Practising nonviolent direct action

I wrote the following blog post for a Palestinian human rights group and for activists involved in campaigning for a ceasefire and an end to the genocide in Gaza. As the genocide continues, there may well be a need to adopt more assertive tactics. However, many other campaigns contending issues impacting the rights and well-being of the people of Aotearoa may also benefit from considering nonviolent direct action as a part of their repertoire. The resources listed at the end of this post will be of value to those involved in activist education and to social work educators who want to include nonviolent direct action (NVDA) in the social work curriculum.

During the last few months, since the start of the war on Gaza, activists across Aotearoa have engaged in protest after protest after protest. Most of these public displays of solidarity with the Palestinian people have been peaceful with an uneventful Police presence using protest actions that are non-arrestable and protected by law.

However, on a few occasions, activists have shifted tactics to civil disobedience by disrupting meetings, occupying public spaces, interrupting traffic flow, blocking roads, or damaging property. When this happens, Police tactics alter. Police have deployed physical force, used pepper spray, made arrests and pressed criminal charges.

Direct action is a legitimate protest tactic. However, activists must be aware of the implications of different approaches to direct action, the difference between violent and nonviolent direct action, and what makes for safe and effective direct action.

Your rights to organise & protest for change

We all have a legal right to peaceful protest, as written in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990). We have

  • the right to meet and organise with others – “Freedom of association”
  • the right to gather and protest with others – “Freedom of peaceful assembly”
  • the right to speak out and say what we think – “Freedom of expression”.

But there are limitations on those rights, and some activists can –intentionally or unintentionally – take actions that Police can interpret as breaking the law. As the Community Law Centre Manual states, 

“So long as you’re not breaking the law, government organisations and the police should recognise and protect your right to protest.”

Community Law Centre Manual (2024)

We strongly recommend that all activists involved in public demonstrations, even low-risk actions like joining marches and rallies, become aware of their rights under the laws relating to protest and activism. The Community Law Centre Manual devotes a whole chapter to Activism: Your Rights to Protest and Organise for Change. If you do nothing else, please read this and circulate it to your friends and fellow activists before going to the next rally or march. 

This is essential reading. Armed with this knowledge, you can make better sense of Police actions and be more confident in challenging them when appropriate. This reading will also inform you of what will happen if you practise civil resistance and decide to break the law deliberately.

Civil resistance & NVDA

Throughout history, oppressed peoples have maintained the right to civil disobedience, or civil resistance, as a positive force for social change. International examples include the US civil rights movement and Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the UK. 

In Aotearoa, we have a rich history of civil resistance from the Parihaka movement to the Bastion Point occupation and more recent protests against the Wellington Arms Fair.

Outside of situations of oppressive military occupation, very few activists advocate violence as a way to achieve social change. Even in the occupied Palestinian territories, armed resistance is the exception rather than the rule and the principles of the BDS movement are explicitly nonviolent.

Advocating nonviolent action is not an absolute moral stance. It does not reflect a view on oppressed peoples’ right to choose their resistance methods. In particular, when a territory is under military occupation, as the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been since 1967, the UN recognises “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle”.

However, in the context of the international Palestinian solidarity movement, the predominant forms of protest include legal and institutional forms such as marches, rallies, vigils, petitions, and political lobbying. In some cases, activists decide to step outside the law and pursue forms of nonviolent direct action such as blockades, sit-ins, boycotts, and strikes.

There are many different definitions of NVDA, but scholars often refer to the definition offered by Gene Sharp:

“Nonviolent action refers to those methods of protest, resistance, and intervention without physical violence in which the members of the nonviolent group do, or refuse to do, certain things. They may commit acts of omission – refuse to perform acts which they usually perform, are expected by custom to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform; or acts of commission – perform acts which they usually do not perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden by law or regulation from performing; or a combination of both.”

Gene Sharp (1980)

There is extensive academic literature on the efficacy of nonviolent versus violent movements and a very mixed range of findings, much of which depend on the unique social and political contexts of the struggles examined. However, many scholars and activists, such as Erica Chenoweth and Judith Butler, advocate for nonviolent civil resistance. Erica Chenoweth argues that nonviolent civil resistance is more effective because it:

  • Enables broader and more diverse participation in movements for social change
  • Is more likely to inspire defection from the ranks of the opposition including political elites and security forces
  • Has a much broader and richer set of tactics to draw upon 
  • Is more effective at maintaining movement discipline even when oppression escalates.

This is obvious to most activists, and we doubt that anyone in the Palestinian solidarity movement in Aotearoa would deliberately set out on a planned campaign of violent direct action. However, on some occasions, protesters in Aotearoa have found themselves on the wrong side of the Police use of force. What has gone wrong?

Police use of force

There are many valid critiques of Police and policing in Aotearoa. That is not surprising. Police in Aotearoa, and all jurisdictions, have access to arms and are legally authorised by the state to use force that can range from so-called “empty hand techniques” to the use of OC spray (pepper spray), batons, tasers, sponge bullets and deadly force. New Zealand Police published an overview of their use of force, including the statement that “the use of force is governed by statute, and any force used must be necessary, proportionate and reasonable.” 

However, the experience of the  Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the over-representation of Māori in the justice system here in Aotearoa make us wary about how “necessary, proportionate and reasonable” use of force might be when Police police protests that include Māori, people of colour and other systematically oppressed social groups.

There are many progressive arguments for the abolition of prisons, Police and other oppressive social institutions. This is not the place to discuss these arguments. In this article, we only want to explore the implications of existing Police powers for protest actions and how we can attempt to keep people safe when using NVDA tactics.

When deciding how to police operational situations, including public protests, New Zealand Police refer to their Tactical Options Framework, an “operational guidance tool that assists constables to appropriately decide when, how, and at what level to use a tactical option”.  These “tactical options” are presented as a continuum of force from simple police presence to the use of lethal force. Lethal force is unheard of at a public protest in Aotearoa but the use of force–from empty hand techniques through pepper spray to sponge bullets–has been deployed. What triggers the use of Police force, and how can we manage more assertive protest actions in ways that keep people safe and action effective?

The Police Tactical Options Framework maps the degree of force proportionate to people’s behaviour at an incident, including protest actions, and the perceived degree of threat.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is qwCATgEyX-So1uBBeBeJCfFWxqD5HjIUHC6cuTR4QU1FquDFWQtrKrOcZkgUwKhO8_DGW-CVmYiaRzvntdXxL-qhmOCdAVeVnEuwpPgCAuvQgCqm5VJkHirKR-52FcPVAAoudx_QTV7pYO51tyEqCEc

Police describe the behaviours of concern as being cooperative, to passive resistance, to active resistance, to assault and– at the most extreme end of the spectrum–causing grievous bodily harm or death

The most significant aspect of the framework for protest actions, especially civil resistance and nonviolent direct action, is the perceived distinction between passive and active resistance. During most rallies and marches, where our rights to peaceful assembly are protected, the main concern for Police is health and safety and to ensure public order. They use their presence and “tactical communication” to shepherd marches and ensure safety. When a protest is self-disciplined and well-marshalled by trained activists Police tend to have a very low profile.

However, when an action is focused on civil disobedience and involves activity such as actively blockading a road or event, disruptively occupying a public space, daubing a building with paint or graffiti, illegal entry to premises, property damage or any other arrestable action then Police tactics are likely to change. Some use of force and arrest of participants becomes highly likely. 

This article is not intended to criticise the protest actions of any other group or organisation. There are many different views on different forms of civil resistance, and activists will make their own choices. Hopefully, they will do so with full knowledge of the likely consequences. 

In the remainder of the article, we have drawn on a range of activist literature (with some sources at the end) to identify issues that activists should consider before embarking on direct action. Attention to these factors will help to ensure that actions are well-planned, deliberate, and as safe and effective as possible. 

There are no guarantees on the outcomes of NVDA, they can be highly unpredictable. Even highly disciplined forms of passive resistance can, and have, encountered Police violence.

NVDA issues to consider

  1. Ensure the use of NVDA is deliberate, well-planned and expected by all involved in an action. Anyone can practise NVDA and sometimes elements of NVDA can arise spontaneously as a response to counterprotesters, or an unexpected change in Police tactics, or as a result of actions by individuals or small groups at a march or rally. However, spontaneous, unplanned NVDA actions, or NVDA actions that emerge during standard non-arrestable marches and rallies, present risks to people participating in protests. This includes children and vulnerable people who have not given consent and may not choose to take part in NVDA or experience its consequences. Planned action ensures risks can be managed, that people volunteer for NVDA in full knowledge of the possible consequences and that the action taken is as safe as possible. 
  2. Train activists in planning and leading NVDA. NVDA always goes beyond legal, non-arrestable forms of action and deliberately breaks the law. This will always present Police with an issue and they may choose to use force to break up the action and arrest at least some activists. Over the years, activists have developed techniques and skills to ensure that NVDA actions are forceful, effective and nonviolent while being as safe and effective as possible. For example, a blockade is more effective when activists sit with arms locked together. Some techniques make it much more difficult for Police to use “empty hand techniques” to push activists out of the way. If resistance remains passive–without pushing back or shouting at Police–the rationale for Police to decide to use other tactics, such as pepper spray, becomes harder to make. This doesn’t mean Police won’t choose to escalate the use of force, just that it is harder to justify especially if the response remains passive. Police decisions to use force in these circumstances can backfire regarding how events are reported in the press or interpreted in a court of law.

Other small but important practical considerations exist when engaging in planned and deliberate NVDA. For example, if activists are standing holding flags or placards during NVDA actions, they can become involved in physical struggles with Police attempting to remove these items from their grip. These struggles can be interpreted as active resistance–perhaps even assault–and lead to the escalation of Police use of force. The resources at the end of this article describe many skills and techniques, based on years of activist experience, that strengthen successful NVDA. Activist education makes planned, deliberate and effective NVDA possible.

  1. Agree on the limits of each instance of NVDA and your expectations of activists. For example, some activists decide not to verbally abuse Police or members of the public, even when taunted, because this behaviour raises the temperature and may increase the risk of Police use of force or the risk of physical assault by angry members of the public. Other examples of NVDA discipline concern planned and deliberate decisions about acts of intentional damage to property or illegal entry to premises. Intention to commit such acts raises the risk of arrest and prosecution. Some activist groups deliberately exclude such acts and signal this to activists and Police. See, for example, page 55 of the NVDA Training Guide by the Direct Action Movement in Australia who give Police a copy of a ‘nonviolent discipline’ leaflet at the beginning of their action. Other groups accept property damage and illegal entry to premises as an acceptable part of NVDA, especially when the target is an arms dealer. NVDA tactics should be proportionate to the harms associated with the target and consider the public perception of such acts.
  2. Make plans to include activists with different roles in the action. Activists can adopt several roles during NVDA to ensure safety and effectiveness. Different activist groups have different views on the necessity of these roles, and what is required may differ for different actions. Some NVDA will include a Police liaison person. The Police liaison would not participate in the action but be on hand to communicate with Police and be the spokesperson for the action. The principal aim of the Police liaison is to reduce the chance that Police use of force is escalated. Some NVDA may include legal observers. Legal observers do not participate in the action but observe and film it as appropriate. If they know the names and contact details of participants, they can inform their contact person should they be arrested or harmed during an action. Many NVDA actions will include first aiders. Like the Police liaison and legal observer, these people would not participate in the action but be on hand with a basic first-aid kit to help with immediate injuries including incidents of pepper spraying. Many other roles can be included in planned and deliberate NVDA (see pages 54-60 of the DAM NVDA Guide).

NVDA is an acceptable tactic for supporting the movement for Palestinian rights and other struggles. However, it must be proportional, planned, and deliberate, with carefully selected targets to reduce the risk of harm and unintended consequences.

No matter how proportional, planned and deliberate NVDA is, Police violence, arrest and criminal charges are always a risk. The risks are higher for activists who are Māori, people of colour or LGBTQIA+ . NVDA plans must take account of these risks and the consequences for the physical and mental wellbeing of activists.


Understanding NVDA

NVDA guide & training: The Direct Action Movement

Beautiful Trouble: Creative tools for a more just world

Toolkit for nonviolent direct action

Civil disobedience toolkit

Deescalation skills and tactics

International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict

The blackOUT collective

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence

TED talk: The success of nonviolent civil resistance: Erica Chenoweth at TEDxBoulder

“Non-violent resistance works.” A Talk Europe! interview with Judith Butler

The path of most resistance: A step-by-step guide to planning nonviolent campaigns

Global nonviolent action database

Training for change

Making or breaking nonviolent discipline in civil resistance movements

Handbook for nonviolent campaigns: War Resisters League

7 replies on “Practising nonviolent direct action”

Great post Neil – thanks for the resources

We organised this protest March at the end of the Key / English debacle (and leading into the election that labour won).

We had great support from the police and Waka Kotahi in the organising part of it and fantastic support from the general public during the 3 days.

It can be done peacefully and at the same time getting the message across.

We really should think about doing the same again in the coming years while this Government gets its teeth into society.

Yes Luis, I agree. Nonviolent protest can be very effective, even in despotic regimes. It doesn’t guarantee the state wont crack down, but nonviolent discipline makes it harder for them to sustain oppression without backfiring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.