Questions & Comments on
Notes from a Nonviolent Training Session (1963)
Bruce Hartford, 2016

[This page began as a dialog responding to questions about my 1963 Notes from a Nonviolent Training Session. If you want to ask additional questions, please send them to]

Section A. Introduction

A2. There are a couple of references to "whichstand" that I don't get; I assume it was a protest, but all I find when I search for it online is people's typos.

Ah yes, the Which Stand. Indeed. My oral history has a description of that action titled, "A White Mob Comes to Watts." You might find it interesting in relation to the effectiveness of nonviolent discipline.

A2. When you mention the "police aspect" and children, is that a reference to the risk of physical harm and arrest? Or is there some other meaning to "police aspect"?

I assume you're referring to my use of "Police aspect, Albany vs Birmingham" in point A.2?

The point there was to contrast the way the cops in Albany GA successfully (though temporarily) suppressed a nonviolent movement by refraining from public violence where the media could see it versus the egregious police violence in Birmingham that resulted in so much public revulsion that we won a major local victory and contributed significantly on the national stage to passage of the Civil Rights Act.

That contrast was used to open a discussion of Gandhi's, "The role of a civil protester is to provoke a response, and to keep protesting until there is a response." And in particular some of the concepts contained in Audacity & Humor — Tactics of Nonviolence.

And also, of course, the essential point that had WE been violent (or acted in such a way that we could be falsely portrayed as "violent") we would have not only lost public support but been smashed by heavy charges and prison sentences.

"Parents & children, L.A. Board of Education, Birmingham" in point A.2.

Our training sessions were oriented around two different subject areas. The first being the techniques of nonviolent direct action, the second how nonviolent direct action is used by activist/organizers to build a mass peoples movement.

"Parents & children" refered to that second concept of building a mass movement. By definition, mass movements have to include lots of folk who are not normally political activists and don't think of themselves that way. Mass direct action movements need to organize and mobilize a lot of young people because they are the ones most likely to protest and if necessary risk arrest. Some young'uns are natural rebels and they'll be the first to join, but they are few in number. Historically, SCLC's Birmingham campaign was sometimes referred to as the "Children's Crusade" because so many high school and junior high students took part. Same with Selma. We activated huge numbers of youth in Birmingham and Selma because we were able to involve not just the natural rebels but also the student-body presidents, the cheerleaders and football players, the valedictorians and social-set leaders, the nerds and the bookworms, and so on.

The thing is though, that while some teenagers will take part in political action in defiance of their parents, most won't (or, at least not untill they get to college). The reason parents in Selma and Birmingham (reluctantly) allowed their children to march was that they trusted our firm avowals of nonviolence. And, of course, our connection to the church helped enormously. Bottom line, most parents won't allow their kids to participate in demonstrations that appear to embrace violence, or violent rhetoric — or for that matter hatred. Hence, a firm public commitment to nonviolence helps build mass participation.


Section B. Direct Action Fundamentals

B3. Are there any specific "exceptions to Captain in Charge" that you remember?

The first one that springs to mind for me is what to do in case of gunfire. I'd be inclined to say people should disperse and take shelter more or less independently in that case. Are there other such scenarios? Or maybe they would differ depending on a particular group's goals and tolerances?

Nope, sorry I can't remember what exceptions we discussed at that point in the training session. Certainly your gunfire example would be one. Whatever those exceptions were they were few and rare. My vague recollection is that they referred to unusual tactical situations rather than general goals and tolerances. The main point we wanted to stress though was the crucial importance of accepting group discipline. Had we not held our discipline at the Which Stand it could have gone very bad indeed.

Any advice for verbal abuse role-playing? We do a small amount of this in workshops, but it's more from a sexual harassment script. I suppose we could just take a poll of things people have had yelled at them during rallies, but presumably we'll be training neophytes.

From our experience it wasn't the content of the words that mattered but rather exposing people and familiarizing them to having explicit hate and rage directed at them so it didn't come as a surprise and shock. And to ensure that they knew what they were supposed to do when it occurred. Knowing what to do when suddenly confronted by hate, rage, or violence greatly helps people react in positive constructive ways. Knowing what to do also gives them confidence to risk being in situations where they may be confronted by those problems.


Section C. Picket Lines

C3. In the picket line section, you mention the "Turn Post." How does that position or role work?

Small picket lines are just a single line of a few people who walk in one direction, reach the end, do about-face, and walk in the other. But often there are too many people to make that practical, so the line walks round and round in a continuous circle. If the line is on a sidewalk it's a long narrow loop rather than a round circle.

When they were well-organized, our loop-lines used a "turn post" system. "Turn posts" were a kind of marshall from the group that was organizing the line. There would be two Turn Posts standing at either end of the loop. They'd have the pickets walk around behind them. In other words, they defined each end of the loop. When they were properly trained, they extended or shortened the length of the loop by moving themselves forward and backwards. That allowed them to reduce gaps by shortening the line as people left, or reduce clumping by lengthening the line as more people joined. They also acted as stationary picket captains and (hopefully) song leaders.


Section D. Defending Against Physical Attack

D1. Refers to a "nonviolent position," which sounds like maybe it's a fetal position? And "Gaston's drop," which I'm guessing is a way to drop to the ground safely. Can you describe those further?

Right, the nonviolent position was sometimes referred to as the "fetal position" or sometimes the "curl." But there were right ways and wrong ways as shown below:

The photo above, "Curl 1" shows the wrong way to do the nonviolent position. It's actually the "Take Cover" position they taught grade school kids in the 1950s. They said it would protect us from a nearby atomic bomb explosion. Fortunately we never had to test it in practice because I don't think it would have been very effective.

"Curl 2" shows why "Curl 1" is not a good defense against a hostile attacker.

"Curl 3" shows the standard nonviolent position that a lot of folk used effectively throughout the Freedom Movement in the 1960s.

"Curl 4" shows a somewhat better position. Notice that in "Curl 3" the protester's left arm is on the floor and his head is resting on that arm. In other words, he's protecting his arm with his head. Better to protect your head with your arm as shown in "Curl 4." Basically you want to get your ear on the ground and protect as much of your head as possible with both your arms and hands.

When I and a few other members of a small sit-in team were attacked by a mob of white racists in Luverne Alabama we used that position and came away with nothing more than some bruises and scratches. In fact, I had half a dozen occasions where I had to use it and never suffered any serious damage (of course, not everyone was a lucky as I).

Another thing we practiced was the "squirm." Which just meant that when we were under attack and using the nonviolent position, if possible we tried to squirm ourselves to anything nearby that we could get our back against because once you're in the nonviolent position the most damage that opponents can do to you is by kicking you in your kidneys and spine. If nothing better was available, we'd try to drop into the street gutter with our back against the curb. Squirming was not always possible, of course, but sometimes we were close enough to a wall, or a parked car, or something else we could get our backs against if we fell in the right direction when assuming the nonviolent position.

To clear up "Gaston's Drop," that was actually just an inside-joke. It referred to a protester who we over-trained because he dropped into the nonviolent position when someone made a threatening gesture at him. So we used that term to make the point that the nonviolent position was for situations when you were actually under attack, not just being threatened.

D4. Mentions ways to rescue someone being dragged away — are there specific tactics for this? We teach releases from holds, including four-point holds (ankles and wrists), but I don't have any bystander interventions for holds or drags (nonviolent ones, anyway).

That point in our training referred to someone being assaulted and dragged away by a civilian attacker(s), rather than a cop.

Under the kind of nonviolence that we practiced in the Freedom Movement, our policy was not to try pulling people away from the cops once they were placed under arrest. For several reasons: First, the police were already quite violent against us and they would have interpreted such an action as an attack giving them free reign to retaliate with maximum violence. Second, observers and the media would have interpreted our attempt to physically free someone from custody as us being violent and therefore justifying whatever the cops then did to us. Third, local and state courts were dead-set against us and would have charged and convicted us of serious felonies resulting in prison terms measured in years not days or weeks. A movement can survive its leaders and activists serving a few weeks in jail, but years in prison will kill a movement.

Our main nonviolent strategy for someone being dragged off the line and/or physically attacked by non-police was for other people to drape their bodies over the person being dragged away. Same thing for someone being beaten on by a group of thugs. We'd just pile on so that there were too many people to drag and everyone was sharing the beat down. I was only in two or three instances were we had to use that — and it actually worked. Probably because the attackers were so surprised they didn't know how to react.

What about cops on horses?

Before Louisiana in 1964 and then Selma and Montgomery in 1965, we hadn't had much experience with mounted police attacking nonviolent protesters, so horses weren't covered in those 1963 notes.

Cops looming over you on horses are frightenting and if they're rearing or charging at you it's terrifying. From the point of view of nonviolent tactics, there were two different situations we encountered back in the 1960s: normal mounted police crowd control and mounted attack.

Mounted Crowd Control

In protest situations, mounted police were most often used for three purposes:

As nonviolent protesters, when we were faced with either herding or intimidation back in the 1960s we usually retreated slowly on foot as they pressed forward because that was safest (running might spook the horses or trigger some kind of chase response from the cops).

But if we didn't want to retreat, if we wanted to maintain our protest where we were, we lay down on the ground. Unless they are specially trained combat horses (which few police horse units are) horses will instinctively do everything they can to avoid stepping on someone who is sitting or laying down. That's because their legs are easily broken if they step on something soft and squishy like a person — and they know it. If their rider tries to force them to trample on people laying down on the ground they'll rear and shy and skitter but it's almost impossible for a cop to make his horse do it — if the horse has enough time to see the person on the ground and stop.

Another important fact is that a mounted cop's club is simply not long enough to reach someone who is laying on the ground.

It's scary and counter-intuitive to lay down in front of horses walking towards you, but the few times we tried it — it actually worked. This tactic was wonderfully (and accurately) dramatized in the early South African section of Richard Attenborough's movie Gandhi (an excellent film that I highly recommend).

Important note: Sitting or laying down only works if you do it when the mounted cops first appear or when they begin approaching at a walk. If they are charging towards you at the gallop don't lay down because horses can't stop or turn quickly no matter how much they might want to.

Mounted Attack

There were a few times when mounted cops simply charged into us at a run, swinging their clubs like Cossacks slaughtering unruly peasants with their sabers. That was truely terrifying and very dangerous — for both us and the horses.

It seemed to me that the people who got hurt the worst in those situations were those who panicked and fled at a run because when a cop on a charging horse hits you in the back of the head with a swinging club it has enormous momentum and force. And while horses won't step on someone on the ground if they can avoid it, in a wild melee the cops can easily get their horse to bump into people who are on their feet. If you're knocked down beneath charging equine hooves you could be trampled and seriously injured or maimed (and, of course, the horse could trip over you).

So, our best advice when facing charging horses was:


Section E. Sit-Ins

E2. mentions sit-in formations; presumably there are different pattens for different circumstances?

From a strategic perspective as we saw it in the '60s, there were different kinds of sit-ins: From a tactical perspective, back in the 1960s there were two basic types of sit-ins:

Most of our protest sit-ins — whether symbolic or disruptive — involved us sitting on the floor, ground, or pavement. Sometimes we knelt in prayer rather than sitting down. Prayer sit-ins were usually temporary (often as a response to the threat of attack) and were far more common in the South than in the North.

Regardless of whether we were sitting or praying, protesting or disrupting, we usually used one of four formation described below:

  1. Line sit-in. Just as it says, a single line of people sitting side-by-side. Usually with our arms locked when we were under assault, but our arms free otherwise so we could clap while singing, or massage our aching legs and butts, or read, or whatever. If our numbers were small, a line sit-in was pretty much all we could do.

    The photo above shows a line sit-in blocking a restaurant lobby.

    This photo shows customers being helped go through that line sit-in. Notice that in the first photo, people's arms aren't locked because no one is about to cross or attempt pulling them apart, but in #2 their arms are locked.

  2. Double-line (or triple or quadruple) sit-ins were just what they sound like. Double or tripple lines are way harder for customers to cross through than a single line. But, of course, we had to have more people.

  3. Circle sit-ins enclosed a larger space than line sit-ins and required way more people. The center of the circle could be used by leaders to speak to and coordinate the sit-ins, or song-leaders, and so forth.

    This photo shows a street sit-in circle just before they actually sat down on the pavement. (The crossed hand-hold indicates that they were singing "We Shall Overcome" before sitting down, we always sang it that way. And only that song that way.)

    This photo shows a small sit-in circle blocking the entrance to a segregated diner but kneeling in prayer rather than sitting. Kneeling in prayer had political/emotional advantages, but people were more vulnerable to being hurt by attackers than if they were sitting and could hunch over.

  4. Mass sit-ins were just haphazard, everyone sitting wherever they happened to land. Sometimes they were very large (in the hundreds) and so large that most of the people involved had no training and it was too complex to line people up in any formal formation. And when you have such big numbers formal formations are usually not all that useful anyway. Other times a sit-in would occur spontaneously without preplanning and people just sat where ever they were. For example, when a protest was about to be attacked.

    This photo shows a small group of pickets who knelt to pray when confronted by a mob. There's no formation because it was spontaneous rather than planned.

One thing to keep in mind about sit-ins — and for that matter any kind of protest — is that the people who are most powerfully affected by a nonviolent action are those who participate in it. Those who personally observe the action as either targets or bystanders are the next most strongly influenced. People who experience the protest at second or third hand via the media are the least impacted intellectually and emotionally (though they may be the largest in number). Therefore, in my opinion it's more important for organizers to design and implement sit-ins and other demonstrations in ways that inspire, motivate, and deepen political committment of the participants than in ways that attract media attention. (See Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest for a more extensive discussion of this approach.)

E5. Arm-locking techniques. You mention how to not get your fingers dislocated, which I would love to know. The anarchists probably remember how to do this stuff, but I haven't been working with them.

Hmmm, I didn't know anarchists did nonviolent sit-ins. The ones we have out here in the Bay Area (mainly Oakland) mostly just break windows, spray-paint grafitti, set trash fires, and try to provoke violence from the cops.

However, regarding the arm-locking grips:

Finger Grip

The photo below shows the weak and dangerous interlocking-finger-grip that many people instinctively use.

This grip is weak because:
     a) fingers are not that strong
     b) that particular grip has very poor leverage
     c) a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Most people are either right- or left-handed meaning that one hand, and the fingers of that hand, is stronger than the other. Therefore, when the fingers of both hands are gripping each other your total strength is limited to that of the weakest hand's fingers. When the weakest fingers let go, the grip is broken.

The finger grip is also dangerous because cops can easily grab the exposed thumb and bend it back, dislocating or breaking it. When they do that, you let go.

Palm Clasp

Sometimes people used a palm-clasp. I don't have a photo of that, but basically the palm of each hand grasped the inner wrist of the other arm. This was a little stronger than the finger-grip, but when you're palm-gripping your own wrists your leverage is poor, and your fingers and thumbs are exposed and can easily be grabbed and twisted.

Now if you're just locking arms symbolically and you're willing to let go once the cops start trying to pull you apart, the finger-grip and palm-clasp are fine —  so long as you let go before they hurt you.

But if you want to make it hard and time-consuming for them to pull you apart then use the wrist-grip I describe below. Of course, this really annoys the police because they have to work really hard to break your arm-link chain — and that may provoke them to violence. Also, prosecutors will often add a "resisting" charge if you make it hard for them to detach individuals and place them under arrest.

Wrist Grip

  1. With the wrist-grip, you make a fist with your weak hand, place the palm of your strong hand over the top of the weak hand's wrist and then clench your fingers around the weak hand wrist as shown below.

  2. Then jam both hands against your belly so the ends of all your fingers and thumb are hidden from easy grabbing:

    The photo below shows two people sitting-in with arms locked using the wrist- grip.

Try this experiment: Set up a line of 4 or 5 people sitting on the floor with their arms locked using either the finger-grip or palm-clasp. Have two or three others try to pull the end sit-in person away from the line for arresting. Then try it when they're using the wrist-grip. I think you'll see how much stronger it is and how much harder it is — and how much longer it takes — to pull someone away. (Probably best not to experiment with breaking/dislocating fingers though.)


Section F. Arrests

F1. refers to methods of disrupting the habitual behaviors of cops. Are there some specific methods for this, or is it basic improv, try not to follow their script, connect if you can, and that kind of thing?

Pretty much what you said above. The basic thing we'd practice was simply not to react the way they expected. By and large police expected denial, bluster, beligerance, flight, or fight from "suspects" "perps" or others they were adversarially confronting. Their responses to such situations were trained and deeply engrained. When we responded nonviolently it disrupted their habit patterns.

Basically, we faced two different strategic situations:

Obviously, our ability to nonviolently disrupt police habits or influence cop bahavior varied from one police department to another and one situation to another. For example, de-escalation techniques that sometimes worked with police in San Francisco were usually ineffective in Selma Alabama.

F3. Styles of going limp — these look pretty self-explanatory but could you say why a person might prefer one or another? What situations call for which styles?

Well, the key thing about going limp was that it annoyed the cops because they didn't like doing the physical labor of dragging or carrying us. The limper we were, the more work it was for the cops to get us into the paddy wagon, bus or patrol car and the more work we made them do the more annoyed they become. Which increased the chances of them being violent. And in addition, some prosecutors charged protesters with "resisting arrest" for going limp. So we usually left how limp someone went up to the individual to decide based on how much risk they were willing to assume.

Our training regarding arrests was to either cooperate with the arrest or go limp once we were in custody. We might link arms on a sit-in and force them to drag us apart, but once they had us we'd either cooperate by walking to the wagon or we'd go limp. We didn't contemplate trying to pull someone away from the cops because it would have triggered brutal police violence against the protest as a whole, and very likely felony "resisting" or "interfering" charges against the leaders. So as a general rule, the greater the likelihood of serious police violence the less likely we were to go limp. That meant that we rarely went limp in the South (though there were some exceptions).

We had two different reasons for going limp when arrested. The first was our political refusal to cooperate with what we considered unjust arrests. The second was to prolong the time it took the cops to haul us off to jail and clear away the protest so that there would be more time for people to see our action. Those two reasons also applied to linking arms.

We taught four basic styles of going limp:

  1. Walking Limp Collapse. This was for when we were picketing or marching and a cop grabbed us to haul us off. Basically we'd just take a step or two while letting our legs go limp and slowly sinking to the ground, leaving our arm up in the possession of the cop. (If we suddenly dropped to the ground while the cop had our arm we might dislocate our shoulder or the cop might react as if we had attacked him.)

    This woman was walking when the cop on the right grabbed her and she then went limp.

    Once we were mostly on the ground, the cop might try to drag us, but unless the paddy wagon was close that was a lot of work for one cop. Usually another cop would come over to drag us, with one on each side — or maybe pick us up and carry us. If they were really annoyed they'd sometimes drag us by the feet rather than the armpits so that our heads bumped along the ground (or down the stairs).

  2. Buddah Limp. This was for when we were being arrested on a floor-type sit-in. In other words, when we were seated cross-legged on the ground. If they didn't try to drag us off, they'd usually have two cops, one on either side of us, simply pick us up and carry us off while we more or less remained in our sitting position (hence the term "Buddah"). This was easiest for the cops and therefore the least likely to provoke them to violence. But it required a certain amount of remaining stiff in the sitting pose for the protester, so it wasn't a full "liquid limp."

  3. Partial Limp ("Flabby limp" in the notes). With the partial limp, we wouldn't walk, but when they lifted us up under our armpits to drag us off with our toes dragging on the ground behind us we'd keep our arms stiff enough so that we wouldn't slip through their grasp. This made it eaiser for them to haul us off and therefore less likely to provoke them to violence.

  4. Full-Liquid Limp (referred to as "going rough" in the training notes) was letting every muscle go limp, so when they tried to pick us up we flowed through their hands like wet spaghetti. If you study the photo of young Fred being dragged off above, you'll see that if he had let his left arm go full liquid limp he would have slid out of that cop's grasp (though not the grasp of the one who was gripping his wrist). This sounds simple, but it actually takes a bit of practice to learn and also some conscious effort to actually do it for real. But when we we did it right they either had to drag us, or use multiple cops to carry us. And it really pissed them off.

F4. Not provoking police brutality. This seems especially relevant the further one ventures from passive resistance. Are there specific to avoid, or is it more a question of gauging the response knowing when to stop pushing?

Gauging response and adjusting our behavior was certainly key.

As a loose rule of thumb there were three general situations that led to police-protester violence in the 1960s:

  1. Militarized police were simply ordered from on high to go attack protesters.

  2. The cops were politically or culturally outraged and attacked out of anger (or maybe they felt threatened for some reason and attacked out of fear).

  3. Some protesters did something that the cops interpreted as "violent crime" and they reacted as they were trained to do by going after the perpetrators (for example, someone threw a bottle at the cops, or set a trash fire, or broke a store window).

Excluding militarized police attacks and deliberate provocation by those who wanted the cops to attack or who believed that "fighting the pigs" was good strategy, police-protester violence usually followed patterns similar to personal violence. That is, it was a kind of dialog (though not necessarily verbal) in which each action and response racheted up the tension and anger. That kind of dialog can usually (though not always) be influenced or diverted or controlled by disciplined nonviolence techniques to de-escalate tension and anger on the part of the cops.

The more self-disciplined our protesters were, and the more willing they were to accept leadership, the easier it was to use those techniques — if, of course, our group's politics allowed for it. How to de-escalate tension with police is too huge a subject for a webpage. But some random thoughts include:

F5. Do you have anything pertinent I could share on interrogation role-play? Obviously we'll need to do research locally on arrests and lawyers.

The main thing we learned is that serious organizers and activists needed to think through and collectively decide on how to handle post-arrest and other kinds of interrogations — and then role play it. How you decide to handle it depends on your group and your politics, but it's way better for the activists and organizers to collectively agree on an approach and practice it than letting everyone handle it on their own on the fly.

In California in the '60s, our main point was to counter the "friendly" cop working for the "red squad" who was trying to wheedle and con information out of overly-loquacious middle-class college kids who had been raised on the myth of "Peter Pat the Policemen (your friend)." So we needed to role-play politely refusing to answer any questions at all beyond basic identification as required by law in order to be bailed out (name & address). Other than that, saying nothing.

Now that Miranda Rights are the law of the land, protesters need to practice courteously saying, "I wish to be represented by an attorney." And also practice how to respond when they play their standard, "If you're not guilty of some crime, you don't need a lawyer," or "You're not under arrest so you have no right to an attorney," cards.

In Alabama and Mississippi on the other hand, the cops weren't really interested in gathering information (they had snitches for that). Their focus was intimidation and violence — trying to break us and beat us down into submission. So we needed to role-play how to maintain pride and dignity and courage and commitment while minimizing the violence being inflicted. In essence, that wasn't much different from the nonviolent techniques we'd use for dealing with hostile civilian racists.

Of course, today, people should plan out and role-play both the general situation that most arrested protesters face and also the special situations faced by non-citizens and recent immigrants.


One last general thought on nonviolence:

By and large, social/political activists are intellectuals. By that I mean that they people who are influenced and moved into action mainly by ideas expressed in words. But most people are neither social/political activists nor intellectuals. Most people are primarily influenced and moved by their life experiences, the behavior of others and how they those others treat them. Real social change in America is forced up from below by masses of people demanding change. While activists are few in number they are the crucial catalyst for that process — but they succeed only when they win the passive support of the many. And the many are far more influenced by the actions and behavior of the activists, and how those activists relate to them than they are by the content of the activists' words.

Our culture glorifies and glamorizes violence. But the overwhelming majority of people are frighted and repulsed by actual violence when they personally encounter it. Violent protests may appeal to a small fringe group (mostly young macho males) but they alienate everyone else. Which is why nonviolent direct action has been successful in building mass social movements in the United States while violent street action has had the opposite effect. Note that I'm not referring to philosophical "love-your-enemy" nonviolence nor am I opposing necessary armed self-defense against racist terrorists like the KKK or the rising Alt-Right. What I'm talking about is the power of tactical nonviolent direct-action to build mass movements.

See also

Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance
Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power
Nonviolent Resistance, Reform, & Revolution
Nonviolent Training

Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2016.

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