Nonviolent Activism and the Police

Robert J. Burrowes

There is an ongoing debate in activist circles concerning the appropriate nature of the relationship between activists and the police. According to some activists, the police are violent agents of the state who may be verbally abused, physically resisted (particularly during arrest) and, if circumstances allow it, personally assaulted. For these activists, acting in any other way towards the police or telling them about a proposed action is tantamount to ‘cooperation with the enemy’.

Of course, an activist’s attitudes and behaviours towards the police are not determined in isolation; they are part of a wider social cosmology. Put simply, an activist’s attitudes and behaviours towards the police depend on their conception of society, their understanding of the causes of conflict and how it is resolved, and their beliefs about activism and what it is supposed to achieve. For example, if an activist believes that virtually all conflict is driven by class divisions in society and that the aim of engaging in conflict is to destroy the members and agents of the ‘ruling class’, then it is easy to consider the police (who are controlled by the state which serves the ruling class) to be ‘class enemies’. According to this conception, there is no distinction between the responsibility of actors and the responsibility of structures; conflict is essentially about winning or losing and the purpose of activism in this sense – whether it is violent or even pragmatically nonviolent – is to defeat the opponent actors and to secure control of the structure.

In contrast, if you believe – as I do – that conflict in society is built into social structures (including patriarchy, capitalism and the state which generate conflict along gender, class, race and other lines) and not into people, then a distinction must be made between structures and actors. Of course, the structures are perpetuated by people who perform particular roles within them but, according to this view, the evil is in the structure rather than the person who carries out their duty. According to this conception, conflict is a shared problem and the opponent is a partner in the struggle to find a mutually satisfactory outcome. And the aim of nonviolent activism is to preserve the person while systematically destroying the evil structure.[1] One reason for this, according to Gandhi, is that humans are related by a bond that is deeper and more profound than the bonds of social relationship: we are all part of the unity of life.

So what are the implications of this for the relationship between nonviolent activists and the police? At its most fundamental, it highlights the importance of activists engaging in debate about the nature of the strategy they will adopt – including the conception of nonviolence (essentially ‘principled’ or ‘pragmatic’) which will guide it. Without this debate, the strategy is unlikely to be focused or effective. The principal reason for this is that nonviolence, in the Gandhian sense, is disciplined and rule-based. Too often, as Michael Nagler has pointed out, people try a kind of nonviolence which is unsystematic: they may have the best of intentions but their nonviolence is of the ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ variety. This is grossly inadequate: Nonviolence has precise rules for success and they must be learned and applied.[2] By engaging in debate about the merits of different strategies, as well as their requirements for success, activists are more likely to develop a cohesive and comprehensive strategy as well as the commitment necessary to carry it out.

According to this argument then, the nature of activist relations with the police is an important strategic question which should be guided by the principles of nonviolence that underpin the strategy as a whole. Moreover, the historical evidence demonstrates that a pragmatic conception of nonviolence (which may, for example, utilise a win-lose approach to conflict and endorse the use of secrecy to improve the chances of a tactical ‘success’) is grossly inferior as a philosophical basis for strategically-oriented nonviolence. This is because it is implicitly based on conceptions of society and conflict which ignore vital insights about the nature of human behaviour; for example, that people have an innate need to participate in the conflict resolution process if they are to accept its outcome. While it is obvious that not every activist debate about the conception of nonviolence that will be used to guide strategy will end with an agreement to use principled nonviolence, it would be good if those debates which did not end in this way had a clearer sense of the costs of their decision.

In strategic terms, the value of liaising honestly with individual police is that it may undermine the support of one structure of power readily available to the opponent: the police force. A vital aspect of dismantling any structure of power is to create circumstances in which the people within it are disinclined (or refuse) to perform their role (and, of course, people with whom you have an honest personal relationship are less likely to want to arrest – or assault – you). This is effective politics because it undermines the power of those who control the structure. In the case of the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group during 1989-1990, activist-police dialogue and the consistently disciplined and nonviolent behaviour of the activists led to considerable cooperation between activists and police over the rainforest issue – which is not to suggest that RAG members were naive about the capacity of the police to use violence if they choose (and which was most recently demonstrated in Victoria during the violent removal of a blockade at Richmond Secondary College on 13 December 1993).

Police Liaison

Once it has been decided to liaise with the police, it is important to plan the meeting as thoroughly as possible. Who will represent the activist group? Will the group initiate contact by telephone, letter or a personal visit? What should the liaison group do before, during and after the action? Here are some thoughts.

Firstly, plan exactly what you want to tell the police. (If necessary, the meeting with the police can be roleplayed within the group.) In my case, this always includes the precise details of the action and a brief explanation of why I or the group is doing the action. Answer questions honestly; for example, if you do not know exactly how many people are coming to the action, say so but give your best estimate. If the police ask why your group is doing this particular action, explain the reasons without submerging them in detail about the issue (unless it is clear that they want to hear it). I have a simple rule: if someone hasn’t asked me a question, they are not ready to hear my answer. In any case, the major goal of this dialogue is to encourage the people who wear police uniforms for a few hours of their day to understand the important personal elements of your campaign. If you have the chance, tell them how you feel about the issue rather than what you think.

Secondly, listen carefully to and acknowledge police concerns (whether they be about police safety, activist safety, breaking the law or disagreement with your issue/tactics). Once you have clearly indicated that you have heard them (by restating their concerns if necessary), reiterate that because of your commitment to the cause, your group feels compelled to proceed anyway. Stress that the action will be nonviolent and that no police will be abused or hurt. This will reduce their fear and may, as their trust of you builds, increase their willingness to cooperate on some aspects of future actions.

Thirdly, if necessary, and to demonstrate your willingness to accommodate legitimate police concerns, negotiate minor changes to the details of the action. For example, if you are holding a rally (rather than conducting a blockade) and they are concerned about its location for what seems like a good reason (safety, obstructing flow of people/vehicles), then have the authority from your group to negotiate a slight change of venue. Of course, if you are planning a blockade, the location may not be a negotiable detail. The point about this item is simple: indicate your willingness to negotiate on non-essentials (as part of your willingness to cooperate where possible) but be clear about not conceding on important points of principle or tactics. Of course, if the police do not like what you are going to do, they have the option of arresting you and you can remind them that this is a price you are willing to pay in order to demonstrate your commitment to your cause.

Fourthly, if there are any changes to the action, advise the police in advance. Fifthly, liaise with the police on the day of action. Sixthly, do everything you can to make certain that the action goes precisely as you have planned. This may require roleplays beforehand, action leaflets – which list the group agreements and describe the action – handed out to activists as they arrive, and peacekeeping teams (to deal with undisciplined people or provocateurs). If the preparation is thorough and the discipline of the activists virtually certain, a peacekeeping leaflet (as distinct from an action leaflet) may be circulated instead. Here is a [very simple] sample.

Today’s Nonviolent Action

The Melbourne Rainforest Action Group (RAG) has spent several months planning today’s action.

We have organised a disciplined, creative, nonviolent action, which highlights our concern about global rainforest destruction, rainforest logging in Sarawak and the plight of indigenous peoples.

Please demonstrate your solidarity with our cause by displaying respect for the ship’s crew, the police, Port officers, waterside workers, the media and each other.


The RAG Peacekeeping Team

Finally, liaise with the police afterwards to share lessons for the future. If it gets to the stage where they agree with your cause and trust your group to act the way you say, they may be willing to help you. Of course, this may never happen. In any case, it is not your job to organise actions just so that the police are happy with them (for example, so that they do not have to carry out arrests because they think it makes them ‘look bad’). If the police refuse to perform their duty (for example, if they find reasons not to arrest you), then you have reduced the power of multinational corporations and the state to carry out policies that you do not like. And undermining the support of structures of power is what nonviolent action is all about.

Alternatively, you may reach a point – as is now happening in several countries in some contexts – where you cannot get arrested! In these circumstances, police detain, remove and release. This may be done, among other reasons, so that activists are denied the opportunity to express themselves in court (at which some are very effective). If this starts to happen, you may decide to change tactics (for example, to agree, as part of your action, to keep re-entering a prohibited area until the police are compelled to arrest you).

Before concluding, it should be acknowledged that, even with complete honesty both before and during an action and even with complete nonviolent discipline on the part of the activists, there can never be any guarantee that police will not injure activists. Thus, while activists need to understand that truth and nonviolent discipline are essential ingredients in the effort to minimise the risk to their personal safety, they also need to understand that it is their willingness to suffer for what they believe that gives their action its moral authority and its power to cause change.

Secret actions and the police

One issue that confounds many activists is whether or how to liaise with the police when the group wants to do a secret action. In my view, the answer is simple: do not plan secret actions. For many reasons, as the historical record illustrates, secrecy seriously undermines a nonviolent action campaign. Briefly, it is inconsistent with telling the truth and showing respect for the opponent, it undermines the effort to build trust, it exacerbates the fears of opponents and police, it suggests cowardice rather than courage, and it creates the impression that activists are trying to escape the consequences of their actions.

While the rejection of secrecy eliminates certain types of action, it opens up the possibility of using a more powerful conception of nonviolence. But if activists are to be fully persuaded that secrecy is counterproductive, it is important that they understand why nonviolence actually works.

In brief, nonviolent action works because it favourably alters the social and political climate, the physical circumstances and the human psychological conditions (both innate and learned) characteristic of conflict. One way in which it does this is by eliminating uncertainty about activist behaviour. Secrecy, of course, subverts this process. But rather than elaborate these elements of the argument here, I will briefly illustrate one insight derived from them: secrecy is strategically unnecessary.

When planning a nonviolent action, it is important to decide the goal of the action and to then organise the action in a way which is designed to achieve that goal. A well planned action should be strategically effective but this does not mean that it must be technically successful. For many types of action – such as a rally, a picket or a strike – no one would even suggest using secrecy. And, in these cases, the strategic effectiveness of the action derives largely from its ‘technical success’ which, in turn, may depend on a certain amount of publicity.

But for some types of action, strategic effectiveness is unrelated to whether the action is successful in the technical sense or not. For example, the goal of ‘blockading’ a rainforest timber ship is not to stop it physically – although if there were sufficient activists available to do so, this would be a tactical option. The goal of a river ‘blockade’ (chosen partly because of its rich symbolism) is to undermine political support for rainforest destruction. One way in which a decline in this support may be expressed is through a change in consumer behaviour: people may stop buying rainforest timber. This change is achieved because people are inspired by the honesty, discipline, integrity, courage and determination of the activists – despite arrests, beatings or imprisonment – and are thus inclined to identify with them. Moreover, as an extension of this, they are inclined to act in solidarity.

This point was classically illustrated by the Indian satyagrahis who attempted to nonviolently invade the Dharasana salt works in 1930. Despite repeated attempts by many hundreds of activists to walk into the salt works during a three week period, not one activist got a pinch of salt! But an account of the activists’ nonviolent discipline, commitment and courage – under the baton blows of the police – was reported in 1,350 newspapers around the world. As a result, this action – which technically ‘failed’ – functionally undermined support for British imperialism in India.[3] If the activists had resorted to the use of secrecy, there would have been no chance to demonstrate their honesty, integrity and determination – and to thus inspire empathy for their cause – although they might have got some salt![4]

Whether or not activists are technically successful in doing what they set out to do is often (but not always) strategically irrelevant. It is the nature of how they attempt it – and how they deal with the consequences – that is really important.


1. For a discussion of the Gandhian position on this point, see Johan Galtung. The Way is the Goal: Gandhi Today. Ahmedabad: Gujarat Vidyapith Peace Research Centre, 1992. pp. 57-58.

2. M.N. Nagler. ‘Nonviolence as New Science’ in V.K. Kool. (ed). Perspectives on Nonviolence. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990. p. 138.

3. For an account of the salt raids at Dharasana, see Thomas Weber. ‘”The Marchers Simply Walked Forward Until Struck Down”: Nonviolent Suffering and Conversion’. Peace and Change. 18, 3, July 1993. pp. 267-289.

4. If salt had been removed secretly, the British government could, if they had chosen, ignored it (after all, who would have known or cared?). However, they could not afford to let the satyagrahis take salt openly because salt removal was illegal and failure to react would have shown the salt law – a law which represented the antithesis of Indian independence – to be ineffective.

This article ‘Nonviolent Activism and [the] Police’ was originally published in Nonviolence Today 37, March-April 1994. pp. 10-12.

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