People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity

Clark, Howard
Pluto Press, London, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7453-2901-7, 237 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Phil Wright
CENDEP, Oxford Brookes University, UK

So I quite fancy being a bit civilly disobedient. . . You know, overthrow a government or two. But where to start? Maybe I’ll align myself to a cause of some description, or perhaps a political uprising is the order of the day. No, let’s not revolt before we can walk. First things first – research. . . And that’s where People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity, edited by Howard Clark, comes in.

With a range of case studies fromaround the world, contributors seek to evaluate various forms of non-violent political action with critical analysis and personal accounts of recent resistance movements. From Serbia, Burma (Myanmar), and Zimbabwe to Colombia, India, and Sri Lanka, as well as Israel and Palestine, the scope is wide-ranging. In addition to these geo-political topics, there are also chapters encompassing women’s rights movements, workers’ solidarity, gayrights protests, and refugee organisations.

The book’s content is drawn principally from events that have occurred in the past 10 years or so, making it feel pleasingly current. Perhaps this should not be all that surprising, given the number of peaceful campaigns for change that have taken place over that period. We are, after all, coming to the end of a decade that has seen unprecedented popular mobilisation in the name of peace. A decade in which millions of people worldwide protested against the imminent invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in the largest day of simultaneous international protest ever witnessed. A decade in which the UN declared 2 October, Gandhi’s birthday, to be the International Day of Non-Violence. A decade in which people power has once more become mainstream.

It is against this backdrop that Clark gathers this cadre of non-violent resistance activists and professors. So as a whole what do they offer? There is a nice blend of local and international perspectives here, though with varying degrees of critical bias. There is also a good deal of information presented in relatively few pages. The format allows each contributor successfully to describe a political landscape with a bit of historical context, linked with an unarmed resistance movement acting within it. Section 1 acts as a reference guide, offering a number of such cases for study. For example, how Otpor, a small student-run group in Serbia, became a major player in mobilising the population to oust Slobodan Milosevic.

There is an emphasis here on the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ in each case, with a short analysis of the subsequent results. I am less satisfied that the ‘how’ has been fully dealt with. The authors mention things like protests, boycotts, and campaigning but rarely examine in detail the techniques employed. For example, in the Zimbabwe chapter (p. 55), we learn about various community groups who rally against corruption at local government level. We find out who – the ‘Combined Harare Residents Association’, and what – challenging ‘inefficient rule of the capital city’ and how – ‘by initiating campaigns around water shortages, electricity cuts, lack of rubbish removal and poor public health services’. However, after telling us that the groups were successful, the writer moves on to the next organisation, and I am left yearning to know exactly how ordinary urban residents managed to achieve such victories.

I would hesitate, then, to define People Power as a direct-action instruction manual. Nevertheless, Clark’s intention to evaluate successes and failures of peaceful political movements, exploring how solidarity for such movements has an increasingly ‘transnational’ flavour, is realised as we move into Section 2. Contributors assess international accompaniment in conflict zones such as the West Bank and Iraq, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, in well-researched and well-referenced articles.

In a work penned by a number of authors, the chapters are nicely varied. Some take an academic tone and include diagrams, others are first-person testimonies. This not only makes for a good read, section to section, but also enhances the detail through the different angles of approach. As Andrew Rigby writes in his chapter on diaspora activists: ‘Enabling those engaged in unarmed resistance to tell their stories to others is a powerful resource’ (p. 183).

There is no shortage of stories to tell here, and Section 3 analyses the work of groups involved in gender and sexuality issues, as well as conscientious objectors. This broadens the book beyond country-specific issues by examining common human rights, but still manages to maintain the overriding format by seeking localised liberation movements. The idea here is to counter arguments
about imposed cultural values which suggest that intervention equates to imperialism.

Section 4 addresses these concerns with articles on financing and training. The overall message here is simple: without local cooperation and assistance, there is no movement. Grassroots organisations will form and act – but if global solidarity is to be effective, it requires regional coordination.

So, having read the book, am I ready to take on The Man? Well, not quite. This book is not about teaching the tools of bloodless political overhaul. It provides a view of the international community as a framework to local-level democracy and resistance to oppression. It gives us an understanding of flexibility within current systems, and the possibilities of shifting or altering them at the will of a determined people. And, if you share the Orwellian perspective on our modern-day societies, you could do well to be reminded of this.