Filmmaker Steve York and series editor Peter Ackerman talk about nonviolent conflict and the making of A Force More Powerful

Q: How did A FORCE MORE POWERFUL get started?

Ackerman: In a sense, the project germinated a quarter century ago with my doctoral dissertation: "Strategic Aspects of Nonviolent Resistance Movements." This served as the starting point for a book I co-authored with Christopher Kruegler in 1994, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. Jack DuVall brought the book to Steve York's attention; Steve believed these stories would offer gripping material for a documentary.

As a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the late sixties and early seventies, I was interested in "asymmetric conflicts," where one side had the preponderance of military power but still lost. New factors were in play that were more psychological and political than material. Guerrilla warriors like Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara were, for many in liberation movements, the heroes then. At that time, I began to wonder about conflicts in which the asymmetry was total - that is to say, when one side fighting for their lives, freedom, or rights had no viable military option whatsoever. What did they do? In many places, they used nonviolent strategies, including strikes, noncooperation, and an infinite variety of protests and even nonviolent sabotage.

In the 1980s, these nonviolent techniques came increasingly into play as country after country was transformed into a working democracy, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the victory over apartheid in South Africa. To my way of thinking there was not enough acknowledgment by foreign policy elites that these were not isolated events. These were successful "wars," but the brilliant part was that the winning sides weren't fighting with guns and bombs but with innovative nonviolent methods. Sure there was violence happening all over the world in the 20th century, but nonviolent power was prevailing too.

Q: How do you put all that scholarship and strategy on screen - and do people want to see that?

York: What you put on screen are stories and people. You show ideas personified. The drama is in the history. When I was in India, I walked along the dusty road leading to the beach where Gandhi broke the salt law. It looks about the same as it did in 1930 and it's nothing special, but what Gandhi did there is remarkable, and it gives the place a quiet sense of power. I'm not talking about the kind of power we associate with presidents or prime ministers; I mean the power of moral courage, and personal action.

I'm still amazed at what James Lawson, at the age of 30, was able to accomplish in Nashville in 1960, and what Mkhuseli Jack accomplished in South Africa in the early 1980s at the age of 27. They're not considered "powerful" people, even today, but they understood the power of ideas. Being in the presence of people like that is an incredible reminder that ideas matter, and that human intelligence and ingenuity can prevail.

Q: Why does nonviolent conflict work?

Ackerman: Part of the underlying force of nonviolent resistance is that people who undertake it believe wholeheartedly in what they're doing, because they deeply feel the justice of their cause. In contrast, conventional warfare is often waged for greedy, aggressive purposes and fought by persons who have been conscripted into the fight by their government.

Nonviolent action always has the potential to prevail against ruthless opponents because it can be conducted on a huge scale and involves every citizen who wants to play a part. Its techniques flow from the disruption of the everyday normalities that the tyrant counts on to maintain power. You see it time and again, in India, in Poland, in Chile, in South Africa - millions of people became part of these movements as much as by what they refused to do as by what they did.

That is not to say that nonviolent conflict is easy to wage. It involves willingness to suffer and to be hurt but not to retaliate and cause others to hurt. Gandhi often said there were many things he was willing to die for, but nothing he was willing to kill for. In nonviolent conflict, people are willing to be beaten, or jailed, or even killed, and they will only defend themselves with their convictions, their willingness to persevere and the force of their strategy. The result of this discipline, over time, is to make the aggressor see that what he wins militarily or through terror he cannot keep for very long without massively increasing the resources required to suppress all aspects of civil society.

York: Nonviolent movements often form in response to out-and-out tyranny, but rather than subduing people, repression often energizes them. It rouses public sentiment from the center, the core, that moderate middle that won't act until the extremes are cast into dramatic relief. The tide turned in Nashville, for example, when the home of a prominent black lawyer was bombed. Such acts of violence fueled the nonviolent ranks of the civil rights movement, rallied the African-American community, engaged the white community, and caught the attention of media and government, because the contrast was devastating.

Q: So why, as you claim, is nonviolent action so misunderstood and under appreciated?

Ackerman: Several reasons, but I think the main one is that government wages war, or some organized authority uses violence, whereas nonviolent action is a diffused people's action, and so it's not easily seen and followed. And because, in small groups, people can be brought out to protest almost anything, there's a "fringe element" that taints some of these ideas. For example, I heard recently that certain animal rights activists protested an episode of the Survivor TV show because someone on the program roasted a rat for dinner, and these protestors were defending the rights of rats. Now the animal rights people have actually waged a very successful campaign over the past 20 years to get people to stop wearing fur, to lessen cruelty to animals in mean and gratuitous ways, to make people more sensitive to the feelings and lives of other creatures besides humans, and that's a good thing. But then you get a bunch of people marching in front of CBS screaming "Save the Rats," the media jump on it and people think: "Aha! crazy activists." So there's this impression that the only bona fide power struggles are those that are fought militarily and that nonviolent strategy can only be used by powerless fringe groups, which are barely tolerated in benign societies.

Another important aspect of why nonviolent conflict is misunderstood and under-appreciated is because it's so diverse in its practice and methods and participants. The media (much less historians) don't know how to recognize where it is operating. If country A sends troops into country B, the sides are clearly defined and, literally, the battle lines are drawn. If you're not dealing with international conflict between huge armies, but rather with efforts to undermine the entrenched power of the autocrat or invader, and you combine that with cumulative action by many people on many fronts - a boycott here, a demonstration there, a petition, a work-slowdown - the location is no longer clear. Where do the media send the cameras, or how does a historian frame a simple narrative?

Q: The media often focus on leaders. Is that a good way to delve into nonviolent movements?

Ackerman: There are two important things about leadership in these conflicts. One is that the leaders themselves are often reluctant leaders and even more reluctant heroes. They're not power mad, they're not looking for glory -- some of them don't especially want to be leaders; they just want to stop the tyranny or the inequity, whatever. Which brings us to the second point, which is that when there is no clear leadership, movements lose their focus and momentum.

York: The American civil rights movement has become identified with Martin Luther King Jr., who was a phenomenal leader - but the fact is, he wasn't alone. In Nashville, Jim Lawson and Bernard Lafayette were central to the Nashville protests. Lawson was, in fact, one of the architects of the civil rights movement, because he trained students and other demonstrators in nonviolent tactics that he himself learned from Gandhi's people in India. But in many nonviolent conflicts, a paramount leader may not be necessary, because ordinary people on their own initiative can take nonviolent action.

Q: Both of you speak exclusively of nonviolent conflict, nonviolent action, but you never use the terms "nonviolence" or "passive resistance." Why?

Ackerman: This is something I feel strongly about. It's not a semantic distinction; it's the critical difference between action and inaction. What Gandhi did and what the people in Chile did and what Lech Walesa did was anything but passive. They didn't just sit there. They went out and did pro-active things. They held strikes and they organized boycotts and they put themselves in harm's way precisely because their actions punished their military oppressors. You can attach the word "nonviolent" to all kinds of initiatives, including unorthodox techniques of seeking influence in a parliamentary setting. But the term, nonviolent conflict makes it clear that you're talking about using nonviolent weapons, nonviolent activism, in the most serious battles for fundamental human rights.

Confusion can sometimes be created with the term nonviolence. For example, UNESCO has designated this as the Decade of Peace and Nonviolence, which is about people being good to each other, changing personal behavior to reflect lifestyle choices that acknowledge the common good, defining one's own ethical positions. Now that's fine, good work. But we're talking about strategic nonviolent conflict, the use of nonviolent strategies, whether people have access to violent weapons or not. There have been many cases of people who have chosen nonviolent approaches even when they had military options, and this is very important to understand. People in nonviolent struggles are not unarmed - they are simply not armed with violent weapons, but make no mistake, they have formidable resources that flow from the fabric of their society. They are not necessarily principled advocates of nonviolence or other forms of peacemaking. Nonviolence seeks to make the conflict go away by virtuous behavior, while nonviolent strategists seek to win by aggressive engagement with an opponent.

York: Absolutely. Most people think of Gandhi as a saint. Perhaps he was, but that was only one facet of the man. He was much more. Our film shows that he was a brilliant political strategist. He understood power, the source of power, and how to exercise power. If we do nothing more than add this dimension to how Gandhi is perceived -- that will have been worth our effort.

Q: What about Tiananmen Square in China? Street protests in America? Can these be considered examples of strategic nonviolent conflict?

Ackerman: Not really. First, successful nonviolent resistance reflects strategy, which implies a cumulative series of nonviolent actions or tactics intended to effect change. One kind of sanction, such as the demonstrations in Beijing, no matter how forceful or dramatic, cannot produce permanent change. But a strategic, well-managed campaign of nonviolent events can. Nonviolent strategy may include protests, but it will also include boycotts, strikes, noncooperation, and other tactics knitted together over time. Secondly, when we talk about strategic nonviolent conflict, we're using the same context as we are when we talk about strategic violent conflict -- that is, action directed against oppressors or invaders. So far the latest street demonstrations in America, such as in Seattle, haven't shown that a real movement with a real strategy has formed.

Q: What do you want viewers to take away from watching this series?

York: A sense of hope and a sense of appreciation for what's been accomplished, and what they themselves can do. We know from activists around the world, whom we've spoken to in the course of making this series, that many leaders, many participants, saw Attenborough's film about Gandhi and it inspired them to embark on nonviolent campaigns of their own. I hope that people will see that not every leader has to be a Gandhi or a King, but that they can help effect change on a small or local scale and succeed. One of the other things Gandhi said is that what we do at a particular time may seem insignificant, but eventually it can have an effect, and so it's very important to do it.

There's a feeling, in this country and elsewhere, that problems are so great and the powers so mighty, that nothing that one person, or even a group of people, can do will change things. A FORCE MORE POWERFUL is a reminder that violence is the weapon of choice of the frightened, the unimaginative, the self-serving; while nonviolent weapons represent human power in its mightiest and most noble form. I think if our series can help send that message, it will in itself be a powerful nonviolent weapon, and we'd be very proud.