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Friday, December 4, 2015

What Can NonViolent Activists Learn From The Movie Suffragette

The movie Suffragette (click here for official website) became an instant favorite movie of mine. It deals with the important issue of women's rights, which should not be limited to just voting. It shows oppression, struggle, and activism. The end of the movie basicaly punches you in the gut, but in a good way--for a movie that is. If you haven't seen it, then either try to find where it is playing or look for the release date of the DVD version.

The purpose of this blogpost is not necessarily to review the movie. One of the better attempts at doing that was written Linda Gordon (click here for one of the sites where her review was posted). Rather, the purpose of this review is to examine the activism practiced by the Suffragettes to see what we can learn. And a challenge here for those of us whose activism is marked and limited by nonviolence is that, from what we see in both the movie and history, the Suffragettes were basically a milder form of the Weather Underground movement from the 1960s and 1970s. This is especially true of the latter movement after an accident occurred in their bombmaking factory which cost the lives of 3 of its members. After that, the Weathermen, that is what the members of the group were called, tried, for the most part, to not injure or kill people when they set off their explosives (click here). 

Like the members of the Weather Underground, the Suffragettes believed that the times dictated action, not mere words. For the Weathermen, it was the severity of issue, the war in Vietnam which was killing an unconscionable numbers of Vietnamese, that demanded action. For the Suffragettes, it was the prolonged inaction, and apparent deafness exercised, by their government to their constant demands that made it necessary for them to act. According to their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, it was 'deeds, not words' that counted.

So the Suffragettes included committing violence against property as a tactic to get their point across. That violence ranged from the simple throwing stones at windows to the use of explosives on some infrastructure. And like those from the Weather Underground, the goal of their violence was not to terrify the average citizen, it was to get the attention of, or perhaps even terrify, those in power. And like what was practiced by the Weather Underground, though the intent was not to kill or injure, their activities ran the risk of doing just that.

And though no peace activist should practice the violent tactics of those practiced by the Weathermen or the Suffragettes, there is still much we can learn from them.

For the Suffragettes, they wanted to accomplish the following: gain the ear, hopefully a sympathetic one, of the media, draw attention to the issue, garner support from the people, gain more members, and motivate the those in government to acquiesce to their demands. And if we can separate their tactics from these goals, then learning about their struggles can help us think about what new and effective tactics we could employ today that would get our messages out. For it is in our failure to distinguish tactics from goals that has caused past activism to doom current activism to failure. Today's activist tactics that have more-less sabotaged our movements. These counterproductive tactics include civil disobedience and provoking the police. And our problem is that we have regarded such tactics as goals rather than tools much like as when a musical composer regards following the rules of music when composing as a goal rather than telling the story. For the rules in music are only helpful when they allow us to tell the story we want to tell and otherwise distracting, that is at best. And as a result, we've lost the forest for the trees and we've become unable to approach the accomplishing of our goals because we've become unable to both distinguish tactics from goals and discern which tactics are effective. After all, shouting "the whole world is watching" to the police as they arrest a protester, as I witnessed during the last May Day march in NYC, made little sense since not even C-SPAN was covering the event.

Our connection with the past can be found more in our causes and our goals than our tactics. That is because times have changed since the 1960s and 1970s. Heck, times have changed since before Occupy Wall Street started. I remember that the police in NYC were friendlier to us protesters before Occupy occurred than afterwards. And our approach to the police during Occupy, though, for the most part, was physically nonviolent, played a role in the premature end of our encampments.

So rather than posing the silly threat of shutting down the system or even trying to, as the Suffragettes tried to do, we need to examine and think about what we can do to create productive media interest in our causes? What can we do to inspire people to become fellow activists? What can we do to gain the ear of the general public and the people in our neighborhood? And finally, what can we do that would inspire or pressure our government into consenting to our demands? There are no tactics utilizing force or violence that can be on the table for us. Why? Because if we are nonviolent activists who believe in democracy, we know that using force or violence only causes us to become like those we oppose. If we resort to violence or force, we''ve become our opponent.

What new legitimate tactics can we create and practice today that will advance our causes? That is the question one needs to ask oneself when watching the movie Suffragette--we should note that even though the Suffragettes did finally realize their prize, not all of their tactics, even back then, were productive. What can we do that will get the interest of the media and the general public? What can we do to  attract new members and participation from the general public? And what can we do that will either cause those in government to agree with us or feel the pressure to give in to our demands? These are the questions to ask when watching the movie Suffragette. But if you are going to do that, watch the movie multiple times. That is because as a movie, it is well worth watching simply as a movie goer. Then afterwards, one can watch the movie as a critic of the Suffragette movement and of today's activism in general.





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