Category Archives: nonviolence

"Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge" Ieshia Evans stands in front of a line of police in Baton Rouge 2016. Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

nonviolence in a time of political unrest

The next few years will indicate whether American history has entered a phase of political unrest or instability. This development is not inevitable–and it’s certainly not desirable–but now is the time to plan, educate, organize, and train for it.

To be sure, there has always been political violence in the USA, often focused on the most vulnerable Americans. However, a substantial increase in the scale and scope of political violence would challenge our already fragile constitutional order and pose dangers for the rest of the world. We will know that we are in that situation if the daily news often includes reports of violent clashes, dubious arrests and prosecutions, threats, firings or resignations connected to politics, and occasional assassinations and politically-motivated mass murders.

I believe we need broad-based nonviolent social movements to get us through any unrest and ideally to bring us to a better place. Such movements will generate protest actions, some of which will involve reported violence–if only as a result of hostile responses by other groups or police. Thus we should be striving for a high ratio of nonviolence to violence.

Just in the last few days, I have heard confident statements that nonviolence doesn’t work and that violence is always necessary for achieving rights. This is false. Nonviolent struggles have a much better record of success. In any case, Americans must understand nonviolent strategies, so that they at least have this option.

On Dec. 1, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Poor People’s Campaign, which he was organizing at the time, “is a search for an alternative to riots. This is kind of a last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.” Here he used the prospect of social unrest to demand change. But he did not believe that violent strategies would actually benefit Black people or poor people. He saw violence as lose/lose. Although he warned privileged people that they would pay a price if violence prevailed, he never advocated it, partly because he thought it would harm disadvantaged people as much or more than anyone else.

In his final book, King expressed strong doubts that violence could generate “any concrete improvement” and defended nonviolence “as the most potent weapon.” This book was Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Since the 1950s, “chaos” had been King’s word for the fruits of violence. For instance, in a lecture at Brandeis, he had forecast “an endless rain of meaningless chaos” unless nonviolence prevailed. Those words sound prophetic today.

Most of the political violence in the USA is coming from the hard right. According to Rachel Kleinfeld, the Global Terrorism Database identified more than 50 violent attacks by the extreme right in the USA in 2019, versus about 5 attacks from the extreme left. However, that disparity is a recent phenomenon, not a long-term one, and there is much potential for violence on all sides (including the middle). Kleinfeld’s fig. 2 (below) shows that Republicans are somewhat more favorable to political violence than Democrats are. But support has risen rapidly on both sides–albeit from very low baseline–and the partisan gap is small. This graph makes me worry that almost any group can rapidly shift to supporting violence.

As we navigate the next several years, it will be helpful to track the level and extent of unrest so that we can tell what we are dealing with. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is helpful for this purpose. Its raw data include brief and–to my eye–balanced summaries of each event that they track. Here is my summary of all US events from their global database*:

US data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)

ACLED includes nonviolent protests. Although we should monitor them, I generally assume that they are good rather than dangerous. I would be happy to see the “grand total” in the table above rise, as long as peaceful protests represent a larger share. (Note that the rate of nonviolent protest has halved since 2020.)

Perceptions are important. In What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, I discuss Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a major nonviolent social movement, citing evidence from Erica Chenoweth and others that violence was extraordinarily rare in BLM events and was prevented by careful planning and training. Indeed, BLM was less violent than the classical Civil Rights Movement had been. However, BLM has been widely reported as violent. Even some supporters perceive it as violent and justify it as such. This impression then contributes to a general sense that our times are violent, which may motivate tit-for-tat responses.

Nonviolence needs forthright and even passionate advocacy, as well as much painstaking training and organizing work.

Nonviolence relates to and complements other necessary strategies, such as civic education, dialogue and deliberation, political reform, defense of civil rights, voter registration, and the efforts to enhance “social cohesion” that Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) has mapped (see below). However, nonviolence is a category of its own that needs special attention today.

Photo: “Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge” by Jonathan Bachman, showing Ieshia Evans. See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; preparing for a possible Trump victory; introduction to Gandhi

*The suicide bombing noted here took place in Nashville on December 25, 2020, when “a man detonated a bomb inside a recreational vehicle,” injuring 31. The grenade attack occurred in Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, 2021, with unknown perpetrators and motives and no injuries. Most of the incidents categorized as “sexual violence” are rapes of prisoners by corrections or police officers, which are understandably treated as political acts, although the motives may vary.

preparing for a possible Trump victory

I make no predictions about the 2024 election. It is still far away, and all kinds of dramatic shifts could occur between now and then. But there is a clear chance that Donald Trump will win. One of several paths to that outcome leads through a recession during the next six months.

I am also reluctant to predict what Trump will do if elected; I suspect he doesn’t know himself. But we should take seriously the possibility that he would do what he has been talking about lately, including directly ordering the prosecution of political opponents, invoking the Insurrection Act, building mass camps for immigrants, purging the civil service, and even attacking Mexico.

I disagree with Hillary Clinton that these events “would be the end of our country as we know it.” On the contrary, they would mark the beginning of a new phase with highly uncertain outcomes. Much would depend on how opponents respond. Now is the time to prepare for this contingency.

Trump would have significant support, including a popular base. Certain organizations and institutions would take his side, perhaps including at least one house of Congress.

But he would also face mass resistance from segments of the population and from important organizations and institutions–notably, from some state and local governments. He would quickly encounter roadblocks, which would frustrate him and his supporters. Some of his efforts might go forward, at least temporarily, which would enrage his opponents.

The result would be intense conflict, not only in Congress and courts but also potentially on the streets. I don’t think a literal civil war is likely, if only because the US military and security services would refuse to be drawn in, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to create an army from scratch. But it is common around the world to see periods of political conflict, typically labeled “unrest,” “instability,” or “disorder.” We might expect:

  • constant debates about whether various institutions should make statements about recent incidents, with repercussions for members of these institutions who disagree;
  • frequent crises that are permitted by existing laws, such as government shutdowns and even a debt default;
  • politically motivated pardons, amnesties, and blocked prosecutions;
  • prominent dismissals and resignations;
  • bans and purges of ideological minorities within institutions such as universities, corporations, and publications;
  • overt refusals to follow constitutionally permissible directives (e.g., state governors might resist federal mandates);
  • temporary closures of schools and colleges that are political hotbeds;
  • attempts to declare martial law and states of emergency at various levels;
  • arrests of questionable legality;
  • illegal orders that are either accepted or refused;
  • Increasingly flagrant displays of weapons;
  • paramilitary and revolutionary organizations, with training programs, uniforms, insignias and the like;
  • large and frequent protests, some of which may involve clashes with counter-protesters or the police;
  • frequent threats of violence;
  • politically motivated assaults and homicides of various kinds (not only assassinations, but also quasi-accidental deaths).

I’d expect similarities to periods like the Years of Lead in Italy or The Troubles in Northern Ireland–among many other examples. In fact, we may already have entered a period like that.

I would anticipate passionate and fraught disagreements within the potential resistance to Trump. For example:

  • Should the objective be to restore and protect the constitutional system as it has been, or was that system already flawed (and responsible for the present crisis) so that it needs to be changed? If it requires change, how basic and radical must that be?
  • Is the Democratic Party a worthy vehicle of resistance, or even the main opposition, or is it part of the problem? This debate will be especially fraught if it looks as if Biden would have won without third party presidential candidates in 2024.
  • How broad should the coalition be? It’s easy to say “As broad as possible,” but the hard questions arise when activists must consider whether to defer causes that they consider important in order to collaborate with people who are ideologically dissimilar. For instance, imagine that it is possible to draw businesses into a pro-democracy movement, but at the cost of delaying strong action on climate. Many people would balk at that tradeoff. But what if strong federal environmental action seems impossible, anyway? Would it then be worth submerging environmental goals to expand the pro-democracy movement?
  • What means are appropriate–or necessary–to combat authoritarian tendencies and street-level violence?

I think the response should be massively nonviolent, and we should eschew concrete, physical violence even in the face of institutionalized injustice. Nonviolent direct action is a powerful strategy with a strong record of success. It is particularly likely to draw broad participation and to yield a stable democracy as its outcome.*

There may be times when violence is appropriate: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all commanded armies that fought for freedom. And sometimes it is a mistake to criticize acts of violence even if you wouldn’t endorse them. In response to the Detroit riots of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked a careful line. He said that crimes committed during the riots were “deplorable” but also “derivative.” He explained, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” Nevertheless, King continued to defend nonviolence because he believed that it was the most powerful option, with the greatest chance of creating a better society. That argument will be even stronger under conditions of social unrest and escalating, tit-for-tat violence. Apart from anything else, as Bayard Rustin argued, political success requires the support of a substantial majority, and violence alienates people.

Nonviolence takes skill, discipline, and values, all of which that can be taught and practiced in advance of a crisis. Now is the time for practice and training.

I am discussing a threat that comes from the extreme right. This threat is not symmetrical. However, intimidation and violence may be reciprocated, and ugly behavior may spread across the spectrum; this common pattern must be resisted.

It will be crucial to promote dialogue and listening. People will need ways to exit extremist movements and be reintegrated. And we need to hear about legitimate grievances from all quarters so that they can be addressed.

Anyone who is knowingly involved in violating civil rights should ultimately be held accountable. But tens of millions of people will vote for each major party’s nominee in the 2024 election, and voters on both sides are members of our national community. As the risk of violent conflict rises, so does the need for empathy and curiosity across partisan differences.

*See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; Why Civil Resistance Works; tools for the #resistance; timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

introduction to Gandhi

This is a lecture that I pre-recorded for Introduction to Civic Studies this semester. It provides some background about the life and fundamental ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Students will also read these texts:

  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (on the Great Salt March)
  • Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951): excerpts
  • Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes,  28, pp. 307-310

In class we will will discuss such questions as these: How (if at all) can one organize voluntary collective action at a sufficient scale to bring about change in Gandhi’s preferred ways? Is Gandhi right to demand sacrifice and to see sacrifice as intrinsically meritorious? How can Gandhi know whether his stance is correct when he finds himself in conflict with other idealists, such as B.R. Ambedkar? And is it fair for Gandhi to claim that he only knows the means, not the result, of the struggle, if the end is actually predicable?

See also: Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha; Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; etc.

the Iran crisis and literature on nonviolent uprisings

I wish I could follow the uprisings in Iran more closely and insightfully, but my background knowledge is limited and news coverage in English is scanty. I must admit that the regime’s victory over mass nonviolent protests in 2011-2012 made me pessimistic, especially since that turned out to be the first in a series of victories by repressive regimes. The global success rate for nonviolent social movements has fallen from near 70% in the 1990s to under 30% in the past decade, probably because authoritarian governments have improved their tactics.

That said, pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Turning trend-lines into predictions squelches agency and hope. Successful revolutionaries are not determinists. Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.” One never knows when masses of people will find inspiration in selected moments from the past and disrupt the patterns of recent history.

The literature on social movements and popular uprisings may offer some insights. That literature suggests that we should focus on certain recent developments in Iran.

The protests appear widespread, highly decentralized, and attractive to a diverse range of Iranians, including students, merchants, oil workers, and ethnic minority groups. In the literature, both the size and the pluralism of protests are related to their odds of success. (The “s” and “p” in my SPUD framework stand for those two factors.)

The movement appears capable of coordinating across a large country even though Iran has shut down the Internet and the protesters do not follow a few charismatic (and hence vulnerable) national leaders.

There are preliminary reports of some soldiers and police joining protests. Although “security force defection” has not occurred yet at substantial scale in Iran, it is a recognized phenomenon in popular uprisings. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) found that nonviolent movements have been 46 times more likely to succeed when some members of the security forces defect. Anisin (2020) identifies “the size of the oppositional campaign (100,000+ participants)” as a common precondition of security force defection. One recent example was in neighboring Armenia in 2018.

There are also some preliminary reports of possible fissures within the regime, with (for instance) a “Hardline Chief Justice Call[ing] For ‘Dialogue With People’.” The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is said to be “gravely ill,” and his office may represent a power vacuum.

I believe that whether to use violence is a matter of judgment that depends on the circumstances, yet movements generally benefit by imposing restraints on their own behavior. Unrestrained tactics tend to escalate in ways that can damage or split a movement. Refraining from physical violence against human targets–or refusing to use live ammunition–can be bright lines that prevent such escalation. So far, the Iranian protesters seem to be using nonviolence as a self-imposed restraint.

By the way, a movement can be nonviolent despite scattered exceptions. Indeed, a mass movement that is predominantly nonviolent can benefit from the pressure imposed by parallel military movements. In the current case in Iran, several armed insurgencies are underway that may prove synergistic with the civilian protests.

Women play a disproportionate role in the Iranian protest movement. Women have certain strategic assets for social movements. For one thing, their activism can present “an apolitical appearance” that allows them to “engage in more political forms of resistance” without seeming to threaten the state’s monopoly on violence, as my colleague Anjuli Fahlberg notes in her study of Rio (Fahlberg 2018).

So far, we are seeing a familiar cycle: violent state repression instigates broader and more intense popular protest, which create dilemmas for the security forces and may initiate a downward spiral for the regime. That was the pattern in Paris in 1789 and also in Tehran in 1979, when every time the Shah’s regime killed protesters, the vast funeral processions turned into new expressions of popular will. Of course, it was also the pattern in Syria in 2011, with an ultimately tragic outcome.

Overall, I would be looking–and hoping–for scale and diversity, security force defections, self-imposed limitations, and acts of repression that stimulate even broader resistance. Success is far from inevitable but remains possible.

Citations: W. Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), trans. by Harry Zohn, xv; Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011; Alexei Anisin (2020) Unravelling the complex nature of security force defection, Global Change, Peace & Security, 32:2, 135-155; Fahlberg, A. N. (2018). Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories. Politics & Society46(4), 95–110. See also: people power in Iran (2009); why autocrats are winning (right now); Why Civil Resistance Works; the case for (and against) nonviolence; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; etc.

civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited

In February and March I posted about prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia and then about what I called “civilian resistance,” where the latter category includes violent as well as nonviolent actions by people who aren’t organized in military units. Well before the war, I had met many Ukrainian activists for democracy who had demonstrated exceptionally strong expertise and networks for civilian resistance. Besides, I am a proponent of nonviolence, which is the focus of the last third of my new book.

However, at that time, I accepted the conventional wisdom about the military situation, which has proven wrong. I assumed that Russia would quickly occupy substantial portions of Ukraine, perhaps all the way to the Dnipro. I thought that Russia’s challenge would then be to maintain control at relatively low cost and with some degree of perceived legitimacy–at least as perceived by Russians. Russia would use violence, but I guessed that the occupiers would want to win hearts and minds to some extent. Those factors would make the occupied territories a promising location for civilian resistance.

Instead, Russia seems to have occupied not much more than the ground where their troops are currently stationed. They have taken many more casualties than expected and committed more atrocities. Their losses in no way excuse the massacres of civilians, but they may help to explain them. Discipline has broken down; Russian troops may be looking for revenge. Russia has lost the contest for legitimacy among Ukrainians, Europeans, and many others, which means they don’t benefit from exercising restraint. Inside Russia, “amid a growing police crackdown, public expressions of opposition to the war have slowed to a trickle — singular acts of defiance amid a wider silence.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has accomplished far more than I, for one, expected.

For these reasons, civilian resistance looks less relevant, more dangerous, and less necessary than I had thought. Yet it remains a worthy topic, for two reasons.

First, the war could play out as Katherine Lawlor and Mason Clark predict:

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to annex occupied southern and eastern Ukraine directly into the Russian Federation in the coming months. He will likely then state, directly or obliquely, that Russian doctrine permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory applies to those newly annexed territories. Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue. 

This is by no means inevitable, but if it happens, then a combination of an armed partisan insurgency plus civilian resistance inside the occupied portions of Donetsk and Luhansk might be Ukraine’s best option.

Second, civilian resistance has been important to the war effort so far. For instance, Sergey Mohov offers an excellent thread on “a hyper-informal cross-continental network of volunteers” that has been delivering specific items (“from food to tourniquets to UAVs to cars and ambulances”) to front-line Ukrainian military units. This is one of many decentralized, self-help efforts that support the official military effort. They are not completely new. When I was in Lviv in 2015, I saw civilians collecting boots for soldiers in Donbas, who were suffering (in part) from the Ukrainian’s government corruption. Ukrainians have a lot of experience organizing around their own state, which comes in handy when their government is well led and well motivated but overstretched.

It’s important not to draw sharp lines between violence and nonviolence or civilian and governmental actions. Consider these examples: A Russian military unit refuses orders, not out of idealism but in fear. Ukrainians willingly line up to enlist in the army. A small Ukrainian military unit acts effectively without receiving orders. Residents of eastern Donetsk and Luhansk protest forced mobilizations. Pro-Russian military bloggers circulate strongly critical assessments of the campaign that undercut official propaganda, albeit with a nationalistic flavor. A Russian citizen relocates to a decent job in a foreign country out of disgust with Putin. A Russian citizen goes into exile without a job, for political reasons. Ukrainians in the diaspora send ammunition to the front. Ukrainians in the diaspora send bandages to the front. The Ukrainian government uses facial recognition software to identify dead Russian soldiers and notifies their next of kin. Ukrainians in EU countries advocate for banning oil purchases. Non-Ukrainians in EU countries advocate for boycotts. Chinese companies cancel Russian contracts out of concern for EU relationships.

These examples do not belong to two categories: nonviolent civil disobedience versus war. They fall along several continua, from violence to nonviolence, from decentralized to hierarchical, from idealistic to self-interested, and from pro-Ukrainian to Russian-centered. I presume that similar continua arise in all conflicts. My own value commitments are not simple. For instance, I am not a rigorous pacifist or a radical opponent of hierarchy, although I would make a case for nonviolence and self-help. Perhaps the best approach in a situation like this is a diverse mix of strategies.