Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004

Questions for the Movement: Property Damage as a Tactic in Nonviolent Actions

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Is refusing to get involved in the street actions or refusing to associate with a group who is breaking Starbuck’s windows biased toward the status quo? When building a movement, how does one decide where to draw the line?

A final critique of nonviolence, and a needed consideration for those who refuse to join a movement that commits property damage, is the charge that nonviolence is not working and thus more dramatic means must be used. This critique of nonviolence works with both the assumption that nonviolence is only passive and nonviolence is not revolutionary.

In 1970 Dave Dellinger leveled this critique on nonviolence,

     "After all, nonviolence has ground to a halt in the area of black liberation, staggered by the depth of the problem and hesitating at the crossroads where one must move on from protest either to the illusions of liberal politics or the genuine revolution. The former means maintaining an uneasy alliance with the government but the latter requires solidarity with and loyalty to the people, when they succumb to the temptations of violence."13

These critiques are similar to those leveled against nonviolentists in Blackstar’s statement. Nonviolentists must consider several questions related to these critiques. Has nonviolence as it has been shown in recent history lost its potency? What are the next steps that must be taken in the nonviolent revolution? Is property damage a part of the new nonviolent revolution?

The Berrigan Tradition

One cannot address the issue of nonviolence and property damage without acknowledging the Berrigan brothers and the Plowshares mov-ement. Daniel and Philip Berrigan were influenced by the writings of Dor-othy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. After participating in some rallies, marches and being arrested in protests against the Viet Nam war, the brothers Berrigan decided to take a bolder stand against the war. 14

On 17 May 1968, Daniel and Philip Berrigan along with seven others raided the Catonsville draft board. "First, they liberated about four hundred folders from a Selective Service office, drenched them with homemade napalm in an adjoining parking lot, then set them on fire. While the papers crackled, the protestors joined in prayer." 15 The "ultra resistance" was born. Their goal was to bring attention to the injustices of the Viet Nam War. 16 On 9 September 1980 a Plowshares group broke into a General Electric facility and destroyed the casing on nuclear war heads by hitting them with hammers and pouring blood over them. 17

The main argument used by the Berrigans and those who have taken up their cause is that some property has no right to exist and therefore damage done to this type of property is not violence. The movement maintains it is nonviolent because property not human life was harmed. 18 Examples of property that has no right to exist can be seen in things like nuclear arms or the ovens at Hitler’s concentration camps. The impact of the Berrigans can be seen in groups like the War Resisters League. In the 1986 War Resisters League Organizer’s Manual, the following is written about property damage:

     "Some property has no right to exist (e.g., nuclear weapons, napalm, electric chairs). Other property, such as fences around nuclear power plants or military bases, while ‘neutral,’ serve only to protect facilities which are harming all of us. The concern is not their destruction, but how they are destroyed. No one has suggested blowing them up or indiscriminate property destruction, but a calm deliberate cutting of a fence with a minimum of hardware can gain entry into a site otherwise not accessible." 19

What is key to the quote above, and to this paper, is the distinc-tion in the types of property being destroyed. It is not indiscriminate. The targets of this type of property destruction are carefully selected and the attitude of those doing the destruction is spiritual.


New Developments within the Berrigan Tradition

When comparing the property destruction of the Seattle protest with that property destruction by groups like Plowshares one can see a difference in the spirit of the movements. In Seattle the destruction appeared random to those viewing things through the media lens that was provided. 20 Within the movements inspired by the Berrigans one can see a carefully planned symbolic target. In the tradition of Gandhi, Daniel Berrigan wrote, "the revolution will be no better and no more truthful and no more populist and no more attractive than those who brought it into being." 21 If the media is sure to portray the events against globalization (or any other case) in only a negative or violent way then that must be considered in the planning of actions taken.

Berrigan later wrote,

     "But our realization is that a movement has historic meaning only insofar as it puts itself on the side of human dignity and the protection of life, even of the lives most unworthy of such respect. A revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal . . . It will have a certain respect for the power of the truth, a power which created the revolution in the first place." 22

Many people in the United States are not aware of the impact of globalization around the world. They are not suffering from globalization and in fact they are benefitting from globalization. Unlike nuclear weapons, the Gap and Starbucks are not seen as a threat to most U.S. citizens. If people perceive the activists as out of control they may dismiss them because it is too big a leap to connect the business with the problems it has created. If the globalization movement is concerned with the destruction of human life and the destruction of natural habitat can the destruction of seemingly harmless property (in the eyes of the U.S. public) bring about social change?

One final difference between those who have committed Berrigan-style property damage and those at protests such as Seattle is the size of the group. The Berrigan-style actions were always done in small groups committed to nonviolence. As seen in Seattle, the globalization movement has attracted large numbers of protesters, some of whom are committed to a nonviolence which will not allow property damage and others who are not committed to any nonviolent discipline and are committed to property damage. What the Berrigan-style protesters have eliminated is the potential for escalated violence. In an environment like Seattle, property damage could be seen as antagonistic by the oppressive authorities provoking a greater amount of violence, thus the use of property damage as a tactic has been properly called into question.

A New Synthesis

Should property damage be eliminated within a nonviolent movement for social change? The answer is no, but it is not a simple no. There are many things that must be taken into consideration. First, although some may not see property damage as an act of violence, the spirit and purpose behind the property damage must be taken into consideration. If any action is done out of an impure or an untruthful spirit, the action is impure and untruthful. If property damage is being used as a last resort or out of a sense of desperation it is not being done in the proper spirit and has no place at a nonviolent action. If property damage is being done because nonviolence is no longer working, then the nonviolence being used must be reconstructed and new nonviolent revolutionary methods must be developed.

A second consideration must be the context in which property damage as a tactic is being used. According to the War Resisters League Organizer’s Manual, "Property destruction or sabotage is likely to escalate the struggle to a level where we may lose control. In a property conscious society, such an act may be extremely provocative."23 In the larger global context destroying the windows of a Starbucks or McDonalds in a developing country may be an effective way to win support to the movement. However, in the United States this type of destruction may not be seen as symbolic and may create an escalation in the violence used by the oppressor. According to George Lakey:

     "Destroying a widely hated piece of material shows determination and courage, especially when the demonstrators are openly available for arrest. When the object is not widely disliked, however, the character of the act itself (destruction) is likely to be the dominant impression made on the people. When property destruction is defined in a society as violence (however irrational that may seem to a revolutionist), the act is again likely to be very ambiguous if not negative in its communication. Our revolution affirms life, but that commitment is clouded by acts defined by the people as violence." 24

A third consideration for a movement must be the degree of destruction being committed.

Lakey writes:

     "Complicating this question is the matter of degree of destructive-ness in the symbolism, and the staying power of those who use the tactic. Sometimes the general public sees a tactic initially as negative, but during a long campaign they change their percep-tions of it; this happened in the woman suffrage case. But this process depends partly on whether there is a long campaign, or whether the initiators were mistaken in their estimation of the follow-through ability of the movement on a controversial tactic." 25

The criticalness of this consideration can be seen in the environmental and pro-life movements. Within the environmental move-ment some of the most radical ways of protest can be found. On the less radical end of the spectrum there are those who may pull up the marker stakes at a construction site that may be endangering the environment. Taking a step toward the more radical end of the spectrum are those who chain themselves to trees that are targeted to be cut down. As one moves further down the spectrum one will see those who might break into a research lab to free test animals or who may pour sand or sugar into the gas tanks of construction equipment to keep them from running.

Finally, on the far radical side of the spectrum one would see those who might set fire to newly constructed structures that are threatening to the well being of the environment. A similar type of spectrum can be seen in the pro-life movement. The radical pro-life spectrum ranges from those who picket outside clinics to those who have bombed clinics in order to shut them down. As one can see the degree of the use of property damage can have dramatic impact on the public image and sympathy for the movement. One who is repulsed by the destruction of a building may see legitimacy in pulling up construction site stakes.

The scale of the destruction is the fourth consideration for a movement using property. In Berrigan-type movements were small groups of people committed the damage. The small group of demonstrators, usually under ten people, had a specific and symbolic target that was attacked prayerfully. For the small group of demonstrators there seemed to be a real appeal to public sentiment through a clear definition of what was being done. On the other hand, within the globalization movement acts of property damage have been done during mass demonstrations. In the mass demonstrations of the globalization movement the property damage appeared to be random (in the eyes of the public) which helped to escalate the violence of the oppressors.

The size of the group committing the property damage creates differing degrees of threat. If a small group of people acting on their own commit property damage the threat to public safety is not as great. However, if property damage is committed during a mass demonstration there is a great threat to public safety. A small group of people within a mass demonstration may arouse the oppressive forces to take violent action. If those involved in a mass action are not fully committed to nonviolence there is potential that as the violence of the oppressor increases so will the violence of the demonstrators thus creating a mob mentality.

The least common denominator with regard to nonviolence is a final consideration of movements that use property damage. One can look at the least common denominator from the perspective of anti-violence verses nonviolence. A movement that is nonviolent works to change the condition of society through changing the minds and hearts of the oppressors, moving them closer to the side of the oppressed. An anti-violent movement is a movement which prefers nonviolence and uses nonviolence as a tactic but if put on the defensive (for example if attacked by the police) may result to violence as a means of defense.

In mass actions there must be an honest attempt to create the least amount of harm for those participating. If the people cannot agree to being completely nonviolent without the use of property damage this must be made clear to those participating in the action. People must be able to clearly decide if they want to be a part of the action based on the level of commitment to nonviolence that is being made by the others involved.

The consideration of the least common denominator of nonviolence works two ways. For those who do not agree philosophically with property damage the use of property damage forces them to discern if they are being too complacent in the midst of the systematic violence taking place by the oppressor. The second way a least common denominator of nonviolence works is that it causes those who are more persuaded to property damage to discern if it is necessary in the a particular time and place.

Suggestions for Self-Review

Some questions for movement organizers to consider when deciding on the appropriateness of property damage for an action are:

• How big is the action being planned? What are the possibilities that things could turn to a mob mentality?

• How does property damage fit with our understanding of nonviolence?

• What kind of movement do we want to be anti-violent or nonviolent?

• What is being attacked? Is it easily identifiable as a symbol? Is it a liked or disliked symbol?

• How does the use of property damage further the movement?

• What is the predicted outcome of public opinion and media coverage?

• How far are we willing to go? Or how far is too far?

• How much is property damage going to escalate the potential for violence?

• Are we being clear and forthright about the possible use of property damage with those participating in the movement?

• If we choose not to use property damage are we becoming complacent?

• What are the next steps in our movement toward a nonviolent revolution?

Concluding Remarks

The issue of property damage as a tactic for nonviolent action is complex but important. In a time when nonviolence as it has traditionally been practiced is becoming decreasingly effective, discussion on new tactics must be at the forefront of organizers’ minds. A revolutionary nonviolence is the only way social change will take place. Is property damage the answer? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Is property damage nonviolent? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The use of property damage in nonviolent action is complex. What is important is that organizers keep moving forward in pushing the movement forward to new ways of being.


1 Sarah Ferguson, "Activists Weigh the Cost of Confrontation: First Tear Gas, Now Bullets," The Village Voice Online [website]; available from

<www.villiagevoice.com/issues/0l29/ferguson.php> internet; accessed 23 April 2002.

2 Louis Fischer, ed. The Essential Gandhi: His Lijč, Work, and Ideas: An Anthology (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 307.

3 David Jehnsen and Bernard Lafayette, A Structured Guide and Introduction to Kin gian Nonviolence (Galena, OH: 1HHR, 1996), 46-47.

4 Barbara Deming, On Revolution and Equilibrium (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971), 209.

5 The school, formally known as the US Army School of the Americas, is charged with the training of foreign soldiers and officers, mostly from Central and South America, in terrorists tactics such as torture, counter insurgency warfare, and assassination. All this is done with US tax dollars and under the auspices of democracy. For more information about the School of Americas Watch and the story of the US Army School of the Americas visit their website <http://www.soawatch.org>.

6 from SOA Watch November 22, 1998.

7 Veterans of Hope Project, James Lawson: The Seamless Cloth of Faith and Struggle, 40 mm. videocassette, (Veterans of Hope Project, 2000).

8 Deming, 218

9 lbid., 219.

10 Gene Sharp quoted in Ed Hedemann, ed., War Resisters League Organizer’s Manual (New York, New York: War Resisters League, 1986), 15.

11 Dave Dellinger, Revolutionary Nonviolence (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill Company, 1970), 206-7.

12 Dellinger, 207.

13 Ibid.

14 Anne Klejment, "War Resistance and Property Destruction: The Catonsville Nine Draft Board Raid and Catholic Worker Pacisifm" in Patrick G. Roy, ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 275-276.

15 Klejment, 276.

16 For more information about the Berrigans and the Catholic Workers Movement see Patrick G. Roy, ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988). For a detailed account and analysis of the Catonsville raid see Tom Cornell, "Nonviolent Napalm in Catonsville" in Angie O’Gorman, ed., The Universe Bends Toward Justice: A Reader on Christian Nonviolence in the U.S. (Philadelphia: New Society publishers, 1990).

17 Robert L. Holmes, ed., "Molly Rush and the Plowshares Eight," in Nonviolence in Theory and Practice (Wadsworth Publishing, 1999), 157-161.

18 Klejment, 282.

19 Ed Hedemann, ed., War Resisters League Organizer’s Manual (New York, New York: War Resisters League, 1986), 14-15.

20 The way the media portrays a given story must be taken into consideration when planning an action. Since the media is owned by many of the companies who are also exploiting the poor and disadvantaged in the United States and abroad, the view of anti-globalization organizations is not in the interest of the media sources. For information on companies that own the media see the National Organization For Women Foundations, "Who Controls the Media?" available at

<http ://www.nowfoundation.org/communications/tv/mediacontrol.html>.

21 Daniel Berrigan, "Letter to the Weatherman," in Angie O’Gormann, ed., The University Bends Toward Justice: A Reader on Christian Nonviolence in the U.S. (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1990), 217.

22 Ibid.

23 Ed Hedemann, ed., War Resisters League Organizer’s Manual (New York, New York: War Resisters League, 1986), 14.

24 George Lakey, Powerful Peacemaking. A Strategy for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1987), 109.

25 Ibid.

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