Marching in Gandhi’s Footsteps — 2002 Article

Rather than being victims of history, David Hartsough believes we should make it – he's raising a ‘peace force’ to do just that
By Kate Rope  —  Bangkok Post  —  2002

George W. Bush is dividing the world and waging war. Osama Bin Laden is skillfully eluding capture and giving hope to the thousands he has trained to kill.  Betwixt the two, hot spots in Israel and the occupied territories are descending into ever more gruesome violence, other countries are being forced to choose which side of the “war” they support, and nobody is talking about peace.

Except, perhaps, David Hartsough, who is quietly building an army in the midst of  the fury. A veteran of the civil rights struggle in the US and a peace activist who's been on the front lines of some of the most destructive clashes of the last half century, Hartsough is travelling the globe to rally a force that will march into the danger zones of the world armed with only a commitment to peace. Born from the work left unfinished by Mahatma Gandhi some 70 years ago, it's a hard-sell in times like these, but Hartsough is an experienced and persuasive salesman.

David Hartsough

David Hartsough in 2002

Sitting in the Thammasat office of Chaiwat Satha-anand, Thailand's most prominent peace academic, Hartsough comes across first as a friendly, traveller type. His greying hair, well-worn trousers and forest-green rucksack look like the accoutrements you'd expect a peace-loving wanderer to sport. But when he sits down to tell his story and how and why his approach will work, it is with the resolve and no-nonsense confidence of a battle-seasoned general.  Hartsough knows nonviolence can work because he has spent his life in the field. 

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, he was building a shanti sena, a “peace troop.” From that idea, Hartsough and of ‘Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.’–Mahatama Gandhi

 others have created the Global Nonviolent Peace Force – a corps of civilians trained in active nonviolent techniques that will be sent to areas of conflict around the world to protect human rights and create the space for peaceful resolution of differences.

At the invitation of NGOs or other parties, the corps will enter combat areas to provide unarmed escorts for peaceworkers and training in active nonviolence, as well as summon the attention of the world. Hartsough hopes to have the force “non-combat-ready” by 2003, with an initial contingent of 200 active members, 400 reservists and 500 supporters around the globe who will send email, make phone calls, alert the press and turn the international spotlight on particular conflicts. He already has 10 informal invitations from places including Sri Lanka, Burma, Korea, Mindanao in the Philippines, Columbia, Ecuador, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

At a conference due to be held in New Delhi in November, an international steering committee, which includes Acharn Chaiwat, will choose the location for a pilot project. If it is successful, Hartsough hopes it will set a precedent for solving conflicts peacefully.

Hartsough's early teachers were Gandhi, whom he read as a child, Martin Luther King, whom he met as a teenager, and his father, who risked his life in the early years of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

A Congregationalist minister who later became a Quaker, Hartsough's father went to the Middle East when David was eight years old to bring tents and medicine to refugees displaced by the first Israel-Palestine war. “My father gave sermons in church on the Good Samaritan story, and it really impressed me that he was not just preaching it but was willing to risk his life on the belief that ‘everyone is my neighbor’,” he recalls.

Hartsough's father also took his teenage son to see the work Martin Luther King was doing in Montgomery, Alabama, to secure equal rights for black citizens of the United States. King was the leader not only of the struggle for civil rights in the US, but also of the first nonviolent movement in that country.

“I was very deeply moved that these people, who were facing such oppression, were determined to get justice, but they were determined to do that nonviolently, even against people who were bombing their churches and their homes. That put me on the road to a much deeper understanding of nonviolence,” says Hartsough.

After a year spent at an elite, almost entirely white college on the East Coast of the United States, where he was helping the admissions office recruit black students, Hartsough heard that Howard University, a black college in Washington, DC, needed white students. Deciding to practise what he was preaching, he transferred to Howard in 1959, and there he received a lesson more valuable than anything else he could have learned: the power of peaceful resistance.

In 1960, all across the southern states of the US, people began protesting the segregation of lunch counters. So, every Saturday, Hartsough and his black friends would leave DC, which had already been desegregated, and cross into Maryland. They would sit at a lunch counter there until they were arrested. After spending the weekend in jail singing freedom songs, they'd be released in time for classes on Monday, only to be back in action the following Saturday.

Hartsough stayed clear of nearby Virginia, which was home not only to the American Nazi Party but also to a law that handed down a year's prison sentence and a thousand-dollar fine to anyone who protested at a lunch counter.

“We didn't have a thousand dollars and we didn't want to spend a year in prison,” says Hartsough laughing. But when months passed and no one challenged the racist law there, he and his friends mustered their courage, did some extra training in nonviolence, and crossed the state line.

“Twelve of us went in and sat down at this lunch counter at the People's Drugstore in Arlington, Virginia, and within minutes there were six cars and sirens coming from all directions. They didn't arrest us, but neither were they going to serve us any food. We stayed there for two days, and it was the most difficult two days of my life.”

Hartsough and his friends endured vicious name-calling, lit cigarettes being dropped down their shirts, punches so hard they were knocked off their stools to the floor, where they were kicked, and members of the American Nazi Party sporting swastikas and brandishing photos of apes, asking them malevolently, “Is we or is we ain't equal?”

At the end of the second day, as Hartsough sat in meditation trying to think about loving his enemies, a man approached him from behind. “He said to me, ‘you nigger-lover’, and he had this horrible look of hatred on his face; ‘if you don't get out of this store in two seconds, I'm going to stab this through your heart’.” In the man's hand was a switchblade. “I had two seconds to decide if I really believed in nonviolence, and I looked this man right in the eye, and I said, ‘Friend, do what you believe is right, and I'll still try and love you’, and it was quite amazing, because his jaw began to fall and his hand began to drop and he left the store.”

The most difficult part was to come. The protest had been on newspaper front pages and an angry crowd of 500 had gathered outside the drugstore, armed with rocks and firecrackers and threatening to kill the 12.

For their part, Hartsough and his friends decided to write to Arlington's religious and political leaders asking them to use their moral and political leadership to open the eating establishments to everyone. “We said that if nothing changed in a week, we'd come back. Some friendly newspaper reporters had their cars outside and got us out of there alive, and we went back to Washington and for six days we were shaking and wondering, ‘Do we have the courage to go back and do it again’.”

But they didn't have to make that choice. On the sixth day, the call came that the lunch counters in Arlington were now open to all.

“That taught me a very powerful lesson,” says Hartsough, “That by acting on our conscience we got those people to act on their conscience, and those people got the society to act on its conscience. That you don't need millions of people … even a few can make change.”

Since that time, Hartsough has been working beside the few and sometimes the many, to make change all over the world. He has been jailed well over 100 times, but his most high-profile arrest was at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic.

Before violence erupted in Kosovo in the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Albanians marched to secure basic freedoms – the right to attend school, secure jobs, speak their own language, get access to medical care – that had been taken from them by the Serb regime. They enlisted the help of Hartsough and others to awaken the international community to what was happening and bring moral, political and economic pressure to bear on the Serbs, like that which had succeeded against apartheid.

So Hartsough travelled the US and Europe to rally support, but met with none. He finally returned to Kosovo with a small crew of four Americans to conduct nonviolence training sessions. Though there was no international media attention, coverage on Albanian TV got Milosevic's attention and Hartsough and the five were locked up. “It became front-page news around the world,” says Hartsough, “which was stupid, because 100,000 people marching for justice had not been news, but five Americans in jail was.”

Unwilling to take the international heat, Milosevic soon released the activists and turned them out of the country.

Not long after, the world woke up to the situation in Kosovo and Nato began dropping bombs, a response Hartsough believes could have been avoided and is at the heart of why he is now devoting all of his time to building the peace force.

“I travelled all around the US saying, ‘Kosovo is an explosion waiting to happen, we need people to come’. Nobody responded, and then it exploded and after it exploded, NATO said our only choices were to do nothing or to start bombing. But many of us there felt that with 200 trained and courageous peace troops we might have made an important contribution to a peaceful resolution.”

Hartsough wants his peace force to march right down the middle path between doing nothing and bombing, so that places like Sri Lanka, now possibly on the precipice of peace, can be delivered there rather than disintegrate into further acts of death and destruction.

To charges that this is naive and unrealistic in the world's present landscape of violence, Hartsough marshals evidence that forces like the one he is building have been successful around the globe.

Peace Brigades International, a smaller corps than the one Hartsough plans, was instrumental in giving courage to the civil society in Guatemala which challenged a repressive government that was killing hundreds of thousands of citizens, says Hartsough.

At the invitation of a group called “The Families of the Detained and Disapeared”, the Brigades came in to escort protesters, providing a buffer between military death squads that carried out the government's orders and the civilians who were challenging the government's power.

During a four-year period, only two peace-workers were stabbed in Guatemala and no one was killed. In the increasingly safe environment, more members of the civil society emerged to oppose government oppression. Hartsough, who was there at the time, attributes Guatemala's transition to democracy in large part to the work of the Brigades.

To prepare a training module for his force, the Nonviolent Peaceforce has studied the work of Peace Brigades International and others and has compiled a 300-page document on what has worked, what hasn't, and what has never been tried.

“We're not going to take on the whole world in the first year,” says Hartsough. “Ideally we'd like something that in two years' time we could see some real success. We're convinced that if we do this well, the world will discover that here is a method that costs one millionth of what a military response to a conflict costs, is much more effective, and you don't have the terrible death and destruction and hatred that can continue for generations.”

Despite being a less expensive alternative to armed conflict, peace doesn't come cheap and Hartsough and his colleagues need to raise a pretty penny by peace-movement standards – $8 million (352 million baht) a year – a sum that may be even harder to gather in the wake of September 11. Hartsough is quick to point out, however, that this amount is equal to what the world spends on the military every four minutes. If they can secure the funding, they hope to have the force fully operational – with 2,000 active members, 4,000 reservists and 5,000 supporters – by 2010.

Though September 11 has engendered more violence, Hartsough sees this moment in history as an opportunity to advance his cause. He points to an article in the International Herald Tribune exposing the deaths inflicted on one Afghan village by the American bombing campaign.

“As more and more facts like this come out, I think people are going to be revolted by this militaristic response to something terrible. The United States has spent trillions of dollars on military security, bombers, planes, nuclear weapons, the CIA, FBI … and that got us zero security. It didn't protect one person on September 11. Isn't it time to look at an alternative way to get security?

“After [Martin Luther] King was killed, I was devastated, because he gave so much hope for a new kind of America with him as a leader. But I finally came out of that depression feeling that the only thing we've got is for many of us to become like King,” argues Hartsough. “Today we have a whole lot of local leaders like him that most of the world doesn't even know about. They're in Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Latin America, Africa and Thailand.”

And, like King, they are all saying unpopular things to a few people in the hopes of changing the minds of the many. This is a legacy which Hartsough is happy to carry on.

“I have felt ever since that time [in Arlington, Virginia] that we don't have to be just subjects of history. We can help make it.”

– For more information on the Global Non-violent Peace Force, visit or email