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Ed Fund Briefings: The Power of Nonviolent Change

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Nov 07 2011 at 4:51 PM
FALL 2011 >>

Compared to the film presented at the ADA Education Fund’s August Capitol Hill briefing--“Freedom In Our Lifetime”, a documentary about the nonviolent overthrow of South Africa’s apartheid regime--the earthquake that struck Washington later that same afternoon lacked punch.

The 5.8 temblor that struck the East Coast August 23 severely rattled the Nation’s Capital, sending panicked office workers into the streets, snarling traffic and even cracking the Washington Monument.  But the peaceful, political earthquake that transformed a racist bastion into a democratic society truly shook the world.  The Ed Fund’s screening of Steve York’s film in the Rayburn House Office Building was followed by an hour-long discussion between director and audience. 
The South African triumph is just one 30-minute segment of York’s Emmy-nominated series “A Force More Powerful”, which documents the central role of nonviolent civic action in effecting societal change around the globe. 
Even as the screening began, rebel armies were swarming the streets of Tripoli in the successful conclusion to Libya’s bloody civil war, seemingly challenging York’s thesis.  The director acknowledged the irony, but reported that since 1973, 50 of the 67 successful regime changes worldwide had been waged peacefully.  Thus, in addition to being morally superior, nonviolent change has a “better track record” than armed insurrection, York noted.
“The means by which you achieve these changes is terribly, terribly important,” York stressed. 
“Freedom In Our Lifetime” includes news footage of the successful black boycott of white businesses and the apartheid regime’s brutal response. It also features interviews with anti-apartheid leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and with an Afrikaans analyst who proclaimed of the monumental change in his country, “The people brought it about.”
Introducing the director after the screening, Ed Fund Secretary Michael J. Wilson noted that York’s film had won several awards, but “not enough.” 
Topics addressed in the discussion period included what made a revolution violent or peaceful (York posited leadership made the difference); and how tenuous historic documentation often is in the age of easily-erased digital video.
York also spoke at some length about the Arab Spring, having spent time recently in Cairo talking to the leaders of the Egyptian revolt.  Based on his research, he challenged the popular perception that the uprising had been a “Facebook revolution.”  While granting the role the social networking site had played in galvanizing public outrage, he noted that only four percent of Egypt’s population was on Facebook and that the uprising went on even after the Egyptian government had cut off access to the Internet.

In addressing failed nonviolent revolutions, York faulted a lack of preparation. He said that while “the weapons are different, the tactics are identical” between a successful military operation and a productive peaceful uprising.  Just as General Eisenhower didn’t “wake up one morning” and decide to invade Europe on D-Day, nonviolent civic change cannot be achieved without exhaustive preparation and meticulous attention to detail.