Occupation of public space

Nonviolent revolutions or protest movements often seem to begin with the occupation of a symbolic place. The protests against the Turkish government in 2013 started at ‘Taksim Square‘ in Istanbul, the nonviolent revolution against Husni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 at ‘Tahrir Square‘ in Cairo, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 at ‘Maidan Square‘ in Kyiv, the student revolt at ‘Tiananmen Square‘ in Beijing in 1998.

Every political, social, and cultural situation requires its own creative strategies of nonviolent revolt. The occupation of public places is only a single step in the emergence of a nonviolent resistance movement. But contrary to all appearances, it is not the first, but rather the last step: Namely, after the movement has made all preparations to take the campaign into the decisive phase.

Singular strategies

This final phase of mass mobilization should rather be the dramatic climax of the campaign. It should reveal the true balance of power – which in the best case begins to turn in favor of the protest movement. Before this showdown, the protest movement has to do the actual work of resistance.

Therefore, the resistance movement in Egypt spent two years preparing for the mass protests in Tahrir Square. With the distribution of leaflets, organization of street theatres, and smaller successful campaigns they prepared for this showdown, which even gained the attention of the mass media.

Mass movement without hierarchy?

Inspired by the ‘Arab Spring‘, the ‘Occupy Wallstreet!‘ protest movement, which emerged in 2011 in response to the financial crisis, named itself after the very same public space occupation and made it its main strategy. They set up a tent village in Zuccotti Park in New York City and called for greater control over banks and their financial transactions, as well as social redistribution (We are the 99 Percent‘). The hacker collective ‘Anonymous‘ also joined the movement.

Occupy! wanted to remain without hierarchy, and make their decisions collectively in a weekly General Assembly. But the ‘Multitude‘ could not agree on concrete goals and strategies in this way. Among other things, they demanded a financial transaction tax, higher taxes for the wealthy, and a disclosure of the influence of corporations on political representatives in Washington. The Occupy! movement has brought the context and effects of the financial crisis to the attention of a broader public, but its demands could not be implemented.

‘We are the 99 Percent’

Srdja Popovic, a founding member of the nonviolent resistance movement Otpor!‘, which revolted against Slobodan Miloševic in Serbia in 1996, explained the ineffectiveness of ‘Occupy!‘ on the one hand by its lack of unifying visions and on the other by the movement’s inadequate planning and strategy.

Instead of dubbing themselves ‘The 99 Percent’, which would have implied that the movement was based on group identity, the American activists instead named themselves after a single tactic. And although nonviolent activists have been occupying all sorts of things for years […] occupying is still just a single weapon in the enormous arsenal of peaceful protest.”1

Together with his former comrades-in-arms of the ‘Otpor!’ movement, Srdja Popovic and his organization CANVAS (‘Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies‘) passes on his experience in seminars to other resistance movements.

Kairos – the right moment

To defeat an overpowering opponent by nonviolent means, the resistance has to formulate the goals of the struggle in a concrete and true-to-life way. So that a majority of the population can identify with the movement. However well prepared the public appearance may be: It is still necessary to find the right time for the public appearance.

The first principle of planning is timing. […] People are fickle, easily distracted, and largely irrational. Hit them, when they are paying attention to something else and all the best planning will be lost, but strike when the hour is right and you are guaranteed to win.”2

The time to give in and accept compromises from the opponent must also be decided wisely. If the resistance movement gives up too soon, or if there is a division in the opposition, this can create a power vacuum, as in Egypt in 2011. Radical parties, willing to use violence, can fill this empty space. Such defeats are all the more regrettable because, in retrospect, they give the impression that nonviolent resistance is generally ineffective or even plunges a country into chaos and civil war.

If, on the other hand, a protest movement misses the opportunity to obtain concessions for minor compromises, nonviolent resistance may miss the short window of opportunity to open up to dialogue with the conflict party. According to Michael Nagler in ‘The Nonviolent Handbook‘, this happened during the student revolt in Tian’anmen Square.


The relative ineffectiveness of Occupy! does not only show that nonviolent resistance requires more than occupying and demonstrating at symbolic public places. The question arises whether the grassroots revolution approach, as interpreted by Occupy! is suitable for implementing nonviolent campaigns.

Grassroots or rhizomes do not go deep into the earth but connect in a net-like manner. In contrast, the deep rooting of trees stands for traditional, territorial ties and hierarchical structures. They are comparable to the mycelium network of fungi, which functions as a communication system in the forest.

Distribution of power

The ‘rhizome‘ stands for mobile structures with viral spread, for networks with very flat hierarchies. However, in the past, often smaller groups or even individuals have launched the most effective resistance movements. Above all, if non-hierarchy becomes the final principle, individuals or smaller groups can not speak out about anything, that exceeds the individual realm. Since this already would create a kind of ‘hierarchy’, where one individual is speaking for others.

For when a single individual raises his/her voice and draws the attention of an ever-growing public to a problem, s/he is basically collecting and concentrating power. This would mean that s/he would lift him/herself out of the absence of hierarchy. However, if everyone can only speak for him/herself, coordinated action or decision-making becomes impossible. After all, decisions can no longer be made, let alone coordinated actions.

Strategical advancement

The planning and implementation of nonviolent resistance actions require a certain degree of organization. Nonprofit organizations like ‘Greenpeace’ and ‘Attac’ have been demonstrating for decades that it is in principle possible to fight against the excesses of capitalism with the means of nonviolent resistance. As these organizations show, nobody has to become a charismatic leader to do so.

To act, the movement needs visions. Individuals have to make strategic decisions, distribute roles, and take initiative. They have to break down big goals into smaller stages. Concrete ideas for implementing the vision usually come from single, courageous, or resourceful individuals. Through ‘contagion’ they are first transferred to a smaller group, then to ever-larger numbers, and finally, become a mass movement. Digital means of communication can amplify this viral effect many times over.

The power of symbols

Once a strategy has become established, it can also be adopted and adapted by other individuals and groups. As the hacker collective ‘Anonymous‘ shows, the individual does not even have to be known by name. However, the group or collective should at least agree on common goals, a common attitude, and common values and approaches.

Acting together is […] strategic, that is, success-oriented action. This makes the organization and strategy necessary. Alone, in an effective organization, a good strategy can make a numerically smaller group more powerful than a larger group.”3

This is why it is so important to choose symbols that have an integrating effect across ideological divides and cultural differences. Gandhi’s salt march in Gujarat, for example, took the taxation of basic food as a reason for tactical mobilization. Nonviolent resistance is always to a large extent ‘public relations’ and in this sense power struggle.

The role of single individuals

Both the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and the resistance against segregation in the southern states of the USA was led by individuals. Individuals took the initiative and moved the masses with their rhetoric and political emotions.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who had initially belonged to the armed and violent wing of the African National Congress in 1943, began to follow the nonviolent example of M. K. Gandhi consistently after a 27-year prison sentence. By nonviolent means, he succeeded in doing what he had failed to do with weapons: fighting against Apartheid. Four years later, he was elected president of South Africa. Nelson Mandela continued to advocate nonviolence in South Africa after his presidency. According to Mandela, Gandhi’s strategies of nonviolence had defeated Apartheid.

Gandhi’s ambivalent attitude toward racism

But is Gandhi, in his ambivalent attitude towards segregation or the caste system, really a good example in the fight against racism? When Gandhi was confronted with Apartheid in South Africa, he stood between the racial fronts. Since he was neither white nor black, both, black and white people harassed him and the Indian minority in South Africa in general. However, his demand for a separate status for Indians in racial Segregation was not really a statement against racism. Above all Gandhi’s unwillingness to touch the Caste system, which Arundhati Roy calls ‘India’s Apartheid‘, does not speak for Gandhi in terms of the problem of racism.

For more than half a century – throughout his adult life – [Gandhi’s] pronouncements on the inherent quality of black Africans, untouchables and the laboring class remained constantly insulting.” “His refusal to allow working-class people and untouchables to create their own political organizations and elect their own representatives remained consistent too.”4

‘Backward Tribes’

Furthermore, the fact that the Congress did not accept the indigenous population’s self-designation as ‘Adivasi‘, shows that convinced Hindus made up the Congress movement. Instead of the self-chosen, affirmative name, the Indian constitution mentions them as ‘backward tribes‘ or ‘scheduled tribes‘. The term ‘Adivasi’ means ‘first people’ and indicates that the tribals had been resident longer than the caste Hindus.

Obviously, Gandhi was an admirer of the Caste system. He believed that the casteless could be integrated into the caste system. Furthermore, the Caste system could be reformed to such an extent that there was no longer any hierarchy between the Castes. This is a naivety that is not so easy to believe by such a clever leader.

Nonviolent strategies

Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement successfully adopted Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance. They successfully fought for the civil rights of African Americans in the southern states of the USA. During his studies of theology, Martin Luther King read about the principle of civil disobedience in the texts of Henry David Thoreau, who did not want to support a state that allowed slavery with taxes. He heard several lectures on M. K. Gandhi, who became his great role model.

Absurdly enough, it was precisely Gandhi’s approach during the Apartheid period in South Africa that provided a model for the nonviolent struggle against Segregation through civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King

The Civil Rights movement for which Martin Luther King was active, was concerned with combating Segregation. In the Southern states, Segregation had taken on similar forms as Apartheid in South Africa. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States after the War of Secession in 1852. To circumvent certain points of them, the Southern states had introduced the so-called ‘Black Codes‘. “These Black Codes had three main objectives: first, racial segregation in all areas of public life, such as schools, restaurants, theatres, hospitals, and public transportation; second, control over the black labor force: in many Southern states, African Americans were forbidden to trade, practice a trade, own land or own houses. […] Thirdly, the Black Codes were aimed at the political disempowerment of African Americans.”5

Civil rights movement

In the fight against racism and its social and economic consequences, the tireless struggle of the Civil Rights movement against racial Segregation was a very important and necessary step. It also included the fight for the right to vote and against discrimination in everyday life.

Nevertheless, radical voices such as Malcolm X and the ‘Nation of Islam‘ – a ‘nationalist’ but basically racist association – have repeatedly criticized the Civil Rights movement. In his demagogic style, Malcolm X compared the nonviolent and integration-oriented representatives of the Civil Rights movement with ‘house slaves. Like ‘domestic slaves‘, they were not concerned with the black’s liberation from the yoke of white oppression, but only with adaptation, equality, and integration.

Systemic racism

Martin Luther King also recognized a few years before his assassination, after experiencing the misery of the ghettos in the cities of the Northern States, that it was not enough to fight for the civil rights of African Americans alone, that racism had become a social phenomenon in the United States.

Shortly before his assassination, Malcolm X emphasized the fact, that the fight against this systemic racism was not only about civil rights but about human rights. A pilgrimage to Mekka had made Malcolm X realize that Islam was not compatible with the black racism of the ‘Nation of Islam‘. In Mekka he saw Muslims of different skin colors peacefully orbiting the Kaaba. Moreover, he was impressed, by how kind white Muslims had welcomed him. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X even wanted to collaborate with his opponent Martin Luther King, but this never happened.


The exclusion of the black population in ghettos was, to Martin Luther King’s surprise and disappointment, much more difficult to overcome by nonviolent means than the radical racism of the former slave owners and the Ku Klux Klan in the Southern States. The discriminatory exclusion of the black population in the ghettos was less tangible and more abstract. Although the Northern states had formerly gone to war against the Southern states under the pretext of abolishing slavery, racism was already inherent in the system there.

The purpose of a ghetto is to enclose those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. […] [It] is in principle nothing more than an internal colony whose inhabitants are politically dominated, economically exploited, segregated, and humiliated at every opportunity.”6

Perhaps the methods of nonviolent resistance were successful precisely because they addressed very practical, everyday problems. Whereas it is not possible to fight against an abstract phenomenon like ‘social injustice‘. Gandhi’s nonviolent tactics are tactics of civil disobedience. They can not easily be adapted to diffuse social injustice.

Bus boycott

The first action Martin Luther took with the NAACP / National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was a bus boycott. In 1909 black and white integrationists founded NAACP, the oldest and largest African-American civil rights organization. They asked Martin Luther King, who was very popular as a preacher in his congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, to draw attention to the bus boycott in his sermon. Since the slave era, the black churches were secret places of resistance.

The church as a space of resistance

For centuries, the pulpit was the only opportunity for African Americans to perform in public. Therefore, the pastor in black congregations is usually not only the spiritual leader but also the political leader, whose influence often goes far beyond that of his white counterparts.”7

Martin Luther King made his church available for a meeting of all interested pastors and all decided to draw attention in their Sunday sermons to the bus boycott that was to take place the following day. The reason for the boycott was the arrest of Rosa Parks. Tired from a long day at work, she was not ready, to give her place on the bus to a white woman, as the Black Codes required. The NAACP, with Parks’ consent, decided to expand her case into a test case.

Civil right strategies

To support Parks and make her case public, all public buses in Montgomery should be boycotted by African Americans. Although this boycott was quite a sacrifice for the blacks in Montgomery, all public buses were empty the next day, except for a few white people. The boycott was a great success, which exceeded all expectations of the organizers. They planned a meeting in Martin Luther King’s church that very evening. 7500 people attended and King gave a moving speech.

So Martin Luther King became the official leader of the black resistance in Montgomery. The bus boycott continued – for days, weeks, months, finally for a whole year. Because of his exposed position, King had become the target of white racist hatred.

But when a bomb exploded in his house and his wife and children were lucky enough to remain unharmed, he nevertheless called for nonviolence. The listeners of his moving appeal could hardly believe that he could react in such a way to such an act of violence.

Meanwhile, Rosa Parks’ appeal went through all instances of the American judicial system. On 13 November 1956, the Supreme Court finally ruled that segregation in buses was unconstitutional.8


In January 1957, King became president of the newly founded SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) – an umbrella organization of all church civil rights groups in the South, based in Atlanta, Georgia. As a result, the civil rights movement fought for the integration of schools, with nonviolent ‘Sit-ins‘ for the Desegregation of cafeterias, restaurants, and shops, with ‘Freedom Rides‘ across the South for the Desegregation of national coaches, and fought in Birmingham, Alabama against a racist police chief.

Shocked by the events in Birmingham – where violence had also erupted – President John F. Kennedy announced a new Civil Rights Act to abolish racial discrimination throughout the territory of the United States: the ‘Civil Rights Act‘. In support of this plan, the Civil Rights movements organized the world-renowned ‘March on Washington‘.

Victims of large-scale projects

The indigenous population (whether in India, Mexico or Brazil, Asia, or Africa) regularly falls victim to large-scale projects such as hydroelectric power stations, the establishment of heavy industry, road construction, and the clearing of large areas of land for monocultures or for tourist nature parks. 80 million people worldwide have been displaced from their land by the construction of dams over the last fifty years.

The indigenous population not only loses their land through such large-scale projects. These projects destroy also the traditional way of life. In India, for example, about 10 million ‘Adivasi‘ (literally ‘first inhabitants‘) live in urban slums. Despite their protected status under the constitution, Indian society ostracises and discriminates against them.

The indigenous population’s struggle for their habitat and way of life is always also about the fight against environmental destruction. Since a strong connection to nature characterizes their tradition.

Sarovar retaining damm

The Adivasi mostly live in self-sufficient villages on communally cultivated land. 110,000 Adivasi should forcibly be relocated for the construction of the Sardar-Sarovar dam. Situated at the Narmada River, this dam had been under construction since 1961. Here the resistance of the Adivasi stirred. The villagers’ struggle against the major project lasted for more than a decade.

Activists and villagers joined forces in the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan‘ (‘Movement to Protect the Narmada‘). Finally, the Adivasis resistance succeeded. The World Bank‘s international investors finally withdrew their stake in 1990 due to persistent public pressure.

The Indian Supreme Court stopped construction for six years. But in 2000, a decision by the highest court not only allowed construction to continue but even raised the overflow edge of the dam, so that 200,000 people now have to be resettled. Non-governmental organizations support the Adivasi in their fight against large-scale state projects and the machinations of international corporations. In Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, the Adivasi are supported by the human rights organization ‘Samata‘.

The airport in Nantes, France

The success of decades of resistance to the construction of a major airport in the west of France, north of Nantes, shows that nonviolent resistance can really prevent major capitalist projects. Plans have existed for 50 years to build this airport in a rural area with livestock, agriculture, and forests, although an airport already exists in Nantes.

The resistance to this major project has now lasted – with interruptions – for 50 years. In 1972, it started with the ADECA (the Association for the protection of farmers affected by the airport project). In 2000 the VINCI Group took up the slumbering project. Once again, a citizens’ association for the protection of the people affected by the airport project was formed.

In 2008, the French government began to buy some of the 1650 hectares of land required from the current owners (ZAD, area for future land use planning); the VINCI Group had already been awarded the contract to build and operate the airport in 2010. By overestimating expected profits, VINCI tried to discourage the city of Nantes from terminating the contract.

The costs for the construction work were also deliberately set far too low. Furthermore, the VINCI Group had not set aside reserves for possible cost overruns. The conditions, which are incompatible with normal public procurement, put very strong pressure on the companies entrusted with the works. This in turn leads to social dumping in subcontractor firms.

Zone for everyone

Apart from the destruction of forests and agricultural land, the construction of this airport would have cost the city an enormous amount. The privatization of public facilities would only have brought profits to the corporation.

VINCI’s trade union also showed solidarity with the civil resistance of the local population because of the VINCI’s unfair practices. The ‘zone’ – renamed ‘zone à défendre‘ – was therefore permanently occupied. Under the slogan ‘la ZAD est par-tout‘ (‘the zone is for everyone) the resistance for a common cause prevented drilling, shared meals, organized climate camps, actions against VINCI, and large-scale demonstrations. The expulsion of protesters, trials, and prison sentences only strengthened solidarity among the groups taking part in the protest. The police operation ‘Caesar‘ against the occupiers was met with a new occupation – Operation ‘Asterix‘.

Success after fifty years

The zone was used for living, a large meeting room for cultural activities and debates, and a library was built. The perseverance of the airport’s opponents was outstanding. Two generations of non-violent struggle had managed to integrate the most diverse interest groups. Finally, in 2017 this tireless resistance led to success.

The new government commissioned an investigation and decided to end the project. But the squatters do not want to give up their new life in the zone. They want it to remain a place ‘for all‘. The joy of public action allows us to leave the isolation, in which the capitalist system holds us captive. It makes us feel the community again by uniting forces for a common, public cause.

Capitalism is built on the selfish interests of individuals or groups. A civil countervailing power can therefore only be created by a union of these individuals or interest groups. This seems to have been particularly successful in Nantes.

With humor against dictatorship

The more repressive the system with which the nonviolent resistance is confronted, the more subtle and imaginative the resistance must be. When almost all critical expressions are banned by the regime and punished with prison and torture, the resistance movements must seek out the few, barely legal loopholes that have been forgotten by the system.

If they find the weak spot of the repressive system, they can use the ‘weapon’ of humor to turn the situation into a ridiculous one. Dictators, begin to take themselves too seriously when they become too powerful. They make unmasking mistakes when confronted with humor or laughtivism‘.


The “most dangerous opponent [of authority] is not enmity but contempt, and what most surely undermines it is laughter.”9

In some cases, dictators react so extremely to subversive criticism that they suddenly have the entire population and the international public against them. Then the resistance movement won the victory in the power struggle against tyranny with its public relations work.

Above all, humorous actions can be used to counter the state of fear and terror. Since this state is omnipresent in a dictatorship, it makes the violently oppressed population freeze in collective traumatization. In their creative, humorous approach, some nonviolent actions seem like performance art.


Syrian activists printed hundreds of ping-pong balls with one-word slogans like ‘enough’ or ‘freedom‘. Subsequently, they threw them out of large garbage bags into the narrow and steep streets of Damascus. The bouncing balls paralyzed the traffic or at least were very conspicuous. Without any individual or group being held responsible, this action was repeated over and over again. The police seemed quite ridiculous in their attempt to catch and eliminate the balls.

Other Syrian performance activists colored the water of the fountains in the main squares in Damascus with red food coloring during the night, creating the impression that the fountains spewed blood. It took at least a week for the red color to slowly fade and the police could do nothing but watch and wait for the ‘haunting’ to be over.

Sextremistic protest

The provocative, ‘sextremist‘ protests of the Ukrainian women’s organization ‘Femen‘ and the performances of the feminist punk rock band ‘Pussy Riot‘ in Moscow are also reminiscent of performance art. Both struggle with means of provocation to draw public attention to exploitation through forced prostitution and other forms of sexism.

Pussy Riot‘ regularly shocked the Russian establishment with their appearances critical of the government and church. They always perform illegally in public places, as this is the only way to attract public attention. The collective of ten women wears masks because they do not want to make their female faces into trademarks. The group understands their performative appearances as civil society activity in the midst of a repressive political climate.

Punk prayer

Their anti-authoritarian attitude is also expressed in the lack of hierarchy in their group. In Russia, where homosexuality is persecuted, two of its members openly profess their lesbian sexual orientation. In 2012, during a Russian Orthodox service, Pussy-Riot stormed the Church of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow and performed her punk prayer against the alliance of church and state:

Mother of God, virgin, chase away Putin‘, ‘The patriarch believes in Putin, although he should believe in God‘. Instead of politicization of religion, as practiced in India by the Hindu nationalists, the alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government is apparently intended to bring about a ‘sacralization‘ of Putin’s policies. It is precisely this sacralization of the policies of Putin’s government that ‘Pussy-Riot‘ has exposed with its hereticalpunk prayer‘.

The arrest of three members of the band triggered a wave of protest and also intensified criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church’s political ties with the government.


In 2008, the group ‘Femen‘, founded in Ukraine, began demonstrating against forced prostitution, surrogacy, and other forms of sexism with naked torsos painted with slogans and the slogan ‘Ukraine is not a brothel‘. Their sign is the ‘bosom power‘, their organization not quite as non-hierarchical as that of the pussy-riots. The group’s founder, Hanna Hutsol, initially led Femen with Wiktor Swajatsky. Since 2011, Femen has also been conducting campaigns in Italy, France, and Germany. In protest against the court case of the three Pussy-Riot members in Russia, a Femen member destroyed a four-meter-high wooden cross in Kyiv. The performances of Femen also caused controversy among feminists.

Author: Eva Pudill


Estimated reading time: 21 minutes

>> The Cosmopolitan Attitude of Ahimsa

>> Satyagraha: how Ahimsa became a Political Term

>> Ahimsa as Political Practice in post-Gandhi India

>> Disgression: Power and Violence

>> Disgression: Humanity & Human Rights

>> Trauma: Nonviolent Coping with Injuries

>> Taking leave from Self-Victimization