"Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge" Ieshia Evans stands in front of a line of police in Baton Rouge 2016. Jonathan Bachman/Reuters https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taking_a_Stand_in_Baton_Rouge

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.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.