Right before Christmas last year, I sat in a Washington, D.C., movie theater watching 100 years of nonviolent change flicker before my eyes through the magic of light and celluloid. The opening scenes of documentary filmmaker Steve York’s A Force More Powerful are from the Old Fort prison in Johannesburg, South Africa, where a young lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi is jailed for organizing the Passive Resistance Association, which encouraged non-whites to burn their identity cards. The camera deftly shifts from the outside perspective of the historian to the inside perspective of the prisoner looking out.
It is 1907. Gandhi has been following the newspaper accounts of the Russian pacifist revolution for the past two years. Knowing that the Russians previously had attempted to end autocracy through assassination, he believes they have found "another remedy which, though very simple, is more powerful than rebellion and murder"—the mass noncooperation strike. While nonviolent resistance had been used in the previous century, the 150,000 Russians who marched on the tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg formed the first sustained nonviolent political experiment of the 20th century.
A Force More Powerful is a multimedia project. York wrote and directed the feature-length film and the two documentary programs that will air on PBS in September. His incisive interviews of participants in and eyewitnesses to the 20th century’s nonviolent conflicts—covering the American South, India, South Africa, Poland, Denmark, and Chile—are invaluable source material.
The book by Peter Ackerman and Jack Du Vall, also titled A Force More Powerful, is an in-depth look at 10 decades of political struggle, social upheaval, and military action in 24 nations on five continents—including Russia, Germany, El Salvador, Argentina, the Philippines, the West Bank and Gaza, Czechoslovakia, Burma, China, and Serbia. The book and videos form a definitive account of the great nonviolent conflicts of the past 100 years. The entire project provides the best current tactical, strategic, and pragmatic material available for students of social change.
THE PROJECT STARTED when York was approached by old college friends who had written a book on nonviolent conflict in the 20th century. They asked if he could transform the book’s ideas into documentary film. "It had all the elements of a great story," York said, including "interesting characters, drama, and suspense. Of course, starting in India with Gandhi, it was already difficult to find living witnesses, but we didn’t let that stop us."
York and his team searched more than 150 film and still photo archives all over the world for their primary source material. The result is an astounding artistic rendering of some of nonviolent social change’s most critical moments. We see Gandhi dressed in khadi (homespun cotton cloth) with his gold pocket watch dangling forward as he picks up the first handful of salt on the beach at Dandi. We see a very young Diane Nash on the steps of the Nashville courthouse asking the mayor if he thinks segregation is morally right; his answer is the first major moral victory of the civil rights movement.
In South Africa, York interviews ANC activist Mkhuseli Jack, as well as Lourence DuPlessis, chief of police intelligence in the Eastern Cape during the 1980s. When York first went to South Africa, he contacted Jack to ask if he knew any police or military officers who might be willing to be interviewed. Jack sent him to DuPlessis. When York asked how to contact DuPlessis, Jack said, "You have my phone number at work. He works for me now."
DuPlessis was involved in some horrific counter-insurgency programs in his position as head of police intelligence. However, unlike many of his colleagues, he complied when the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission called him to testify. His testimony included evidence that directly linked officials in Pretoria to the assassination of three leading anti-apartheid activists—murders that had been a mystery for 10 years. After testifying, DuPlessis was ostracized by white and black alike. Only Jack approached him and acknowledged that DuPlessis had suffered for his honesty and been insufficiently compensated for his testimony. Jack offered him a job in his construction company. Now the two are like brothers. "It takes my breath away," York said, "to see these men who have the wisdom, common sense, and broader vision to know that they must go forward together."
Some traditional pacifist groups have critiqued the film for focusing too much on the practical—not paying enough attention to nonviolence as a religious conviction. But nonviolent engagement is most effective when it allows the maximum amount of people to participate. This means drawing fully on its tactical, practical, philosophical, and spiritual elements. There is a danger of canonizing Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi for her spiritual discipline and ignoring her brilliant political organizing. Likewise, many people view Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as saints rather than shrewd political strategists.
If the pro-localization and pro-democracy actions in Seattle and Washington, D.C., are indicators of the vitality of peaceful resistance for the next 100 years, then we’re in for a wild ride—particularly with police and military around the world studying nonviolent tactics in order to control demonstrators. A Force More Powerful is a reminder of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s warning that agents of social change must always "use weapons that can withstand the harsh scrutiny of history."
ROSE MARIE BERGER is assistant editor of Sojourners.
A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. York, Steve. PBS, 09/01/00.