Last Monday night, Bostonians gathered to recognize one of their own. Gene Sharp, who has lived on a quiet street in East Boston since 1968, is known to his neighbors as an unassuming intellectual with a love of gardening. To dictators around the globe, however, he is better known as a promoter of the dangerous idea that the real power in a society lies not with its rulers, but with its people.
Dr. Sharp, who has been called “the Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,” has made his life’s work the study of strategic nonviolent action as a powerful alternative to both passivity and violence. He is the author of dozens of books, and his book “From Dictatorship to Democracy” has been translated into over forty languages while spreading among dissidents around the world. In 1983, Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution, which continues to promote the use and study of nonviolent action from offices in Boston’s South End today.
And so, this Monday night Bostonians filed into District Hall, a community space looking out over Boston Harbor and the city’s glittering skyline, to honor Gene Sharp. The reason for the event was a proclamation by Mayor Marty Walsh declaring April 27, 2015 to be “Gene Sharp Day” in the city of Boston.
After introductory remarks by Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition co-founder Kathleen Bitetti, whose hard work along with Tom Johnson’s in large part made the event possible, co-hosts Amit Dixit, founder of the South Asian Arts Council, and Malia Lazu, co-Founder of the Future Boston Alliance, took over for what would become a special night.
Speakers honor impact of Gene’s ideas
Following the formal presentation of the Mayor’s proclamation, Nam Pham, the Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of Business Development, presented a citation from the Governor’s office before speaking about what Gene’s ideas had meant to him over the years. Mr. Pham told the story of when he first read Gene’s work in a political science class as a student in Vietnam, and talked about the impact that Gene’s ideas on popular empowerment have had on him ever since. Thinking of all of the ways that Gene’s ideas have inspired people around the world “brings tears to my eyes,” Pham remarked as he pointed to the slideshow being projected onto the wall behind him as he spoke.
Throughout the event, photographs of Gene and iconic images of successful nonviolent struggles from countries all over the world provided a moving backdrop. Pictures of Gene included ones of him headed into the Burmese jungle to lead a nonviolent action training mission and meeting the Defense Minister of Norway. Photographs of world events ranged from historical cases such as the US Civil Rights Movement and the Color Revolutions to more current uses of nonviolent action like “Black Lives Matter” protesters in New York and umbrellas and tent cities in Hong Kong.
Following Mr. Pham, Albert Einstein Institution executive director Jamila Raqib talked about the privilege it has been for her to work with Gene over the years since she joined the Einstein institution in 2002. Ms. Raqib told the story of how Lithuanian Defense Minister Audrius Butkevicius once remarked after reading one of Gene’s books:
“If I had to choose between the atom bomb and Gene’s book, I would choose this book.”
“I’ll ask you to reflect on that for a moment,” Ms. Raqib continued. “A person in charge of directing the defense of his country said that the power that he and his society could wield through the ideas contained in Gene’s book was more powerful than the atom bomb. The significance of such a statement is something that should give us pause, especially all those of us who would like to see a less violent, more just world.”
Poetry, Music and Art
Next, Charles Coe, a writer, poet and co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, read two of his poems in honor of Gene’s life and work. “If our society had it’s priorities in line, this event would be taking place in front of a full house at the Garden, with those who couldn’t get tickets watching on television from bars,” Mr. Coe told the crowd.
During the event, attendees actively participated through social media, sharing their experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #HonorSharp. The future Boston Alliance tweeted video of a musical performance by the String Quartet from the Grammy nominated chamber orchestra A Far Cry. Music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was chosen for the performance because the musicians had heard he was one of Gene’s favorite composers.
— FutureBostonAlliance (@FutureBoston) April 28, 2015
The event’s final speaker, Dr. Barbara Lewis, director of the William Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, energized the room with a passionate endorsement of the power of Gene’s ideas. “Dr. Sharp cut his own path, with an intellectual machete, into the future, ” Dr. Lewis said. “Dr. Gene Sharp is a living exemplar that Boston is more than yesterday. It is today and tomorrow too, and it resonates across the world,” she continued.
In addition to the mayor’s office, several other official citations honoring Gene Sharp and the impact of his work were also presented at the event. Jacob Bombard, Chief of Staff for Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, read a citation from the Massachusetts State Senate. Sam Miller, Neighborhood Liaison for Boston City Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley, presented a citation on behalf of the Boston City Council.
Medicine Wheel Productions, a local public art group, also presented Dr. Sharp with several pieces of artwork made in his honor. Two beautiful painted paper lanterns and the “Spirit and Knowledge” statue now adorn the Albert Einstein Institution’s main offices in South Boston.
Of course, the night was not over until the guest of honor, who had been taking everything in from the front row, said a few words himself. Greeted by a long standing ovation, Sharp spoke about the power of nonviolent action as an alternative to passivity and violence, and discussed lessons learned from both failed and successful nonviolent struggles, from the Russian Revolution of 1905 to the Syrian uprising in 2011. In his remarks, Sharp highlighted one quality at the heart of political defiance: stubbornness.
— Goodfellow (@Goodfellow) April 28, 2015
After the event, Dr. Sharp said he was greatly honored by this demonstration of strong support for his work, and views this recognition as another indication of the growing awareness of the power and relevance of nonviolent struggle as an alternative to violence and passivity in conflict.
Today, Dr. Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution continue to study and promote the power of strategic nonviolent action to undermine dictatorship, resist oppression, and defend freedoms and rights around the world. To connect with this work, find free downloads of publications, support the Institution’s activities, and much more, explore the Einstein Institution’s website. Boston has a rich history of nonviolent struggle, from the Boston Tea Party to civil rights protests today, and the Albert Einstein Institution is happy to call Boston home.