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Civil Resistance 101

Civil Resistance 101

Matthew Dewald March 18, 2022

Just how powerful a force can civil resistance be? For some go-to examples, Erica Chenoweth ’02, director of the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, recommends A Force More Powerful, a documentary aired by PBS in 2000 and now available on (parts one and two) that was produced by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. It examines six case studies for anyone interested in how movements remain nonviolent in the face of violent repression, gain support and achieve their goals. These movements overthrew oppressive regimes, kicked out colonial powers, dismantled discriminatory laws and exasperated foreign occupiers. The case studies include:

illustration of hands holding megaphones

Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March in India in 1930. A sustained campaign of noncooperation that included civil disobedience, boycotts and other nonviolent tactics fatally delegitimized British rule and ended colonial rule of India.

Black college students’ lunch sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee in 1960. Highly disciplined college students inspired civil rights protestors across the United States when they successfully used sit-ins and boycotts to desegregate their city’s public services.

Mass action against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. A massive consumer boycott and other nonviolent tactics in Eastern Cape Province undermined support for apartheid among white business owners, contributing more to the system’s eventual downfall than simultaneous violent campaigns.

Danish resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. Germany occupied Denmark in just six hours but never really gained control because of a strategy of resistance disguised as collaboration by the Danish government. Simultaneously, an underground movement stepped up strikes, sabotage and the hiding or evacuation of nearly all of the country’s Jews.

Factory occupation by workers in Gdansk, Poland, in the early 1980s. Shipyard workers, led by Lech Walesa, used a factory occupation and strikes to draw the support of millions of Poles for reform, leading to negotiations and democratic elections in Poland within the decade.

Protests to dislodge Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s. Striking workers and ordinary citizens banging pots and pans in street protests forced a referendum on the legitimacy of the dictatorship that resulted in Pinochet’s downfall.

 Illustration by Katie Edwards

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