away with the means that got you there. The fact that my conversation at Occupy Wall Street happened on Armistice Day should've been a hint: wars don't end war, they breed more. Locking arms with one's comrades, however, looks more like a glimpse of utopia."

Ask: How do students think the incident at UC Davis relates to the saying "the end justifies the means"?





Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom

Excerpts from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King on May 4, 1966

The American racial revolution has been a revolution to "get in" rather than to overthrow. We want to share in the American economy, the housing market, the educational system and the social opportunities. The goal itself indicates that a social change in America must be nonviolent.

If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. If one needs more adequate education, shooting the principal will not help, or if housing is the goal, only building and construction will produce that end. To destroy anything, person or property, can't bring us closer to the goal that we seek.

The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced.

The student sit-ins of 1960 are a classic illustration of this method. Students were denied the right to eat at a lunch counter, so they deliberately sat down to protest their denial. They were arrested, but this made their parents mad and so they began to close their charge accounts. The students continued to sit in, and this further embarrassed the city, scared away many white shoppers and soon produced an economic threat to the business life of the city. Amid this type of pressure, it is not hard to get people to agree to change.

So far, we have had the Constitution backing most of the demands for change, and this has made our work easier, since we could be sure that the federal courts would usually back up our demonstrations legally. Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights.

The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year, it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one's family. Achievement of these goals will be a lot more difficult and require much more discipline, understanding, organization and sacrifice.

It so happens that Negroes live in the central city of the major cities of the United States. These cities control the electoral votes of the large states of our nation. This means that though we are only ten percent of the nation's population, we are located in such a key position geographically--the cities of the North and black belts of the South--that we are able to lead a political and moral coalition which can direct the course of the nation. Our position depends a lot on more than political power, however. It depends on our ability to marshal moral power as well. As soon as we lose the moral offensive, we are left with only our ten percent of the power of the nation. This is hardly enough to produce any meaningful changes, even within our own communities, for the lines of power control the economy as well and once the flow of money is cut off, progress ceases.

The past three years have demonstrated the power of a committed, morally sound minority to lead the nation. It was the coalition molded through the Birmingham movement which allied the forces of the churches, labor and the academic communities of the nation behind the liberal causes of our time. All of the liberal legislation of the past session of Congress can be credited to this coalition. Even the presence of a vital peace movement and the campus protest against the war in Vietnam can be traced back to the nonviolent movement led by the Negro. Prior to Birmingham, our campuses were still in a state of shock over the McCarthy era and Congress was caught in the perennial deadlock of southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans. Negroes put the country on the move against the enemies of poverty, slums and inadequate education.



This lesson was written for by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them