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The Use of Nonviolent Action in Response to Tragedies

by Noah Simon | May 26, 2014

Nigerian Women March Against Boko Haram Violence

Nigerian Women March Against Boko Haram Violence (Wikimedia Commons)

Following several national disasters and tragedies in recent months, citizens have used nonviolent action to convey an array of grievances towards governments. Many have staged demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and strikes to denounce government inaction, corruption, and lack of transparency. Often times, the public responses that follow these tragedies serve as platforms for citizens to promote and advance existing struggles against governments.

Turks Gather in the Wake of the Soma Mine Accident

Public demonstrations were organized immediately after a mine explosion in western Turkey that killed 301 people on May 13.

Students planned a march to the Energy Ministry in Ankara to denounce the Soma mine disaster on May 14. However, police fired tear gas and water cannons at a group of 800 students, preventing them from leaving their campus. A sit-in was also held in the garden of the Soma Coal mining company.

In a Taksim metro stop, a group of youth lay on the ground to symbolize the dead.

On May 14, an angry crowd heckled and booed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Soma. During this visit Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Erdogan, kicked a protester who was being held down by two soldiers. The incident was photographed and made headlines around the world.

On May 15, several unions and organizations staged a one-day strike. Many union members believe that the privatization of the mining sector in Turkey led to dangerous working conditions, claiming that mining companies are prioritizing profits over workers’ safety.

A statement from Amnesty International said that accident could have been averted, and that Turkey was “playing with people’s lives” as it failed to adequately investigate past work-related accidents.

On May 21, workers and families staged a sit-in outside of the courthouse in Soma asking for an investigation into security measures at mining sites. For several days, production at some mines owned by Soma Coal Mining Company stopped. Some workers have now returned as they cannot endure further days without collecting paychecks.

Nigerians Reprimand Their Government After Kidnappings

Before the April kidnappings of over 300 of girls at a school in Chibok that drew immense media coverage, citizens in Nigeria were already demonstrating to raise awareness about violence carried out by Boko Haram. On March 6, women held a “mother of all protests” demonstration in Lagos, Abuja, and several other cities following a Boko Haram attack in Yobe.

A group called Women Arise, led by Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, an “activist and social crusader”, organized the demonstration.

Following the April 14 kidnappings, citizens and family members demonstrated daily, calling for greater government effort to return the girls safely.

Many protesters directed their anger at the government inaction after the kidnappings.

On May 4, Patience Jonathan, the First Lady of Nigeria allegedly ordered the arrest of two women who had organized demonstrations in Chibok. The women were released the following day, but the arrests have led to further government criticism and continued demonstrations.

On May 14, demonstrators marched in Lagos to mark the one-month anniversary since the girls were kidnapped.

While the search continues for the missing girls, demonstrations continue. On May 22, the Nigerian Union of Teachers closed schools across the country to allow teachers to participate in nationwide rallies.

South Korean Families Seek Justice After Sewol Ferry Sinking

On May 9, relatives of the passengers aboard a ferry that sank last month organized a sit-in outside of the president’s office in Seoul. Many parents held portraits of the children they lost in the disaster. Police blocked the demonstrators, preventing them from entering the presidential building. Over 200 were arrested for trying to reach the presidential office.

The relatives campaigned for justice to be brought for those responsible, as well as an explanation for what they believed were inexcusable delays during the initial rescue attempts.

President Park Guen-hye addressed some of these issues during an address on May 18. The president vowed to disband the Coast Guard, and instead use a different agency in an effort to carry out rescue operations more swiftly.

President Park also vowed to fight against poor safety standards that result from corrupt government and business regulations. Investigators highlighted this corruption culture as a cause of the disaster, citing that the Korean Shipping Association ruled the ferry to be safe despite the fact it was overloaded with cargo.

Families March to the Malaysian Embassy in Anger During the Search for Flight MH370

In China, families of the Malaysia airlines flight passengers organized demonstrations during the height of the search for the missing aircraft.

On March 25, the relatives of flight MH370 passengers marched in Beijing to the Malaysian embassy. They accused the Malaysian government of withholding information about the flight, and demanded proof that it crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Police stopped a group of buses transporting protesters, but the protesters got out and pushed their way through police lines. Protesters threw water bottles at the embassy and tried to storm the building. Dozens were holding banners demanding truth from the Malaysian government.

The BBC called it “a very rare street protest in Beijing”. The demonstration was particularly noteworthy because street demonstrations are illegal in China. However, the demonstration was carried out with impunity.

On May 20, Inmarsat, a global satellite communications company, published records of the missing flight. The company decided to release the information publicly after persistent pressure from the families of the MH370 passengers.

Teachers of Norway: Event on Nonviolent Action

by Carly Alvarez | April 28, 2014

Picture of oratorio singers mid-song

On April 9, Boston College hosted a musical performance and panel discussion inspired by the Norwegian teacher’s resistance to the German occupation of Norway during World War II. Through noncooperation and defiance, determined teachers in Norway successfully blocked Nazi indoctrination of the Norwegian school system.

“Nowhere through all these discussions,” Hakon Holmboe, one of the resisting teachers, said, “did the idea of nonviolent resistance come in. Instead of an idea, it developed as a way to work- a way to do something.”

Professor Severyn Bruyn, a lifelong scholar of nonviolent struggle and professor at Boston College for over 30 years, planned and organized the event.

Dr. Bruyn was deeply moved by the success of the Norwegian teachers, particularly in their ability to defeat a notoriously brutal and violent opponent.  He composed an oratorio and wrote lyrics based on Dr. Gene Sharp’s interviews with key teachers in the struggle, which are recounted in the article Tyranny Could Not Quell Them.

The McGee Ensemble, consisting of four opera singers and one pianist, provided the audience with an emotional expression of courage and determination, closing the performance with the teacher’s victory.

“We defeated our invaders without killing them. We suffered but carried on to win a nonviolent war. We won back our freedom. We saved a lot of lives by civilian defense.”

The musical component to the event engaged and educated the audience on the teacher’s role in resistance prior to a panel discussion on the potential of nonviolent action.

“I thought that the libretto was an interesting and moving way to present the resistance of the Norwegian teachers. The music reflected both the anxious fear and intense determination of the resisters and their eventual triumph was presented with a soaring musical finish”, an audience member told us.


Our Executive Director, Jamila Raqib, joined Dr. Bruyn on the panel along with Mr. Pat Scanlon of Veterans for Peace and Boston College professors John Michalczyk and Lorenz Reibling.

Ms. Raqib emphasized the neglected role that nonviolent history has had in societies around the world.  “Nonviolent history is often ignored in favor of highlighting war and violence. Efforts like this performance today remind us that another history exists. It is our responsibility to recover that history and share it in various ways, including through the arts. An understanding of this history will allow current and future generations to learn from it and understand the great power they have in refusing to submit to injustice, oppression or tyranny”.

Professor Reibling currently teaches a class on German resistance against Nazi occupation and emphasized the need to study similar historical cases.

“For me it is a splendid example not only of nonviolence but also very effective resistance. My underlying belief is that principles are taught not so much by words but by acceptance. Meaning, if you accept forms of violence or certain forms of oppression or certain forms of abuse, that is what you teach. You teach the next generation, predominantly your children, by accepting certain things as immutable, as things that can’t be changed. In most cases in my opinion, nonviolent resistance is much more effective than violent resistance”, he said.

Boston College students were encouraged to attend the event, and many were previously unfamiliar with this example of applied nonviolent action. Two students who attended said the following:

“I believe the story was shocking, in that the resisters were ordinary citizens and they went through such trials, as well as awe-inspiring, in that it was such a grand-scale display of both the power of the human spirit and the duty educators feel towards the intellectual and moral growth of their students.”

“These teachers chose to resist the perversion of the children they were sworn to protect and, as a child of a teacher, I cannot think of a more noble nor impactful example. Had they yielded to the Nazi Regime, it would have left lasting effects on the Norwegian people for generations to come. This event brought much needed light to their struggle, resistance, and hard-fought triumph over the oppressive rule of the Nazis in Norway.”


Note: A video of the event will soon be made available on our website.



Q&A: Russian Activist Oleg Kozlovsky

by Noah Simon | February 11, 2014


A Rally at Bolotnaya Square in 2011

A Rally at Bolotnaya Square in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Albert Einstein Institution’s Research Department recently spoke with Russian activist Oleg Kozlovsky. Mr. Kozlovsky writes and blogs about politics, democracy, and human rights and was a co-founder of the Oborona youth movement that aims to form a democratic political system in Russia.

What are some of the protests or movements currently in Russia that may be overshadowed by the Sochi Olympics?

There are several important things happening in Russia these days. One is the Bolotnaya Case trials. A group of eight protesters is awaiting their sentence on February 21 and two prominent activists, Sergey Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev are to be tried under charges of conspiring to organize a Georgian-sponsored riot. This series of trials is one of the most important ones in respect of prospects for a civil society in Russia. A lot of people will judge Putin’s political course by the sentences (the verdicts will undoubtedly be “guilty”).

The second problem is the effective shutdown of Dozhd (Rain) TV channel. It has been the only professional and independent TV outlet that covered sensitive political issues, from mass protests to repressive laws to political prisoners. Until recently, they faced little visible opposition from the regime, but two weeks ago, soon after they aired a show based on [Alexey] Navalny’s investigation of high-level corruption, a massive campaign started against Dozhd. As of now, they report losing 80% of their audience due to cable and satellite operators removing them. If they can’t change this situation, they will probably have to close down quite soon.

How does the political opposition in Russia view the Olympic games in Sochi? Are there plans by the political opposition to use the added media attention to advance domestic issues or gain more support?

Most opposition groups have criticized the corruption and deficiency of the project. Boris Nemtsov and Alexey Navalny published extensive reports on the issue. Many also point to environmental damage and dangerous precedents it has set, such as the effective suspension of many constitutional rights in the region for the duration of the games in the name of security. At the same time, most opposition leaders say they wish the games to be a success. Although, some activists have a more radical position calling for a boycott of all Sochi-related events.

It seems that LGBT activists have been most successful with making their voice heard during the game. The international attention has been largely focused on their hardships in recent months. While the recent campaign against LGBT is disgusting and barbarian, it is by no means the only human rights problem in Russia. Unfortunately, neither freedom of expression, nor fairness of elections, nor the judiciary and police systems have managed to gain any significant interest internationally. As far as I know, no major protests or other events have been planned for the duration of the Olympics, either because opposition groups don’t want to be blamed for “backstabbing” the country in this moment, or simply for the lack of proper preparation and planning.

It has been said that the security agencies have a list of people who have participated in opposition protests and will not grant them “Olympic passports”. Is this true? If so, do you know anyone who has tried to go to the games and has been denied? 

I don’t know such cases. At some point, activist Alexander Baturin was denied the so-called “fan’s passport” (which allows you to travel to the Olympic area), but after he published this, the decision was overturned. No explanations were given. On the other hand, a well-known environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko was arrested a few days before the Olympics on trumped-up charges (first he was accused of thievery, then it was changed to using foul language) for 15 days, apparently to prevent him from organizing any protests.

What are some measures the Russian government used recently in effort to suppress political dissent?

I’ve already mentioned the Bolotnaya Case; Navalny’s trials are also an example of this “regular” method of repression. Opposition parties (Party of 5th of December and People’s Alliance) have been repeatedly denied registration. A new law came into force on February 1 that allows the government to block any website without a court ruling that publishes information about unsanctioned protests. Some other bills have been introduced recently in the Duma [parliament], which, for instance, abolish presumption of innocence and adversarial system as something allegedly “alien to the Russian criminal process.”

Are authorities elsewhere in Russia seeking to silence the political opposition during the Olympics? If so, how?

It seems that in general the authorities try to keep repression to a minimum these days, so that it doesn’t mar the Olympics. However, they also make it clear that there will be no opening of the regime. They refused to allow any routes for a protest march on February 2 other than the traditional ones. The police keep arresting protesters in Moscow every day: about 30 on February 6, more than 20 on February 7, several dozens today, etc.

Anything else you would like to add about the political situation in Russia?

There is a widespread expectation among Russian activists, and general population, that Putin had taken a softer stance on the opposition in the run up to the Olympics, but he will crack down on it as soon as the Winter Games are over. Whether it is his true plan or not, the situation may get more tense this spring and summer (when the election campaign to Moscow City Duma is also due).

Russia’s Crackdown During the Sochi Winter Olympics

by Noah Simon | February 7, 2014

A Screenshot of the Anti-Corruption Foundation's Website about the Sochi Olympics

A Screenshot of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s Website about the Sochi Olympics


Russia will employ 40,000 police, armed service members, and security workers for the Winter Games in order to minimize threats from the historically volatile Caucasus region that neighbors Sochi.  The government’s exhaustive security measures are designed to prevent terrorist attacks. However, Russia is also using these security measures in effort to further silence political dissent and halt mass demonstrations. In spite of the many restrictions in Sochi, leading Russian activists and opposition members are finding ways to convey their messages to international audiences during the Olympics.

Protest Zones and Regulations

During August 2013, President Vladimir Putin moved to ban protests at the Olympics outright. By early January 2014, the Russian government announced they would allow demonstrations, as long as local authorities in Sochi approve them beforehand. In addition, Russia designated a zone for protests, placing it in a town seven miles away from the area of competition.

Requiring approval for protests and the creation of specific protest zones is not unprecedented. In fact, these very tactics were used for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when the Chinese government looked to deter protests from garnering attention during the games. In Beijing, nearly all permit applications for demonstrations submitted before the games were rejected. Out of 77 permits submitted prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 74 were instantly denied.

Thus far, one application for protest has been approved in Sochi. The permit was granted to six supporters of the local Communist Party. The group applied for a permit on January 27, and was permitted to hold a rally on February 1, six days before the opening ceremonies. Even the six participants noted that while their protest was approved, it received hardly any attention since the protest zone is set in a mostly desolate area.

Recent Arrests and Physical Restrictions

On February 3, Russia arrested Yevgeny Vitishko, an activist who had reported on the environmental impact of construction leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Vitishko will be jailed for 15 days for swearing while waiting at a bus stop- a misdemeanor that is seldom enforced. Rights groups believe he was arrested to prevent him from being in Sochi during the games.

Russian authorities also have halted protests by foreigners. An Irish PETA activist had her passport taken away after staging a protest against the use of fur in Russia. Laura Dalton, an animal ambassador for PETA dressed as a snow bunny and held placards against the use of animal furs.

To attend the Winter Games, spectators must apply for an “Olympic passport” to enter any of the venues even if they have purchased event tickets. The Russian government has rejected applications for passports from prominent activists and political opposition supporters. These applications can be rejected without any explanation from authorities.

Nikolai Levshits, a prominent Russian activist who was denied the Olympic passport, told the New York Times, “It’s the first time in Olympic history when you need extra documents besides a ticket to attend”.

Planned Protests and Russia’s Political Opposition

Given the regulations, it is unclear whether there will be any significant demonstrations in Sochi during the games from political opposition groups.

Still, Russian activists at home and abroad are striving to bring more attention to their causes during the Olympics. On February 2, several thousand gathered in Moscow to demand the release of 20 prisoners arrested in the 2012 demonstrations against President Putin.

International campaigns and initiatives have also begun to bring attention to the political and social causes of many Russians. Leading opposition politician Alexey Navalny helped create a website detailing the production costs for the Olympics in effort to expose government corruption. The website examines Olympic venues and reveals the source of funding for their creation.

Meanwhile, two members of the protest band “Pussy Riot” have begun an international campaign to free political prisoners. Recently freed from prison themselves, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina spoke at an Amnesty International concert and have appeared on U.S. television, speaking out against the Russian prison system, the controversial law restricting gay activities, and President Putin’s policies.

Q&A: Ukrainian Journalist and Activist Igor Lutsenko

by Carly Alvarez | January 28, 2014

Igor Lutsenko

Activist Igor Lutsenko

The Albert Einstein Institution research team talked to Ukrainian opposition activist Igor Lutsenko regarding his recent torture and kidnapping in Kiev.

Can you explain your rationale for continuing to advocate for nonviolent discipline?

In this situation, reacting with violence adds only more violence. The people that kidnapped me were so misinformed about the situation in Maidan, and of our purpose for protesting. If you try to provide some objective information about how things really are in the protests, if you hear from both sides in Ukraine, you realize they are actually not separate. They share the same aims. One of those who kidnapped me said, ‘this is kind of nonsense, why are we fighting each other if what you’re saying is true?’ This is very important.

To what extent are the security forces reliable in terms of carrying out the government’s orders?

Unfortunately, the militia and the police think that violent action against violent forms of protest is necessary. At some point they will commit worse actions than what was done to me. I think they will be ready to kill soon because there is a lot of danger in the potential change of power.

What can you tell us about your kidnapping? Why do you think you were released?

I’m not clear if it was the security forces who kidnapped me. It was clear that the people who did it thought they were doing a good thing for our country. It was technically and politically dangerous for police in Kiev to arrest me after I was tortured. Previously they’ve done that to people who are not well known and there has been some informational silence on this. I think at some point police refused to do that because I’m well known for my disposition against violence. I don’t think they were directed to kill me, and others would have made too much noise about it. The example of the attacked journalist Tetyana Chornovol was very important because those who fulfilled that order were caught. My kidnappers must have decided it was better to release me than go to jail.

Can you tell us anything generally about the situation now?

I think it’s unprecedentedly dangerous. The mechanism of violence is starting to work more and more intensely from both sides and I think protesters are provoked, which causes the police to use more violence. The special force of police, Berkut, do not have any way back. They have to kill people to save their own lives. They think if the opposition prevails they will all be killed. They have nothing to lose so they will do everything to threaten the protesters in attempt to protect themselves. I think in order to succeed, the opposition must provide the special forces with a guarantee that they won’t be subject to revenge after the revolution. It’s problematic that the opposition is divided because they can’t promise anything. With an agreement [among the opposition], the situation could be saved. If the police were to give up right now, who could they talk to? It’s a very difficult situation for the police.

Q&A: Leading Activist of the 2004 Orange Revolution on the Ukrainian protests.

January 24, 2014

by Carly Alvarez

Today the Albert Einstein Institution research team talked to a key leader of the 2004 Orange revolution about the current protest in Ukraine. Due to the situation in the country he has asked to remain anonymous.

How is the Ukrainian government using violence to disperse protesters from Independence Square?

They’re not only using the explicit force of their own enforcement agencies, but they’re also bringing people from different parts of Ukraine by paying them about 30 US dollars each. They are given different kinds of weapons and are told to break shop windows, burn cars, and hit whoever is wearing the European and Ukrainian flags. They are meant to destabilize the situation as much as possible. This is seen as the government’s way to introduce a curfew and a state of emergency, under which they will have complete control of everything.

How have the protesters reacted to these violent groups (known as titushki)?

People found out about the government’s plan so they started patrolling the streets to prevent the titushki from doing any damage. Protesters were catching these people, taking their weapons, publicly shaming them, and then letting them go. The amazing thing is that no one was beating or imprisoning them.

Why do you think that is?

Well, because the people of Maidan are trying to be peaceful. Two days before, things got violent because people lost patience. They have been standing on the square for two months and they haven’t heard any concrete plan from the opposition leaders. They decided they needed to take action into their own hands.

This week some protesters were throwing fireworks and Molotov cocktails into riot police. Are violent tactics being viewed as effective?

No, they’re definitely not effective. People are in total despair. They are not thinking logically anymore. Of course you cannot win using violence against the government, but people are so desperate and so disappointed that they have started using it as a last resort. The things the government is doing are completely beyond any understanding. The riot police have already beaten up dozens of doctors who were helping wounded people on the streets. They’ve also been explicitly attacking journalists wearing orange vests with press written on them.

Is there anyone who is continuing to promote nonviolent struggle?

Yes, there are many people that keep talking about nonviolence. For example, there was one activist who was abducted and tortured, Igor Lutsenko*. When he returned, he reconfirmed that the only way to fight against them [the government] is by nonviolent methods.

Why is he advocating continued nonviolent discipline?

He said that the police are stronger than us physically. But if you show them, even while being tortured, that you don’t hate them and you explain to them why you’re doing what you’re doing, it breaks the stereotypes in their heads. He said in his interview that the police are convinced that the people on the square are being paid by the Americans or Europeans.

Are there any indications that the reliability of the police is being weakened?

There are two types of police. One type consists of conscripts, and they hate being there. They are between 18 to 20 years old and are there because they have an order, if something were to happen I don’t think they would be violent. Then there’s the riot police called Berkut. They are pretty tough; I don’t think they would back down. Some are saying that these riot police need a guarantee of what would happen if the government changes. Because there is no single opposition leader who can promise them safety, it’s a dead-end situation.

Are you aware of efforts to develop a strategy for dealing with a transition?

Yes, the plan is to convene something like a people’s parliament. They want all members of parliament from the opposition parties, along with any pro-government members who are willing to join, to vote for a shadow government. This government would develop an action plan of what to do next, the people want a government that western powers will be able to recognize and support.

Ukraine Court Bans Protests

by Carly Alvarez

On January 15, a Ukrainian court published a ban on mass protests in central Kiev, increasing opposition fears of a crackdown on current demonstrations.

Only three days before, over 50,000 protesters returned to Independence Square in support of the continued anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine.

Also known as Euromaidan, the protest movement experienced it’s peak in December with as many as 800,000 demonstrators occupying Kiev’s central square. Recent weeks experienced a significant drop in protesters, making Sunday’s rally the largest this year.

Mass demonstrations erupted in November after the President rejected a highly anticipated trade agreement with the European Union, choosing instead to strengthen economic and political ties with Russia.

The Opposition’s Demands

Protesters are demanding the resignation of several top members of the current Ukrainian government, including President Viktor Yanukovych and Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko.

The three main opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok are pushing for early presidential elections and accuse Yanukovych’s government of corruption.

The opposition is also calling for the release of political prisoners such as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, while simultaneously demanding accountability from police and officials responsible for using violence against protesters.

The Role of Violence

Yanukovych’s government has received international criticism for using violence as a means to intimidate opposition groups.

The most recent outcry came after Ukrainian riot police reportedly used clubs and tear gas to disperse opposition activists outside a courthouse in Kiev. Several activists were injured during the confrontation with police, including former Interior Minister and opposition leader Yuriy Lutsenko who was severely beaten and concussed.

On December 24, prominent opposition journalist Tetyana Chornovol was driven off the road and brutally attacked hours after posting pictures of what she claimed was the expensive out-of-town residence of Interior Minister Zakharchenko. Although there is an ongoing investigation to arrest the perpetrators, Chornovol and opposition activists blame the government for being behind the attack.

The most significant case of police brutality occurred on the night of November 30, when helmeted police stormed Independence Square using batons and stun grenades to break up the crowds of protesters. TV footage documented repression by authorities including many instances of kicking and beating unarmed and seemingly defenseless protesters.

Opposition leaders have cited such incidents of violence to support their recent requests for international economic sanctions against Ukrainian officials. Klitschko reiterated the opposition’s emphasis on this topic, “Only personal sanctions against those who are the backbone of the Yanukovych regime can stop this regime”.

Anti-government protesters have blocked parliament in order to bring further attention to what they call a crackdown on activists. On January 14, Ukrainian opposition successfully blocked the first parliament session of 2014, demanding the establishment of a temporary commission to investigate local law enforcement’s illegal use of force against protesters.

The Ukrainian News Agency reported that the government has agreed to fulfill this demand in order to allow Parliament to prepare for a vote on Ukraine’s annual budget. Opposition leaders are against the draft budget, particularly its proposed increased in spending on law enforcement.

What Comes Next?

The opposition has threatened Yanukovych’s government with a general strike. Klitschko announced on Sunday, “In order to be heard, we are going to organize a national strike. First a short one, as a warning, and then a full-scale one that lasts a long time”.

Should Yanukovych refuse to resign, Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok are each planning to run in the first round of presidential elections to be held on February 26, 2015. Though each come from separate political parties, the three opposition leaders have stated that they will defeat Yanukovych by endorsing the candidate that receives the most votes in the first round.