When Does Protest Actually Work?

Erica Chenoweth, “People Are in the Streets Protesting Donald Trump. But When Does Protest Actually Work?” Washington Post, November 21, 2016.

The politics of dissent is back in the United States. Since 2011, the country has witnessed the resurgence of popular action — from Occupy Wall Street to Flood Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock. Since Nov. 8, many Americans have participated in protests and marches in nearly every major city in opposition to Donald Trump’s election — or to counterprotest in defense of it.[…]

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Proving Martin Luther King Right

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “How the World is Proving Martin Luther King Right about Nonviolence,” Washington Post, January 18, 2016.

“I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” – “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.,” edited by Clayborne Carson

Since 2011, the world has been a deeply contentious place. Although armed insurgencies rage across the Middle East, the Sahel and Southern Asia, violent civil conflicts are no longer the primary way that people seek to redress their grievances. Instead, from Tunis to Tahrir Square, from Zuccotti Park to Ferguson, from Burkina Faso to Hong Kong, movements worldwide have drawn on the lessons of Gandhi, King and everyday activists at home and abroad to push for change.

Gandhi’s and King’s emphases on nonviolent resistance — in which unarmed people use a coordinated set of strikes, protests, boycotts or other actions to confront an opponent — are not without critics. Some critiques are based on a misunderstanding about what civil resistance is, while others doubt the ability of unarmed and suppressed people to organize and challenge a powerful opponent. With each new movement comes the same set of challenges, including questions about the efficacy of nonviolent action in the face of entrenched power and systemic oppression. In 2011, we published a book exploring these questions and found unexpectedly that campaigns of nonviolent resistance had succeeded more than twice as often as their violent counterparts when seeking to remove incumbent national leaders or gain territorial independence.

To many people, this conclusion may seem naive, but when we drilled into the data, we found that nonviolent resistance campaigns don’t succeed by melting the hearts of their opponents. Instead, they tend to succeed because nonviolent methods have a greater potential for eliciting mass participation — on average, they elicit about 11 times more participants than the average armed uprising — and because this is the source of major power shifts within the opponent regime. Mass participation that draws on diverse segments of society tends to empower and co-opt reformers while cutting off hard-liners from sources of support. When such participation is nonviolent, it increases the chances of pulling the regime’s support from the leadership, allowing security forces, economic elites and civilian bureaucrats to shift their loyalties with less fear of bloody retribution.[…]

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Civil Rights Movement: Methods of Nonviolent Action

King, Mary Elizabeth. Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace, s.v. “Civil Rights Movement: Methods of Nonviolent Action,” vol. 1, 318–23. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

The U.S. civil rights movement (1955–1965) of the mid-twentieth century owes its success in part to its implementation of the technique of nonviolent struggle, using scores of nonviolent methods, or action steps. The hundreds of documented nonviolent sanctions, or methods, fall generally into one of three fundamental categories, identified by the scholar Gene Sharp as protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Protest or persuasion methods send a message and include demonstrations, marches, petitions, and vigils. Noncooperation methods suspend cooperation and assistance and include economic noncooperation, such as consumer boycotts and strikes, and political noncooperation, such as civil disobedience—the deliberate violation of decrees, laws, military or police orders, ordinances, or regulations regarded by those ruled by them as illegitimate, immoral, or unethical. Nonviolent intervention methods intentionally disrupt and include alternative or parallel social and political systems, hunger strikes, and sit-ins.

The civil rights movement used methods from all three classes, but those most commonly included were “nonviolent direct action”—a synonym for nonviolent struggle or nonviolent resistance, which generally referred to protest and persuasion methods to gain blacks access to segregated public facilities—and voter registration, which was sometimes considered among alternative or parallel institutions or valued for its power potential. The civil disobedience employed in the movement cut across classes, with context determining whether a method epitomizes political noncooperation or political intervention.[…]

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Methods of Nonviolent Action, MEKing entry, OUP 2009

Agents of Change and Nonviolent Action

Hardy Merriman, “Agents of Change and Nonviolent Action,” Conservation Biology (slightly modified) 22, no. 2 (April 2008), 241-2.

Nonviolent action is a way for ordinary people to fight for their rights, freedom, and justice. It is frequently associated with moral or ethical nonviolence, but I will address it here as a distinct phenomenon, separate from any moral or ethical underpinnings, to expand on how it works as a pragmatic way to exert leverage in a conflict.

Nonviolent action is based on the insight that power in a society is ultimately derived from people’s consent and obedience. In contrast, the prevailing view is that power in a society is inherently based on whoever has concentrated wealth and the greatest capacity for violence. But just as the economy is a subsystem of the biosphere— and therefore is ultimately governed by the laws of the biosphere—so too, systems of power that are seemingly based on violence and money are actually subsystems of thousands or millions of people’s broader behavior and obedience patterns. If those people shift their loyalties, behavior, and obedience, the balance of power in a society, and in the world, shifts. Simply put, if people do not obey, then rulers or corporations cannot rule.[…]

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Strategic Nonviolent Struggle: A Training Manual

Christopher A. Miller, Strategic Nonviolent Struggle: A Training Manual, in Nonviolent Transformation of Conflict–Africa, ed. Mary E. King (Addis Ababa and Geneva: University for Peace, 2006), pp 54–56.

Goals and Themes: Pragmatism or Principles

Thus far, nonviolent struggle has been discussed strictly in political and pragmatic terms. Nonviolent action is commonly confused with or incorrectly substituted for nonviolence. Although the two terms are not mutually exclusive, the fundamental differences between them should be noted.

Nonviolence is a belief in and practice of abstaining from violent acts. In some interpretations, this means abstention from mental damage, verbal assaults, and physical harm to others, one’s self, and the environment. Sometimes a belief in nonviolence derives from religion, ethics, or principles. It is often normative in use; that is, it can refer to a deeply held value.

Practitioners of nonviolence may take part in nonviolent struggles or even lead nonviolent movements. Faith-based or moral beliefs are not required. Nonviolent action as considered here is not necessarily synonymous with philosophies of principled nonviolence, nor is it the same as paci sm. In some struggles, such as the 960s U.S. civil rights movement and the East German pastors’ movement of the 980s, the role and impact of beliefs in and practice of nonviolence were central to large numbers of participants. In both of these struggles, although divided by decades, the methods of nonviolent action were extensively utilised to secure political freedoms and civil liberties. In East Germany, the Protestant churches provided autonomy. Clergy had maximum freedom from the interference of state intervention. East German churches were the location from which eventually emerged massive demonstrations against state controls and the secret police. Mass meetings in black churches in the U.S. South provided the place for community training in nonviolent action. In both instances, faith motivated many, yet not all, activists to pursue this technique of action. Such powerful and penetrating moral commitments, however, are not prerequisites for engaging in nonviolent struggle. Persons who base their actions on faith or values can work side by side with individuals whose commitment is purely pragmatic; behaviour de nes a nonviolent movement, not the convictions of its participants.

I admit at once that there is ‘a doubtful proportion of full believers’ in my ‘theory of non-violence.’ But it should not be forgotten that I have also said that for my movement I do not at all need believers in the theory of non-violence, full or imperfect. It is enough if people carry out the rules of non-violent action.

—Gandhi 957: 8

Although wholesale renunciation of violence across any society is improbable, criticisms have nonetheless surfaced regarding the use of the technique of nonviolent action simply as a tactic, strategy, or policy. The experiences and writings of Gandhi are thus highly relevant and insightful, for he wrestled with this question extensively. In his opinion, when people feel they must act or offer resistance, it is always better that they rely on nonviolent methods, because the means that are used directly affect the ends or results. In this sense, Gandhi proposed nonviolent action as a ‘political expedient’ to be used in the Indian independence struggle. He realised that it was unlikely that an entire population could adopt religious or spiritual views similar to his own, and more important, there was not enough time to wait for the conversion of 700,000 villages, even if it were possible. Gandhi never expected that all Indians would live by the personal standards that he set for himself, but he always maintained a keen eye for how nonviolent action t into political reality. His writings show that he wanted nonviolence as a policy, not necessarily as an absolute creed affecting all spheres of life.


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The Hidden History of the SNCC Research Department

Derek Seidman, “The Hidden History of the SNCC Research Department” May 2, 2017


This was the headline of a February 1965 circular, typed and mimeographed, that went around to chapters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — or SNCC, as it commonly went by — across the US.

SNCC may have been the most important organization of the postwar civil rights movement. It grew out of the wave of sit-ins in 1960 and was guided initially by Ella Baker, the foundational organizer whose emphasis on bottom-up organizing and democracy deeply shaped SNCC’s vision and methods. Its members were on the frontlines of the struggle to dismantle southern Jim Crow, organizing everything from the Freedom Rides to the Albany Movement to the Mississippi Freedom Summer. SNCC members took the movement into the most dangerous areas of the deep South, where white supremacy was most deeply entrenched. They worked to educate and empower ordinary people, and also register them to vote.

But few people today know that SNCC had a Research Department that interacted with organizers on the ground to help guide the group’s strategy and actions. Indeed, as the 1965 memo pointed out, even some SNCC organizers were unaware that they had a research office with a vast archive of news clippings, weeklies, reference books, and other documents that could offer insight into the larger workings of the power structures that were upholding racist oppression in the Jim Crow South.[…]

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Nonviolent Struggle in Africa: Essentials of Knowledge and Teaching

Mary E. King, “Nonviolent Struggle in Africa: Essentials of Knowledge and Teaching,” Africa Peace and Conflict Journal 1, no. 1 (December 2008): 19-44.

Nonviolent struggle, also called civil resistance or nonviolent resistance, is often misunderstood or goes unrecognized by diplomats, journalists, and pedagogues not trained in the technique of nonviolent action; to them, events ‘just happen’. To the contrary, however, nonviolent struggle requires that practitioners, who take deliberate and sustained action against a power, regime, policy, or system of oppression, consciously reject the use of violence in doing so. The technique of nonviolent action has been employed successfully in diverse conflicts—such as abolition of the trade in human cargo, establishment of trade unions and workers’ rights, voter enfranchisement, colonial rebellions and national independence, interstate strife, and religious conflicts—all without resort to violent measures, guerrilla warfare, or armed struggle. Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, were emboldened by the collective nonviolent action of Africans in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, and elsewhere, in the nationalist drive for independence. If violence is to be significantly reduced or abandoned in acute conflicts today, a realistic alternative must be presented, ac- cepted, and understood. Contemplated in this article is the need for study, documentation, and teaching of nonviolent strategic action as a technique for securing justice that lends itself to a host of applications. As Gandhi and King learned from the African nonviolent struggles of their times, and relied on observations of African campaigns to improve their sharing of knowledge, so can the rest of today’s world.[…]

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Key Resources for Movement Organizers

Hardy Merriman, “Korbel Quickfacts of Peace and Security: Key Resources for Movement Organizers,” Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, December 2016.

  • Civil resistance movement organizers face many common challenges, including developing a unifying vision, building trust among different communities, eliciting widespread participation, coordinating coherent local and national strategies, training participants committed to nonviolent action, and withstanding repression.
  • In many parts of the world there is also little information available about how to successfully organize civil resistance movements, and virtually no infrastructure or standardized edu- cational processes for learning about this eld.
  • It is remarkable that civil resistance movements have achieved a relatively high success rate in spite of these challenges. How effective might such movements be if movement organizers had greater support in their learning and work?[…]

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Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists

Kurt Schock, “Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists,” Political Science and Politics 36 (4): 705-12.

Prior to the wave of people power movements that erupted across the globe in the late twentieth century, scholars of social movements and revolution rarely addressed nonviolent action as a strategy for political change in non-democratic contexts. By the beginning of the twenty-first century this changed, as in- creasingly more social scientists began turning their attention to a topic once addressed primarily by peace studies scholars. The analysis of nonviolent ac- tion by social scientists other than peace studies scholars should be welcomed. Yet, since popular and scholarly miscon- ceptions about nonviolence abound, it would be useful to examine some of these in the hope that biases in the social scientific analysis of nonviolent action can be attenuated.[…]

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Schock (2003) Nonviolent Action & its Misconceptions, PS POLITICAL SCIENCE & POLITICS