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"Ways to Justice" Conference Debates Nonviolence, Civil Resistance, and Self-Defense

Participants in the conference pose with Dr. Clayborne Carson outside the venue. Bottom row, left to right: Clayborne Carson, Maria Varela, Greisa Martinez, Mary King, Todd Davies Upper row, left to right: Charles Taylor, Austin Belali, Maria Stephan, Jamila Raqib, David Hartsough.

Participants in the conference pose with Dr. Carson. 

May 11 2016

The Peace+Justice Studies Initiative (PJSI) at Stanford, in collaboration with the King Institute, recently held the conference "Ways to Justice: Perspectives on Nonviolence, Civil Resistance, and Self Defense" on May 6-8. The conference brought together prominent scholars and activists who shared an interest in the methods of struggle used in grassroots justice movements. Panels discussed and debated the "Historical Role(s) of Nonviolent Action and Self-Defense in Civil Rights Movements," "Spiritual Outrage and Redemptive Activism," "Civil Versus Armed Resistance in a Global Context," "Nonviolent Action Versus Diversity of Tactics in Contemporary Resistance Movements," "Cui Bono? Do Violent 'Flanks' Help or Hurt Nonviolent Movements? Does Nonviolence Help the State?" and "Meanings of Nonviolence: An Approach to Political Action or a Way of Life?"

Along with these roundtables, Stanford students also organized a parallel conference with workshops on the “Strategic Logics of Anti-Capitalism,” techniques for anti-authoritarian group structure, and campaign communications strategy, among others. Designed entirely by and for students, these workshops appealed to current students interested in honing their skills as organizers. A keynote presentation by Stanford alum, and former Institute staff member, Kristian Davis Bailey highlighted this portion of the conference.

Participants of “Ways to Justice” included activists and academics from around the nation. Panelists discussing the historical role of nonviolence and self-defense in the African-American struggle for freedom included longtime SNCC activists Mary King, Charles Cobb, and Maria Varela. Chaired by Dr. Clayborne Carson, the panel recalled the long, difficult conversations that SNCC activists in the 1960s had over self-defense and whether it was appropriate to react with violent force in defending oneself. Cobb distinguished between how guns were used by the Black Panther Party in Oakland to display Black pride, as compared to the South, where they were used to defend against the Ku Klux Klan.

Discussion also centered on the term “Black Power.” Carson pointed out that even Dr. King’s position on the term was more nuanced than is often assumed; according to Carson, in his seminal book Where Do We Go From Here?, Dr. King criticized the connotation of the slogan but recognized that black people who used the term were expressing a profound psychological need to be treated with dignity and justice.

Other panels surveyed the efficacy of civil resistance in social movements around the world. In the roundtable “Civil Versus Armed Resistance in a Global Context: Quantitative Studies and Historical Contingencies,” Professor Maria Stephan explained how and why nonviolent social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries have been more successful than violent movements. Her work with colleague Erica Chenoweth has shown that nonviolent movements tend to attract more people from society as compared to violent movements or movements which use both nonviolence and violence. She also argued that nonviolent movements allow people to play a variety of roles depending on one’s ability to participate in protests or actions, whereas violent movements do not allow for such diverse participation. Professor Joel Beinin offered a contrasting opinion, emphasizing that the statistical analysis of Stephan may not be as helpful as understanding the historical context of social movements. He explained that historical analysis of movements can often reveal factors that can influence their success and would not be accounted for in a statistical study.

All of the panels were video recorded, and the resulting videos will be publicly available online. In addition, the organizers of the conference plan to use transcripts from participants’ talks as the basis for an edited conference book volume.

Along with the panels, the conference showcased musical performances and films.

“Ways to Justice” marked the culmination of more than a year of organizing. Support included funding from the King Institute as well as from the Stanford Humanities Center, Students for Alternatives to Militarism (SAM), the Arca Foundation, and the Stanford Concert Network.

The Stanford PJSI, with support from the Hoagland Award Fund for Innovations in Undergraduate Teaching, works to develop and strengthen course offerings in peace and justice studies.

For more information about the conference, contact Cole Manley at

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Clayborne Carson, King Institute