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MLK Day Reflections

Date: January 18, 2012

Martin Luther KingOn 16th January, many people in the world celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  This has been a day for me to walk and contemplate about the work of Dr. King and our work in creating the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP).  These reflections were all the more poignant with the deaths in the last few days of Gene Ott and Marv Davidov, both courageous nonviolent activists.  Adding the recent deaths of Phil Esmonde and Scott Kennedy, all strong NP supporters and nonviolent messengers, I am at once struck with the fragility and durability of LIFE.

Martin Luther King evolved in his views on nonviolence.  He once carried a gun and armed men guarded his home. 


Yet, he came to realize that nonviolence transcended personal relationships and could provide the foundations for relationships among races, communities and nations.  He concluded, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence.  It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”  He came to see war as an enemy of the poor.

NP clearly has deep roots in nonviolent traditions and history.  Co-founder David Hartsough at age 15, met young Dr. King in Montgomery, Alabama during the bus boycott. In 1960 David was integrating lunch counters in Maryland and Virginia with his Howard University classmates.  Staying close to his Quaker roots, David continues to act out of his deep commitment to nonviolence 56 years after first meeting Dr. King.

Those founding NP brought nonviolent commitments and understandings not only from the US Civil Rights Movement and Quakers but from Gandhi, Heschel, Abdul Gaffer Kahn, Jesus, Ashoka, Isaiah, and the Buddha as well as the anti-colonial, feminist, labor, anti-war and ploughshares movements.

But not everyone at the beginning of NP nor now are pacifists. There was and is a strong core of those committed to tactical nonviolence as well.   They believe that nonviolence provides an effective set of tactics to protect people and prevent violence.

One of the beauties of NP is that there is room for both philosophical as well as the tactical nonviolence.   In fact, the tension, openly expressed, will continue to make us strong.

While working nonviolently, NP does not apply the same set of strategies and tactics as the movements cited above.  We can break down nonviolent strategies into three categories.  The most common application is the use of nonviolent strategies to disrupt and change the status quo.  Dr. King and the US Civil Rights Movement masterfully applied these tactics to dismantle segregation laws and challenge racism.  Other movements, most recently during the Arab uprising, throughout the world have brought down governments using this approach.

Nonviolent organizing can also protect the status quo.  We saw many of these strategies develop during the 1980’s in the form of civilian based defense systems where disciplined and strategic nonviolence could be used to ward off invasions. 

NP works within the third realm: unarmed civilian peacekeeping and protection (UCP).  Here, we apply nonviolent strategies and tactics to protect civilians and prevent violence.  As NP and a handful of other NGOs apply UCP in areas of violence from the Philippines to Colombia and Canada to South Sudan, we are expanding the repertoire of effective tactics far beyond the original tactics of accompaniment, proactive presence, interpositioning and monitoring to early warning/early response, confidence building and creating space as well as a deeper understanding of the impact of presence. We are learning that the practice is much more interactive and dynamic than first envisioned.

David Grant, one of NP’s creators, once approached nonviolent strategist, Gene Sharp, and asked when the he would write about nonviolent peacekeeping.  “You’ll have to write that book,” Gene replied.

Indeed, the book is being written at this very moment by courageous peacekeepers and our partners in places like Yida, Nzara, Lanno and Picket.  As during the time of Dr. King, nonviolent tactics are nimble and evolving.  May we continue to write the book, our survival, indeed, depends on successful authorship. 

Dr. King concluded a sermon to Ebenezer Baptist Church during the final year of his life by proclaiming, “Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don't know about you, I ain't gonna study war no more.”

On this Martin Luther King Day let us rededicate ourselves to not only studying war no more but to continuing to studying and developing the ways of peace.

By Mel Duncan

You can protect civilians who are living in or fleeing violent conflict. Your contribution will transform the world's response to conflict.