Sojourner's Blog

October 8, 2011

The Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest

History is not an accident, it is a choice.” — Bayard Rustin

The purpose of Nonviolent Resistance is to affect peoples’ thinking and build political movements for social change. From that perspective, Nonviolent Resistance is a broad concept encompassing education, organizing, alternative social structures, personal-witness, noncooperation — and, of course, direct action protests.

Some nonviolent actions are large-scale (boycotts, mass marches, strikes, civil non-cooperation, etc) others are engaged in by small groups (pickets, sit-ins, freedom rides, occupations, etc). Regardless of size, the point of a demonstration is to influence people towards affecting some kind of social/political change. When we study the actual impact of nonviolent protests it’s like peeling away the layers of an onion, with each layer representing a different audience. From the core to the outer layer, the effect of a nonviolent protest on each audience varies in the number of people who are influenced, the intensity of the effect, and our control over the content of the message they receive.

At its simplest, the four basic layers of the protest onion are:

1. Participants. The nonviolent resistors engaged in the protest.

2. Observers. The individuals at the businesses or institutions the protest is targeting, and the uninvolved bystanders who encounter or observe the protest.

3. Grapevine. Those who directly hear about the protest from some other person whom they know (including through personal social media such as Twitter, FaceBook, & etc).

4. Media. Those who learn of the protest through impersonal mass media.


Participants are the first (inner) layer of the audience onion. For most small-group actions this layer is the least in numbers, though that might not be the case for a mass action. Nonviolent Resistance affects the people who engage in it more deeply than anyone else, and with participants we have the greatest control over the content of the experience.

When you’re a veteran of protest politics it may be hard to remember how your first mass march, your first sit-in, your first arrest affected you. But over and over in their Veterans Roll Call statements on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, people talk about how their participation in the Freedom Movement permanently changed and shaped their lives. In some circumstances and for some people, taking part in direct action is a profound expression of defiance and courage, for others it can sometimes be a living rejection of the conformist societal norms that previously governed their lives. In some instances, nonviolent protest can be life-changing affirmation of dignity and self-worth — I AM a Man — and a living experience and expression of human solidarity — I Am Not Alone. And, of course, actively planning and participating in a protest provides a depth of political education that no leaflet, speech, article or manifesto can match.

For participants, direct action organizers have the greatest control over the message they experience. In this context, “message” is far more than just the content of the slogans, speeches, signs, and leaflets that express the event’s politics. As we all know, “Actions speak louder than words.” Therefore, the “message” of a protest is a compound of the explicit politics conveyed by words, and the implicit content conveyed by what we do, the way we interact with and treat each other (and those whom we encounter), the emotions we share, and the bonds that we (hopefully) build. Unfortunately, some leaders concentrate so much on planning an action’s explicit political content (words), and how the media will view the demonstration, that they overlook the importance of shaping how it affects those taking part. Which is one reason we see so many sterile, boring, repetitive we-speak-you-listen-and-occasionally-chant rallies.

Of course, over time the personal effect of any given action tends to decrease as someone repeats that kind of protest. Baring some unusual circumstances, someone’s 10th sit-in affects their consciousness less than did their first. Which is why repeating the same action over and over with the same people often leads to diminishing returns. Though, of course, sometimes dogged stubborn repetition is necessary (a strike or boycott picket line, for example). But even in those cases, a creative nonviolent resistor can, and should, look for ways to vary the experience of the participants.


Observers are the second layer of the audience onion. Observers include both the people at the institution/businesses the demonstration is targeting and the passers-by who happen to encounter it. These people have a direct, personal experience of the action, but for most of them it is at one-remove from the participants. For small-group protests the number of observers is usually greater than the number of protesters, and that might be the case for a mass-action as well. The effect of the action on observers is less intense than on the participants, but greater than with the two outer layers. And we have less control over what they experience and how they perceive our message.

Marshall McLuhan made famous the now-hackneyed cliche, “The medium is the message.” For a protest action, it’s more accurate to say that “The medium is a crucial component of the message,” as important as the signs, leaflets, chants, and speeches. One aspect of a demonstration’s “medium” is the tactics employed — rally, picket-line, sit-in, occupation, etc. Another, and probably more important, aspect is the demeanor and discipline of the protest participants. During the Southern Freedom Movement, young, Black, protesters nonviolently defying segregation with discipline and determination was a message in and of itself beyond the content of the specific demands, targets, and rhetoric. When Malcolm-X organized Black Muslims to protest police brutality in Harlem by facing the precinct station in silent, orderly rows, their quiet discipline was a powerful message delivered through a nonviolent medium. A message quite different, and far stronger, than rowdies smashing windows, spraying graffiti, or setting trash fires as we occasionally see today.

In essence, nonviolent direct action is speaking truth to power. Our society conditions us to accept and obey both custom and authority. A protest says “NO!” “No!” is the most powerful word in the English language.

No! We don’t accept segregation any longer!
No! We won’t allow ourselves to be abused
No! We won’t support a war for oil in Iraq!
No! We won’t allow Wall Street to rule our lives!

When people see others saying “No!” through a protest, it (hopefully) awakens in them the realization that they too can say “No” in their own lives. This is one of the most important effects that a demonstration can (and should) have on observers. But in order for that effect to occur, the action has to be designed to encourage sympathy and support rather than fear and opposition.

Obviously, bystanders are not the adversaries against whom the protest is directed. And in most cases that is also true of the people who work at the institution or business being targeted because they are rarely the decision-makers. Therefore, it does no good (and some harm) to direct rage, hatred, and hostility at bystanders, clerks, and mid-level bureaucrats. Of course, for some kinds of disruptive nonviolent actions those who are inconvenienced are, in a sense, unwilling and unhappy participants who will probably have at best a mixed reaction and at worst quite a hostile one. But even for them, our stance should be one of education, not anger at those who do not bear responsibility for the abuses we are protesting.

Yet before we can begin education we have to allay fear. It is astounding how many people are made nervous and upset by even the most peaceful nonviolent demonstration. By definition, a protest is a defiance and disruption of social order, and that violation of everyday tranquility is frightening to some folk even when there is no threat whatsoever of violence. The problem for us is that what people fear they come to hate and oppose. (Which exposes the fundamental fallacy of terrorism whether committed by a government or an underground band — yes, in the short-run terror can violently coerce people into obedience, but in the long-run it creates ever more enemies.) So for us, an essential rule of effective nonviolent direct action has to be: Don’t frighten the observers!

Which brings us back to education, because that which is strange and unfamiliar is for many folk frightening. In this context, signs, chants, and speeches are not all that effective. For one thing, at a half-block or across a wide avenue, the chanted words become hard to make out even if amplified, and at that distance signs start to become unreadable. But even if the words are perfectly clear, they’re still part of an “us-them” paradigm which contributes to observer fear. Therefore, nonviolent protest organizers need to assign some of their best people — those most able to communicate with strangers on a friendly, non-hostile basis — to work the periphery of the action handing out flyers, talking to bystanders, answering questions, and even, if feasible, explaining the underlying issues to those being inconvenienced.

3. Grapevine. I heard it through the grapevine!

Those who hear about a protest, and form an impression of it, from someone they personally know are the third layer of the audience onion. Hopefully, the number of people who hear about an action should significantly exceed the number who participate in it or directly observe it. But because they are hearing about it at second or third hand rather than experiencing it themselves, the intensity of impact is less than with participants and observers, and our control over the content of the message that comes through to them is greatly diminished.

In the real world of people-power politics (to say nothing of commercial advertising), word-of-mouth is far more effective than media sound bites or column inches. Word-of-mouth can be via conversations (face-to-face or phone), or through some social media such as FaceBook or Twitter. The key point is that the information comes from a personal acquaintance because that kind of connection usually carries more weight and greater influence than anything received from the mass media (even if the person they’re hearing from did not personally participate in, or observe the demonstration).

Thus, an important goal of nonviolent direct action is to be talked about in a positive (or at least neutral) fashion, one-on-one or over social media — “Did you hear about…

While violence on our part against people or property will certainly generate a lot of talk, that kind of negative buzz does not build mass political movements for social change, in fact it does the opposite. What gets the grapevine humming in a positive way are nonviolent actions that incorporate Audacity & Humor. Audacious nonviolence should provoke a “They did what!?” response that spreads far and wide. In this context, “audacity” means nonviolently breaking the paradigm of business-as-usual social behavior. Audacity is doing the unexpected. Audacity is violating cultural taboos in ways calculated to provoke a reaction without alienating potential supporters (or, at least, not alienating them too much).

When an audacious action is not feasible, sometimes humor is almost as effective. Laughter and ridicule undermine authority and diminish its ability to compel obedience. You can weaken, unbalance, and ultimately overthrow the king quicker by laughing at him than by screaming futile fury at him. Humor appeals to observers and potential supporters — rage frightens and alienates them. Humor disarms and confuses adversaries — anger triggers ingrained patterns of defense and counter-attack. Humor is more sustainable than anger because rage is exhausting, few people can sustain intense fury over long periods of time. Humor, however, is energizing, both in the short-run of a single protest, and in the long- run of an extended campaign.

Humor and audacity work hand-in-hand, reinforcing each other. Humor reduces and defuses hostile reaction to broken taboos, and nothing spreads faster by word-of-mouth (or Twitter tweets) than tales of audacious humor.

4. Media (if any).

Those who learn of a protest, and form an impression of it, through impersonal mass media (TV, newspaper, radio, websites, etc) are the fourth and outermost layer of the audience onion. If the mass media covers a protest, the number of people who hear of it that way will almost certainly be larger than any of the inner onion layers. But the impact will be far less than on participants, observers, and those who hear about it through the grapevine.

Leaving aside the small-scale media organs we ourselves might control (newsletter, website, YouTube clips, maybe a radio show), our influence over the content of what people hear about an action from the mass media is almost nil. The corporate media operates on its own — often hostile — agenda which rarely supports changes to the established order. I learned this the hard way back in 1964 when I saw 800 completely nonviolent protesters dragged out of Sproul Hall while the cops kicked and beat on them, and the headline in the morning paper read “Berkeley Students Riot!” And today, as I write this 47 years later, the mass media coverage of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests is telling the public that the demonstrators have no clear idea or purpose behind what they are doing even though their detailed 21-point “Declaration of the Occupation” has been all over the web for more than a week.

Therefore, given that the media may not cover a protest at all, and the low-intensity impact if they do, plus our inability to influence media content, nonviolent resistors cannot rely on the commercial media to achieve our ends or build a political movement for social change. Which means that the effectiveness of an action cannot be judged by the amount of media coverage it generates (if any). Nor should tactics be chosen based on assumptions of how much media attention those tactics will (or won’t) garner.

Since the purpose of a nonviolent action is to build a political, people-power movement, if it positively affects the first three layers of the audience onion towards that end it is a success regardless of media coverage. More than 90% of all the nonviolent protests conducted by the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s had no media coverage whatsoever, not a single radio sound bite, not a single newspaper sentence, yet they profoundly changed the participants, observers, and grapevine as well as their communities and the nation as a whole.

Yes, at times the media is needed to publicize an issue and the struggle around it. So sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to engage in protests designed for the media. But media-oriented actions are just one instrument in the Nonviolent Resistance orchestra, just as you can’t compose a symphony using only bassoons, neither can you build a movement using nothing but (or mostly) media-oriented events.

And, of course, the fact is that protests of all kinds are only one component of building a political movement for social change. Like the tip of an iceberg, demonstrations are what is visible to outsiders (and the media), but that tip exists on a foundation of outreach, organizing, conversations, education, meetings, planning, and many other forms of quiet, non-glamourous, hard work.

 — Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2011


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