Jamila Raqib: So that was me that found that cor­re­spon­dence between Gene Sharp and Albert Einstein. And at the time that I found the let­ters, I had already worked with Gene Sharp for more than ten years. So of course I knew about their exis­tence and the sto­ry behind them. I was always so impressed and found it so incred­i­bly mov­ing that the per­son that I worked with, that I learned from, who I respect­ed so much, had been told by the great Albert Einstein—this sort of myth­i­cal figure—that he admired him. It was an incred­i­ble exam­ple to live up to both pro­fes­sion­al­ly and personally. 

So when Gene decid­ed to defy the draft law, he was com­fort­able and secure with his deci­sion. He had that res­olute­ness that comes from know­ing you’re doing the right thing, even if there’s a price to pay for it. But still, a lot of peo­ple must have told him that he was mak­ing a mis­take and that he was fool­ish for throw­ing away his future. So I can only imag­ine what a mas­sive moral boost it must have been for him to receive a let­ter back from Einstein say­ing that he, one of the most famous and respect­ed peo­ple alive, sup­port­ed his act of defiance.

For years I asked Gene about the let­ters. We were all very curi­ous about them. His answers were always sort of dis­mis­sive. He said that he had lost track of all the papers from that time peri­od. He had­n’t actu­al­ly seen them since the 1950s, so when I heard that I gave up. I assumed the let­ters were lost to his­to­ry. So you can only imag­ine what an incred­i­ble moment it was for me to open that box, to see the fold­er titled Albert Einstein” and to know exact­ly what was inside. I’m so excit­ed that the let­ters are here with us today at the Lab. And I’m huge­ly grate­ful to Gene and to the board of direc­tors of the Einstein Institution for lend­ing them to us to dis­play for the first time at such a fit­ting occasion.

Einstein risked his rep­u­ta­tion in order to stand up for his polit­i­cal beliefs. When he was asked how is it that human­i­ty had pro­gressed so far as to dis­cov­er atom­ic pow­er but not the means to keep it from destroy­ing us, he said the answer was sim­ple. Politics,” he said, is more dif­fi­cult than physics.” 

He saw how the polit­i­cal cli­mate in the United States was becom­ing increas­ing­ly hos­tile to sci­en­tists and intel­lec­tu­als and teach­ers. He was wor­ried about the attacks on the press, the rise of author­i­tar­i­an­ism, the degra­da­tion of human rights and civ­il lib­er­ties, the scape­goat­ing of peo­ple who were dif­fer­ent whether because of their reli­gion or their beliefs. Dangers that are very much echoed in our polit­i­cal cul­ture in soci­ety today. 

Gene has gone on to become a well-respected and well-known schol­ar. The so-called Machiavelli of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance, and the Clausewitz of non­vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion. He’s writ­ten dozens of books that are read by peo­ple on every con­ti­nent, and he’s influ­enced social and polit­i­cal move­ments around the world. But I like to think that his work had its roots in that ear­ly encour­age­ment from Albert Einstein. So much so that Gene end­ed up nam­ing the insti­tu­tion he found­ed after the per­son who had been so sup­port­ive at such an impor­tant moment in his life. And who told him that his think­ing was valid and that it was wor­thy of atten­tion and prop­a­ga­tion.” It’s like your intel­lec­tu­al idol telling you your research is on the right track.

That think­ing would go on to be the basis of Gene Sharp’s intel­lec­tu­al work. That strategically-applied non­vi­o­lent defi­ance offers human­i­ty the best hope for bring­ing about a world with more peace and jus­tice. Most of us here, at least those of us who grew up in the United States, were raised with inspir­ing sto­ry of Rosa Parks’ defi­ant act when she refused to go to the back of the bus. The sto­ry we’re told is that Rosa Parks was a qui­et seam­stress. That she was a good Christian. She got on the bus, she was asked to move, she refused and was arrest­ed. We’re told that it was a one-day thing for her and also that she was the first to be arrest­ed on a bus for resist­ing segregation. 

But Rosa Parks’ activism start­ed long before her defi­ant act. What’s left out of the sto­ry is that she was polit­i­cal­ly active for two decades before that. She was a sec­re­tary of the local NAACP chap­ter. And she’d been removed from bus­es before. She was a smart lady and a tough one, and she knew what she faced with her act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. She was mak­ing a cal­cu­lat­ed deci­sion that day. Later, when she was asked why she did what she did, she said peo­ple always said she refused to move because she was tired. But she said she was­n’t just tired, she was tired of giv­ing in. 

When she com­mit­ted her act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, the black lead­ers of Montgomery seized the moment. They real­ized that Rosa Parks’ arrest was a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to test the bus seg­re­ga­tion laws in fed­er­al court. At the same time, a bus boy­cott was orga­nized. Which was only sus­tained because Montgomery’s black com­mu­ni­ty estab­lished an elab­o­rate car pool sys­tem. Which itself was only pos­si­ble because of the strength, the net­works of activists and orga­niz­ers, and the insti­tu­tions that had already been orga­niz­ing around the issue. And the bus boy­cott brought to promi­nence a charis­mat­ic but pre­vi­ous­ly unknown preach­er named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The pow­er of Rosa Parks’ act came from the fact that it was part of a big­ger strug­gle for civ­il rights for the black com­mu­ni­ty. A strug­gle that did­n’t start or end with her. She com­mit­ted her act on the back of a long his­to­ry of activism and orga­niz­ing and institution-building, both by her and the black com­mu­ni­ty of Montgomery and beyond.

This behind-the-scenes plan­ning is often over­looked by observers and by the media because it’s what the cam­eras often can’t cap­ture. I’ve wit­nessed it for fif­teen years at the Albert Einstein Institution. This qui­et capacity-building and struc­tur­al work. The plan­ning and prepa­ra­tions that make move­ments more effec­tive. Like the Chinese human rights attor­ney who is serv­ing five years in prison for dis­trib­ut­ing copies of books about civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. Or the Vietnamese gar­ment work­er who secret­ly hands out tapes of record­ings out­lin­ing work­er’s rights. Or the Zimbabwean activist who told me that she works two jobs—she’s rais­ing a family—but at night after her chil­dren go to sleep, she trans­lates mate­r­i­al about how to orga­nize anti-corruption cam­paigns in her city.

Nonviolent defi­ance has a long and rich his­to­ry. One of the ear­li­est doc­u­ment­ed cas­es is the ple­beian with­draw­al of Rome in 494 BC. It’s prob­a­bly the first doc­u­ment­ed case of a gen­er­al strike. Since then there have been more than 1,000 cas­es, across cul­tures and reli­gions, when peo­ple have cho­sen to fight not with vio­lence but with social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic forms of non-cooperation and defi­ance. Their objec­tives have been diverse. To fight inva­sions and occu­pa­tions, to under­mine dic­ta­tor­ships, to defeat coups, to defend the rights of women, of work­ers, of minori­ties, peo­ple of dif­fer­ent sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions. And to pro­tect the climate. 

So when peo­ple con­duct strug­gles effec­tive­ly for social and polit­i­cal objec­tives, how do they actu­al­ly do that? This was Gene’s essen­tial ques­tion. Gene stud­ied these cas­es in order to see what we can learn from them. The more he stud­ied non­vi­o­lent action, the more that he learned about what made it work. What allowed it to suc­ceed and fail in oth­er cases. 

From this knowl­edge Gene Sharp cre­at­ed a sys­tem out of what peo­ple had been learn­ing and apply­ing by tri­al and error. He found out that most often when peo­ple chose to use non-violent strug­gle over vio­lence, they did­n’t do so because of a prin­ci­pal belief sys­tem or because of their reli­gion, but because it was more effec­tive. They under­stood that it offered them cer­tain advan­tages. That when you choose to fight with vio­lence, you’re choos­ing to fight with your oppo­nen­t’s best weapons. Gene learned that the way to cre­ate last­ing change is to under­mine oppres­sive sys­tems so that they crum­ble. But that equal­ly impor­tant for a move­ment, to build their capac­i­ty and become strong. That just as a weak per­son is more vul­ner­a­ble to abuse, so also is a weak soci­ety more vul­ner­a­ble to abuse and tyranny. 

At the root of this sys­tem is an under­stand­ing of pow­er. The idea that each of us, whether we live in a dic­ta­tor­ship or a democ­ra­cy or some­thing in between, we hold enor­mous pow­er through our actions. What we do or what we refuse to do. It’s the polit­i­cal appli­ca­tion of a type of human behav­ior that luck­i­ly comes very nat­u­ral­ly to all of us.

And that’s basic human stub­born­ness. It’s the capac­i­ty and the will­ing­ness to defy, to dis­rupt, and to refuse to coop­er­ate even when that refusal car­ries enor­mous costs. And when that is done as part of a plan in accor­dance with a strat­e­gy, togeth­er with peo­ple in your soci­ety and allies out­side of it, it becomes a pow­er­ful tool. 

198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, Albert Einstein Institution

This is Gene’s list of 198 meth­ods of non­vi­o­lent action. These are the spe­cif­ic actions that peo­ple can car­ry out, rang­ing from protests, sym­bol­ic strikes, eco­nom­ic boy­cotts, labor strikes, polit­i­cal non-cooperation and social non-cooperation. And final­ly, non­vi­o­lent inter­ven­tion, which is the most pow­er­ful cat­e­go­ry of meth­ods avail­able in the non­vi­o­lent arsenal.

Here in the US we’re wit­ness­ing a resur­gence of polit­i­cal engage­ment. People real­ize that they have a role in defend­ing the insti­tu­tions and demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues that they see as under threat. Albert Einstein said that our rights are only secure if every cit­i­zen rec­og­nizes their duty to do their share. And that the intel­lec­tu­al has even more respon­si­bil­i­ty. Because of their train­ing, they’re capa­ble of more influ­ence over pub­lic opinion.

Einstein got it right. Because democ­ra­cy is not some­thing once achieved in a soci­ety means we then get to sit back and relax. For democ­ra­cy to work, for our insti­tu­tions to func­tion, requires our con­stant vig­i­lance and par­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s so impor­tant today that as we watch these pow­er­ful exam­ples of defi­ance that are hap­pen­ing in our coun­try, the Women’s March; the March for Science; dis­rup­tion of town hall meet­ings; protests against the immi­gra­tion ban; estab­lish­ment of sanc­tu­ary cities; and on and on, we must now fig­ure out how to absorb this momentum. 

One of the most hope­ful trends that I’ve observed in recent months is how peo­ple are orga­niz­ing in new ways. Which means that they’re not just protest­ing poli­cies that they don’t agree with, they’re actu­al­ly build­ing the pow­er capac­i­ty need­ed to actu­al­ly win. They under­stand that weak and frag­ment­ed peo­ple can’t be expect­ed to act effec­tive­ly on social and polit­i­cal issues. So they’re work­ing to cre­ate net­works of peo­ple. Small groups of ten, twen­ty peo­ple who meet peri­od­i­cal­ly in liv­ing rooms and class­rooms and places of wor­ship across America. They talk about the issues that they care about. They orga­nize edu­ca­tion­al work­shops. They dis­cuss their strengths and weak­ness­es. The resources they have and the resources they can get in order to meet the needs of their com­mu­ni­ties. In short they’re learn­ing to think strategically.

And it’s not just groups in the United States but activists and orga­niz­ers from all over the world, who tell me that they under­stand they can no longer rein­vent the wheel and oper­ate based on intu­ition. This is espe­cial­ly true because they’re increas­ing­ly fac­ing oppo­nents who have mas­sive resources at their dis­pos­al, includ­ing con­trol of the media and the banks and the trans­porta­tion sys­tem, as well as the tools of vio­lent repres­sion. The police, the mil­i­tary, and the pris­ons. And these oppo­nents are con­stant­ly learn­ing and con­stant­ly devel­op­ing bet­ter tech­niques to defeat social and polit­i­cal move­ments. Which means that move­ments must also inno­vate if they’re to have a chance of win­ning this non­vi­o­lent arms race.

The chal­lenges to con­duct­ing suc­cess­ful strug­gles for change are many and can seem over­whelm­ing. But the good news is that devel­op­ing capac­i­ties and strate­gies that have a chance of work­ing are with­in our capac­i­ty. The tools to do it skill­ful­ly exist and they’re being improved and refined by peo­ple around the world every day, many of whom are in this room today. This type of knowl­edge and under­stand­ing will make the strug­gles of the future more effec­tive than those of the past. It’s up to us to con­tribute to that so that the future is one of less vio­lence and oppression.

Today it’s an hon­or to be here and to share the stage with such a thought­ful, tal­ent­ed, and brave peo­ple. And to the win­ners of this year’s Disobedience Prize, let me be the first to con­grat­u­late you on the actions that you’ve tak­en on behalf of us all. And to the Media Lab and every­one else who has made this day pos­si­ble, thank you so much. And to all of you, thank you all. So I hope our day togeth­er pro­vokes your own think­ing about what your next act of thought­ful dis­obe­di­ence will be. Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Defiance video archive