It happens. From today’s New York Times:
Thousands of steelworkers fanned out on Thursday through the city of Mariupol, establishing control over the streets and banishing the pro-Kremlin militants who until recently had seemed to be consolidating their grip on power….The workers, who were wearing only their protective clothing and hard hats, said they were “outside politics” and were just trying to establish order. Faced with waves of steelworkers joined by the police, the pro-Russian protesters melted away, along with signs of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and its representatives. Backhoes and dump trucks from the steelworkers’ factory dismantled the barricades that separatists had erected.
It’s not clear whether this development will “restore calm” to Eastern Ukraine as the NYT suggests, but it follows a pattern of unarmed civilians re-establishing (or at least contesting) control over political space occupied by armed non-state actors during civil conflicts. Other recent examples include episodes in Nigeria, Libya, Mexico, Syria, and many others.
As I mentioned in a previous post, nonviolent action against armed non-state actors may be especially tricky because it’s often difficult to identify armed groups’ pillars of support. Moreover, in the context of widespread civil strife, where violence is often committed with total impunity, it can be difficult to determine exactly where the
It’s difficult, but not impossible. Check out recent work by Oliver Kaplan (here and here) to read more about how civilian movements have done this in several civil war contexts. And stay tuned for work by Cassy Dorff, whose dissertation-in-progress catalogues ways that civilians maintain control of their own destinies during armed conflict.