The Community Rights Movement and the Arc of Nonviolent Social Change

By Paul Cienfuegos & Matt Guynn


It may seem strange to the folks who are becoming active in the Community Rights movement to picture our work as coming out of a long trajectory of non-violent social change, but in fact, that's exactly what we're doing. The history of nonviolent social change movements is millennia long. Some of its current key theorists have postulated that the world's people are only now beginning to have enough experience and understanding of this rich history that our movements are starting to mature in some new and very creative ways. 


The lunch counter sit-in's by black (and non-black ally) Americans in the deep south against institutionalized racism in the 1960's, and the mass civil disobedience actions to try to shut down nuclear power plants and the military industrial complex in the 1970's and 80's, had significant political and cultural and legal impact on our society. And yet today, these forms of nonviolent direct action have become so commonplace that people hardly think twice about risking arrest to challenge a specific injustice.


We ought to stop and think - not to stop ourselves from violating the law, but to choose our fields of engagement to make sure that they resonate powerfully and demonstrate the issues at stake. Why were the sit-ins of the 1960's or the anti-nuclear occupations of the 1970's and 80's so powerful? They were arrestable offenses, but the “point” wasn't arrest. 


The sit-in movement was powerful in part because the tactic chosen pressured the powerholders to either grant the desired outcome (eating a meal in a public restaurant) or baldly reveal the system for what it was (systemically-supported white supremacy). The mass occupations of nuclear testing or nuclear power plant sites were powerful not just because they were acts of civil disobedience, but because they literally interrupted the plans and activities of the nuclear power and nuclear arms industry with the bodies of thousands of men and women who stood in the way.  


Unfortunately, in recent years, the powerholders have continued to refine their minority rule stranglehold on our society, but active citizens have rarely matched these refinements with creative new strategies of our own. 


Our actions - such as rallies, protests, and civil disobedience - have tended towards becoming more and more symbolic with each passing year, and repeated without (much) fresh tactical analysis and strategic focus. They may be cathartic and help lift our spirits, but they often run the risk of presenting only limited challenges to the powerholders. Our actions often don't have the real authority that's necessary to force changes, to make real demands.


As Frederick Douglass, a leader of the abolitionist movement and former slave, said way back in 1857, .....


"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. ...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.  ...Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

(Canandaigua, N.Y., 3 August 1857)


It's critical that we learn from our own histories of nonviolent social movements, so that our work doesn't become stale, so that we stay as bold and powerful as we possibly can. 


The rapid growth of the Community Rights movement over the past decade is a powerful example of a new form of nonviolent civil disobedience never before attempted in this country, and which is literally changing the playing field under our feet. Municipal and county governments are passing new-paradigm laws that are themselves "collective acts of municipal civil disobedience", as Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Director Thomas Linzey calls them. Each of these new ordinances (and home rule charter amendments) intentionally challenges existing law, because those existing laws are themselves a violation of We The People's inherent right to govern ourselves.


Claims of state pre-emption and corporate constitutional so-called "rights" are used to legalize the corporate plunder of our communities, so in response we act through local law-making to obstruct that violence. We choose to step outside of conventional law, and to exercise our right of self-government. We consider it our duty to amend, alter, or abolish unjust laws. 150 communities in seven states and climbing - there's no denying that a powerful new form of nonviolent civil disobedience is being born and tested in front of our eyes. 


Core to the strategy of what we are attempting to accomplish is to force the powerholders - in this case elected state officials - to come out of hiding and choose sides. Are our elected state officials defending the rights of We The People? Or do they prefer to defend the so-called "rights" of corporate legal fictions? Regardless of how the powerholders respond, we win, IF we can sustain and build momentum at the local level, and ultimately af the state and federal levels as well. This kind of direct challenge is at the heart of powerful nonviolent action. (For more examples of creating dilemmas for powerholders, click HERE.) 


What will sustaining this momentum cost?  Examining our own personal commitments and the risks we take is a key part of the personal preparation for our struggle. We need to ask ourselves how far each one of us is willing to take this thing. What risks are we actually willing to take, individually, and what costs will we be willing to pay in terms of reputation, time, and money?  This kind of personal preparation and reflection is a powerful aspect of intentional efforts for social change.  If this is to really go somewhere, it is going to cost, and we can build capacity in our groups by grappling with those potential costs and preparing ourselves for struggle.


Drawing from the theory and history of nonviolence can help build our endurance, both internally and in the Community Rights groups we are creating together. In our Organizers Training this June 30 and July 1 in Portland, Oregon, we will consider the extraordinary history of nonviolent social movements, and seek to better understand where the Community Rights movement fits in to this grand sweep of history.

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