Grassroots Organizing Is Key to Democracy Movement, Says Ackerman

March 2, 2006

AckermanNonviolent civic resistance movements have been the most powerful forces in creating democracies, according to Peter Ackerman, chairman of Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world. Ackerman addressed "How Freedom Is Won" as the keynote speaker for the J.B. Moore Society of International Law symposium, "Democracy in the Middle East: Prospect for Political Reform," Feb. 24.

Of 67 power transitions in recent history, only 17 are elite-to-elite transfers, Ackerman said. The other 50 were grassroots movements where "people undertook disruptive acts to arouse public support... and subvert the operations of government."

As examples, he cited Poland's Solidarity movement, the mass protests by Argentine mothers that brought down the ruling military junta, the Philippine marches that resulted in Ferdinand Marcos leaving office, the Palestinian boycott known as the First Intifada, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the mass movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.

"Two common factors in the events are that tyrants are more vulnerable than people assume," he said, and that their power hinges on the cooperation of business leaders and the security force commanders.

"People have trouble seeing how nonviolence can overthrow a brutal dictator," he acknowledged.

The three factors necessary for successful grassroots movements, although they are not in themselves sufficient to ensure it, are unity of purpose in the movement, thorough planning of tactics, and disciplined commitment to nonviolence. Leaders have to avoid becoming rivals of each other and agree on who will be foremost. They have to decide which tactics to use and anticipate likely reactions to them. They have to shun violence because violence will cause most people to stay home and avoid the risk of being hurt.

"Most resistance leaders admit that they would have used violence if they believed it would work," said Ackerman who also served as founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, an organization that disseminates knowledge about the indigenous use of civilian-based, nonviolent strategies to establish justice and democratic self-rule. He also sits on the boards of CARE and the Council on Foreign Relations, on the Executive Council of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and on the advisory councils of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Ackerman said nonviolent civil resistance movements aim to set up a situation described by game theorist Thomas Shelling, Nobel Prize winner in economics, in which each side can deny the other what it wants. When a government denies the people their freedom, for example, the people can deny their cooperation to the government and undermine its operations. A key target of the movement is the loyalty of high officials serving immediately under the dictator. They must be prepared to defect from his cause and believe that their colleagues will too. A second key goal is to prepare the military to stand down in the face of mass protests.

Ackerman said nonviolent movements disperse political power toward localities and that high levels of public participation in the movement correlate with a high level of social freedom afterward. Higher levels of participation also correlate with lower levels of violence against it.

Resistance movements must be indigenous to succeed, he cautioned, and training is typically the most useful help outsiders can offer.

Ackerman screened clips from two documentaries he has produced for PBS, "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict" and "Bringing Down a Dictator," the Peabody award-winning film that chronicled the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. The films have been instrumental in popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, and Lebanon. Leaders of grassroots movements who have approached Freedom House for help are anxious to know what to do once they have exerted their power, Ackerman said.

More symposium coverage:

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights