Methods of Nonviolence you may not have Considered

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Keegen Kuehne

Image of a crowd outside of the National Palace in Guatemala
Nonviolent protesters outside the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala.[1]

When one thinks of nonviolence as a means of social change, it’s easy to assume that it can only be utilized via protest. For example, when Americans think of nonviolence, they may refer to historical figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and how they developed the tool of nonviolent protest to enact change. However, there are a plethora of ways to utilize nonviolence as a tool for widespread societal evolution. This article will explore and contrast different examples of nonviolence in the modern world and their effectiveness in promoting social change.

When discussing nonviolence and nonviolent welfare, we turn to Dr. Gene Sharp, who was a political scientist described as “the Clausewitz of nonviolent welfare.”[2] One of Sharp’s most notable works is his proposed “198 methods of nonviolent action,” which presents alternative methods of nonviolent protest for social change.[3] Throughout this article, Sharp’s 198 methods will be explored in conjunction with real world examples to show that social change is indeed possible in the absence of violence.

Guatemala and Symbolic Protest

In 2015, Guatemalans protested the resignation of the (now) former president, Otto Pérez Molina. Molina was demanded to resign by Guatemalan citizens because of his ties to organized crime, “the revelation of multimillion-dollar corruption scandals,” and his failure to keep his promise to “crackdown on crime and impunity.”[4] [5] Every Saturday for nearly two months in early 2015, protesters gathered outside the Guatemalan capitol building in mass mobilization to prompt the president’s resignation.[6] However, on one Sunday in April 2015, a 23-year-old graphic designer, Rafael Mora, and 11 of his friends sent out an invitation on Facebook with a graphic that showed a large crowd of people surrounding a sign that read “#RenunciaYa” – “resign now.” Mora and his companions didn’t want grand speeches, interviews with reporters, or anything elaborate, but simply called for people to gather with signs in the central plaza, sing the national anthem, and pick up trash when the protest was finished.[7] [8] To their surprise, thirty thousand people showed up and stayed for months.[9]

What stands out about this protest is the demographic variation of the protesters, which ranged from young people, priests, businessmen, students, and even homemakers.[10] Additionally, protesters placed hundreds of eggs on the doorstep of various government buildings with signs that read: “If you don’t have the huevos (the balls) to stop corrupt candidates from running for office, you can borrow ours.”[11] This action did not cause President Molina to resign, which prompted Guatemalans to try a different approach: hundreds of businesses and schools closed; farmers across the nation blocked the roads.[12] In August 2015, the Guatemalan Congress overwhelmingly voted to strip President Molina of his presidential immunity from prosecution, and he resigned on September 1, 2015– just hours after an arrest warrant was put out for him.[13]

Number 21 on Sharp’s “198 methods of nonviolent action” lists “delivering symbolic objects,” which is exemplified by the egg delivery of the Guatemalan protesters.[14] What makes this rhetoric so powerful is that the protesters used rather aggressive language to insult officials and call out their inability to stand up for the people. This symbolic action is also an example of number 32 in Sharp’s list: “taunting officials.”[15] Considering that President Molina was barred from running for president again, had an arrest warrant put out for him, and even resigned, this method of nonviolent resistance could be considered rather successful in this context. Not only this, but the closing of schools and businesses, and the farmers blocking roads, exemplifies number 119 on Sharp’s list: “economic shutdown.”[16] The 2015 protests demonstrate how powerful lateral, or leaderless, unification can be in the face of corruption. Considering the 30-year Guatemalan Civil War claimed a quarter of a million lives and struck fear into its survivors, this protest represents the Guatemalan zeitgeist of the new millennium. Through nonviolent revolt, citizens reclaimed their sovereignty, overcame the collective fear of government prosecution, and met violent power structures with its almighty opposite: peace.

Puerto Rico, Bad Bunny, and Nonviolence through Music

As demonstrated by the organization of the 2015 Guatemalan protests via Facebook, the internet and social media are excellent tools for bringing large groups of people together and for communicating ideas. Popular figures like celebrities and politicians hold immense influence over what individuals think and what they communicate to others. Number 37 on Sharp’s list is “singing.” Namely, the artist Bad Bunny is an effective example of nonviolent protest through music.

In 2017, the category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria, devastated the island of Puerto Rico, causing 3,000 deaths and one of the longest blackouts in history; it even left individuals without power for nearly a year.[17] Bad Bunny’s song, El Apagón is about this outage and explores the relationship between the plantation system and the tourist economy in Puerto Rico. Appearing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Bad Bunny commented on former President Trump’s labeling of the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico as “an A Plus.”[18] What initiated Bad Bunny’s commentary was President Trump’s inconsideration of the fact that nearly 3,000 people died during, and as a result of, Hurricane Maria. According to the Harvard Chan Study by Harvard University, researchers concluded that “illness and death continued for months after Hurricane Maria, driven by a loss of infrastructure—lack of electricity, lack of clean water, and lack of cell phone service.”[19] Due to this destruction, individuals that had health conditions, such as diabetes, couldn’t keep their insulin refrigerated and tragically passed away from such complications.[20] After months of research from Albizu University, Penn State University, George Washington University, and Harvard University, the Puerto Rican government released a statement that through February 2018, there had been about 2,975 excess deaths due to the loss of infrastructure.[21]

Bad Bunny’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” demonstrates Sharp’s 37th method of nonviolent resistance: “singing.”[22] Bad Bunny’s song, “El Apagón” or “The Blackout,” draws attention to this natural disaster and how government officials handled the recovery process. Since Bad Bunny (at the time of the publication of this article) has about 45 million followers on Instagram; he has quite a substantial number of fans. With such a large platform, he can communicate directly with individuals and inspire social change through the love of music.

It is important for individuals interested in making social change to remember that nonviolent action can take many forms, whether through music, symbolic acts, economic shutdown, and even taunting officials. As Jamila Raqib says, “We now know our old approaches to dealing with conflict are not adequate for the new challenges we are facing.”[23]

[1] Photograph: Moisés Castillo/AP.

[2] Albert Einstein Institution, “Dr. Gene Sharp 1928-2018.”

[3] Albert Einstein Institution, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Resistance,” The Albert Einstein Institution.

[4] Jamila Raqib, “The secret to effective nonviolent resistance,” 2016, TED.

[5] The Guardian, “Thousands of protesters demand resignation of president in Guatemala,” The Guardian, 12 June, 2015.

[6] Raqib, “The secret to effective nonviolent resistance.”

[7] Joshua Partlow, “How a peaceful political uprising happened in war-scarred Guatemala,” Washington Post, September 5, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Associated Press, “Thousands of protesters demand resignation of president in Guatemala.” The Guardian, 12 June 2015.

[11] Raqib, “The secret to effective nonviolent resistance.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] BBC News, “Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina Resigns,” BBC News, 3 September, 2015.

[14] Albert Einstein Institution, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Resistance.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bethanie Butler, “Bad Bunny wants you to stop ignoring Puerto Rico,” Washington Post, 20 September, 2022.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Karen Feldscher, “Uncovering Hurricane Maria’s True Toll,” Harvard University, 28 September, 2018.

[20] Butler, “Bad Bunny wants you to stop ignoring Puerto Rico.”

[21] Feldscher, “Uncovering Hurricane Maria’s True Toll.”

[22] Albert Einstein Institution, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Resistance.”

[23] Raqib, “The secret to effective nonviolent resistance.”