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

Dean J. Johnson
[Note: A quote below includes strong profanity]

The paper that follows explores questions of nonviolence and property damage as they pertain to nonviolent actions aimed at radical social change. In times of great duress, which are not always ripe for revolutionary turn-abouts, the use of property damage must be given several considerations. How one perceives the use of property damage in nonviolent social change is directly related to one’s philosophical outlook.

Two traditions can be readily identified within the Movement. I have called them the Gandhian/Kingian and the Berrigan traditions. The two traditions are not best understood as opposites to one another but rather as related to different kinds of philosophical elements. For the Gandhian/Kingian tradition, non-violence is both a principal guiding action and a goal in itself. For the Berrigan tradition, the use or non-use of property damage in the pursuit of social change is a matter of tactics. Careful attention to the strengths and limits of the two traditions, to recent developments within the Movement and to the context of present day struggle for social change suggest a third approach, which I recommend.

The Problem

There is a long standing debate among peace and justice advocates over the use of property damage as a tactic. The opinions over the use of property damage fall on a spectrum ranging from those who are completely opposed to the use of property damage to those who find its use not only appropriate, but necessary. Some of the distance between the two ends of the spectrum may be attributed to philosophical outlook. Those who absolutely oppose the use of property damage have made a commitment to a type of nonviolent lifestyle. On the other hand, those who find property damage necessary see it primarily as a tactic and not as a way of life.

An example of the different perspectives can be seen in Sarah Ferguson’s article, “Activists Weigh the Cost of Confrontation: First Tear Gas, Now Bullets”:

     “Carolyn Bninski, of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, watched from a hotel room as riot police advanced on a crowd gathered round a bond fire in the middle of a downtown Quebec City thoroughfare. “I’m fully committed to overturning the FTAA and the economic oppression that lies behind it, but I want to do it nonviolently,” said Bninksi, as skirmishes broke out below. “To me, nonviolence is not a strategy or a tactic; it’s a philosophy. It’s about being willing to take on the suffering so that people will be won over to the righteousness of your cause.”

     “At the word suffering, Blackstar, an 18-year-old anarchist from Denver, grimaced. “People between 16 and 22 years old are pissed off as hell because in 15 to 20 years, the planet is going to be a fucking wasteland,” he said. “So we don’t want to be passive anymore. Those are old tactics for old timers.” 1

As one can see in the above quote, Bninski and Blackstar are not starting from a common place. Bninski’s perspective reflects classic Gandhian and Kingian philosophical outlooks while Blackstar is approaching things from a tactical perspective underlined with anarchism. Blackstar, identified as an anarchist in the article, does not understand Bninski’s perspective as a holistic, lifestyle, but instead as a tactic.

The Gandhian/Kingian Tradition

Those working from Gandhian and Kingian models see property damage as contrary to the teachings of Gandhi and King. Gandhi wrote:

     “Impure means result in an impure end. Hence the prince and the peasant will not be equaled by cutting off the prince’s head nor can the process of cutting off equalize the employer and the employed. One cannot reach truth by untruthfulness. Truthful conduct alone can reach truth . . . . Harbor impurity of mind or body and you have untruth and violence in you.2

Ideas about impurity of spirit and conduct can also be seen in Kingian nonviolence. David Jehnsen and Bernard Lafayette in their book, A Structured Guide and Introduction to Kingian Nonviolence, identify six principles of nonviolence, two of which could be used to argue against property damage. According to Jehnsen and Bernard:

     “Principle One: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice, and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation . . . . Principle Five: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. The nonviolent attitude permeates all aspects of the campaign. It provides a mirror type reflection of the reality of the condition to one’s opponent and the community at large. Specific activities must be designed to help maintain a high level of spirit and morale during a nonviolent campaign.3

For King and Gandhi, the spirit in which the nonviolence campaign was taking place was just as important as the act of physical nonviolence. If one was participating in nonviolent actions or civil disobedience out of a sense of vengeance then he or she was committing an act of violence. According to Barbara Deming, “Vengeance is not the point, change is.4

It is not uncommon to participate in protests or civil disobedient actions at which the organizers ask for a personal commitment to nonviolence during the action that includes no damage to property. An example of this can be seen at the protest organized by the School of the Americas Watch in Fort Benning, Georgia.

The School of the Americas Watch has been organizing against a terrorist training school housed and ran by the United States Army at Fort Benning.5 At a 1998 protest, like several before it and since, a mass display of civil disobedience was organized. Those taking part in the mock funeral procession, which “crossed the line” onto Fort Benning property and thus committed trespassing, were asked to commit themselves to nonviolence which included not damaging property. “As participants today, we will reflect upon and abide by these commitments: . . . We will not damage property.”6

The spirit of the protests at Fort Benning is not unlike that of the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. During the Tennessee lunch counter sit-ins of 1958 James Lawson, who studied in India during Gandhi’s Indian independence campaign, trained many students in nonviolence. In an interview, Lawson stated he only wanted people who were committed to nonviolence with every fiber of their being to participate in the lunch counter protests.7 His reason for this serious commitment was based on the fact he did not want the young people to retaliate or to exchange harsh words with the police and the other people who may attack them.

Critiques of the Gandhian/Kingian Tradition

One of the critiques of nonviolence, as seen in Blackstar’s quote above, is that it is passive. A nonviolence that is not willing to take a bold or aggressive stance is seen as passive. In her classic work, On Revolution and Equilibrium, Deming makes this very point, “At this point in our history, nonviolent action had better be taken boldly or one need hardly bother to take it at all, for one will be taking it alone.”8 She later writes, “The challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough. Nonviolence has far too long been connected in men’s [sic] minds with the notion of passivity.”9 The notion of nonviolence as passive is a classic misunderstanding that goes all the way back to the beginning of nonviolence as practice. In the tradition of Gandhi, Gene Sharp, in defense of nonviolent action, writes:

     “Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war. It involves the matching of forces and the waging of ‘battle,’ requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its ‘soldiers’ courage, discipline, and sacrifice.

     “This view of nonviolent action as a technique of active combat is diametrically opposed to the popular assumption that, at its strongest, nonviolent action relies on rational persuasion of the opponent, and more commonly it consists simply of passive submission.

     “Nonviolent action is just what it says: action which is nonviolent, not inaction. This technique consists, not simply of words, but of active protest, noncooperation, and intervention.

     “Overwhelmingly it is a group or mass action.” 10

One of the points Deming and Sharp are trying to make, which often gets overlooked by some nonviolentists, is the revolutionary side of nonviolent action. The popular misconception of nonviolence is that it is in-action because one does not strike back. However, nonviolence implies action. It is taking a stand against the oppressor. Passivity implies cowardice, which runs counter to nonviolence as a philosophy and discipline.

Another critique of nonviolence, and one likely leveled against those who refuse property damage as a tactic, is that it is too moralistic. Persons who hold completely to the non-use of violence may do so in judgment of others who have not yet seen another way or who cannot see another way. It becomes easy for those who are not a part of the everyday violence to reject the revolutionary causes of those in a daily life and death struggle. According to a 1970 book by Dave Dellinger:

     “This temptation is particularly seductive for those of us who advocate nonviolent methods of struggle but who do not experience in our own daily lives the unremitting violence of existing police and property relationships. Rather than face up to our failure to have taken the lead with a truly revolutionary nonviolence that is engaged in combat here and now, we are tempted to dissociate ourselves from the rebels and to end up, albeit reluctantly, on the side of those who invoke ‘law and order,’ ‘the democratic process,’ and the protection of the innocent as justification for the suppressive violence of the police and troops. Yet one of the factors that induces serious revolutionaries and discouraged ghetto-dwellers to conclude that nonviolence is incapable of being developed into a method adequate to their needs is this very tendency of pacifists to line up, in moments of conflict, with the status quo. Thus a vicious circle is set up in which the advocates of nonviolence stand aloof from—or even repudiate—the only live revolutions in the making (Cuba, Vietnam, the Black American communities), and determined revolutionaries cause of those who champion it.” 11

By default if one decides not to take sides with a revolutionary cause due to its nature, then he or she automatically sides with the oppressor. It is possible for the nonviolentists to make nonviolent suggestions, but one must be careful in how they critique the violent actions.

According to Dellinger,

     “One can call for alternative, nonviolent methods of liberation and point out the dangers and shortcomings of the current form of rebellion, but it is contrary to the spirit of nonviolence to call for the punishment of those who have resorted to violence in their desperate search for a method of breaking out of the present intolerable situation.”12

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 internet; accessed 23 April 2002.

2 Louis Fischer, ed. The Essential Gandhi: His Lijè, 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 <>.

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

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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