From the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement, civil resistance occurs around the world. But how can nonviolent social movements succeed against the rise of fictional narratives in the media? Erica Chenoweth, Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs, discusses these topics and more during this Wiener Conference Call.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day, everyone. I’m Mari Megias from the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. Today we are joined by Erica Chenoweth, who is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her research focuses on political violence and its alternatives. The author of several books on civil action and violence, Erica also co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium, a public interest project that documents political mobilization in the United States during the Trump administration. Her next book, which will be published later this year by Oxford University Press, is titled Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know. We’re so fortunate that Erica has chosen to share her expertise today with the Kennedy School’s alumni and friends. Erica.
Well, thank you so much and thanks to the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development for inviting me to give this talk. And thank you to Malcolm Wiener for sponsoring this series, which I think is totally cool and a great opportunity to connect with lots of people from all over the world, it looks like today. So what I thought I would do is talk a little bit about the ways in which nonviolent resistance movements today are challenged by the age of fake news and the digital information economy more generally. And what I want to do is break my opening remarks into a few different sections. The first section, I will talk a little bit about some of what my prior research has shown about the reasons why nonviolent resistance movements have succeeded or failed in the past. I then want to move on to a discussion about the ways in which the digital age has affected these methods of success for nonviolent movements. And then I want to kind of move forward and talk about the ways that the current age is actually different from the types of challenges that mass movements have faced in previous decades. And then I’ll end with a discussion about five pathways forward for lots of different social movements around the world.
So let me first start with a broader discussion about what previous research has shown regarding the reasons why nonviolent resistance movements have succeeded and failed in the past. So when I talk about nonviolent resistance movements, I’m talking about large-scale mass uprisings where unarmed civilians are using a variety of different methods of conflict, like strikes and protests, boycotts, and a variety of other techniques to confront their opponents without directly harming them or threatening to physically harm them. So I am talking about movements in which people have adopted and internalized the use of nonviolent techniques explicitly to achieve their aim. So these are movements like the East European revolutions of 1987 to 1989. There are movements like Gandhi’s part of the Indian independence movement that went from 1919 through 1947. And I’m talking about more recent movements in which people have largely or primarily relied on nonviolent resistance throughout the Arab Spring and more recently in North Africa with the successful revolutions in Sudan and Algeria in 2019 followed by several so-called October revolutions throughout the Middle East and Latin America. And many of the movements over the last decade have been organized against the authoritarian backsliding worldwide. And we can kind of compare those movements to movements from at least 1900, which is when my own dataset starts.
So from 1900 to 2019, I’ve counted nearly 700 maximalist campaigns, that is, campaigns where people are trying to either overthrow their national leadership or become independent territories or countries through resistance techniques. And we can talk a little bit more about the scope conditions of that dataset during the Q and A. If people have questions, I can refer you to my writings on the topic. But when we drill down into those data, something that’s really apparent is, first of all, those movements that have primarily relied on nonviolent resistance methods and already had about a thousand people mobilized, and then were able to sustain themselves longer than a week’s worth of time. They were about 50 percent likely to succeed from 1900 to 2010.
And then from 19... I’m sorry, from 2010 to 2019, that success rate dropped to about 33 percent in the last decade, which began with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, then moved into Euromaidan and other Eastern European uprisings, the resistance to Trump in the United States. And then, as I mentioned, the more recent uprisings in North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
So when we look at the cases where these campaigns have succeeded or failed, there are really four key features of campaigns that succeed. The first is that successful campaigns tend to get very large and very diverse. So this means that they tend to elicit mass participation. They can sustain that mass participation, and it is incredibly broad based and cross cutting. So that means it’s not just one ethnic or racial group. It’s not just one age cohort. It’s not one dimension of the country’s demographics. It’s really a representative campaign, which usually signals that these movements obtain with a level of legitimacy and can challenge the status quo from various different quarters of society.
The second thing that these successful campaigns do is they tend to create defections. And this is really the main mechanism through which nonviolent campaigns work. It’s not that they melt the heart of the opponent, it’s more that they pull the opponent’s pillars of support away from it. So for example, if there are security forces or economic elites or business elite, state media, civilian bureaucrats or civil servants and other kinds of social institutions or religious institutions that are helping to support the status quo, these large-scale and diverse movements can start to disrupt those and pull them away in terms of their loyalty to the opponent. So in a lot of these key moments, if you can recall kind of the Eastern European revolutions or some of the major Arab Spring cases like in Tunisia or Sudan and Algeria more recently. The military for example just refused to enforce the dictators orders, right? So they just refused to shoot live fire on the demonstrators, etc. Sometimes it’s economic pillars of support that withdraw their cooperation. So in South Africa, it was during the Anti-Apartheid Movement. It wasn’t security forces that changed their loyalties, but it was definitely white business owners, economic elites who started to pressure the government to reform. So those defections are really crucial and sort of bode predicting and explaining why these campaigns succeed.
The third reason why nonviolent campaigns win is that they tend to increase their tactical innovation. So they don’t just rely on protests or demonstrations, for example. They tend instead to innovate new techniques like mass noncooperation or stay-at-home strikes. And other forms of disruptive people power that kind of maneuver around repression and increased disruption at the same time.
And then the fourth thing that they tend to do is they tend to maintain discipline even as repression begins to escalate. So this essentially means that they have some organizational ability to stay united and resilient and stick to their own plan, maintaining nonviolent discipline along the way. And these latter too, the sort of discipline and resilience do require some level of organization and leadership. That doesn’t mean they need a single leader like Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Anne Sunsuit, but they definitely need some form of leadership, usually that’s some form of coalitional leadership or council. So campaigns that do well on those four dimensions tend to succeed much more often than campaigns that fail at one or more of them.
And as I mentioned, over the last decade, we have seen a decline in the success rates of nonviolent campaigns. Not a huge decline, but a surprising one given how ubiquitous nonviolent resistance has been over the last decade. In fact, the last decade from 2010 to 2019 featured the most maximalist nonviolent campaigns that we have in recorded history since 1900. So it was very tumultuous. And even as more people began to use the technique, we started to see a decline in the relative effectiveness of it. So one of the key questions that a lot of people have about this decline in success is what role has the sort of digital age played in potentially undermining this mass movement? Certainly, in the early 2000s, there was a sense that internet technology and social media in particular were actually helping people organize effective resistance movements and nonviolent action. But basically, after the mid-2000s, a lot of people started to become more skeptical about whether these technologies were helping or hurting these movements.
I personally have been a skeptic about the way that these technologies have affected nonviolent movements and have written about this a little bit. The first problem, of course, is perhaps the most obvious one, which is that as people begin to organize and even express their political opinions more on social media, it increases the surveillance capabilities. There was a time when many of the movements that I’ve studied were operating in a way where they were deliberately trying to conceal their political preferences and their organizing capacity precisely because they did not want to be targeted and singled out for repression. Instead, it’s almost as if people volunteer this information and then they can’t take it back. So once it’s out, there’s no ability to sort of hide one’s preferences or plans. And that really does make the effort of targeting and singling out particular activists for repression early quite more efficient.
There are also, of course, attempts to entrap activists. In Sudan in 2011, when there looked like there might be a similar kind of Arab Spring uprising happening there, Omar Bashir’s government had an attempt to entrap activists by creating a fake Facebook page that was calling for people to turn out and have a Sudan Arab Spring. Some 17,000 activists RSVP to the event and some people showed up. They were rounded up, tortured, and with their Facebook passwords it was very easy to round up many, many more, which is part of the reason why Sudan’s Arab Spring at that time did not diffuse in the way that it did in other settings. There’s also the possibility of infiltration, which is simply hacking and then being able to read private information. But kind of more broadly on the public-facing nature of movements. Clicktivism can definitely give people a false sense of self-efficacy leading to a weakening of this disruptive capacity of participation.
So there’s a worry for some movements that the more people participate online, the less they’ll participate where it matters with their bodies in the streets. And that can really undermine their disruptive capacity. There’s also the fact that online organizing lends the ability to get very large crowds quickly to show up in an event. But it also undermines incentives to develop longer-term capacity and skill for mobilization that can have that resilience and organizational weight to keep the campaign on track when things get more difficult. Certainly, internet disruption can cut off communications, if people are only communicating through social media or the internet. But there’s also a reverse side to this, which is that keeping the internet open both allows people to engage in clicktivism and stay away from more dangerous areas, but it can also allow governments to scare people by diffusing information through these channels.
So for example, Muammar Gaddafi at the beginning of the Libyan civil war, before it was a civil war, there were a couple of days of street demonstrations during which his government sent out a text message to every single person in Libya who had a cell phone at the time. And it said basically, “We’re watching you. Don’t come out to the streets.” So that can have a demobilizing effect because it singles people out and makes them afraid. They probably didn’t... There probably wasn’t a way that that government could actually have come after every person the whole time, but it still had effect in demobilizing people who otherwise could have provided the sort of mass participation nonviolently that could have had different impacts. It’s also very easy for regimes and others to mobilize counter narratives, whether they’re actually organized or not. This is basically attempts to pollute the discourse with accusations that movements are, say, foreign conspiracies. This is a very common trope meant to undermine movements’ legitimacy by saying that they’re essentially foreign conspiracies or sponsored by foreign countries or they’re outsiders or they’re traders—there’s various different delegitimizing narratives that diffuse much more easily with these media, and certainly deepen and harden the polarization that already exists. Movements can counter-mobilize through these media.
So a useful example is Brazil’s recent back-and-forth movements, leftist and rightist movements. The rightest movements really exploited social media, and what’s happened—many people argue it completely kind of circumvented more mainstream channels of media and communication and surprised everyone by how powerful the movement had grown through these more private social media channels. And of course, it allows for the diffusion of misinformation in virality about these movements. They can spread rumors or information about movement leaders and such can undermine their legitimacy. And as I mentioned, legitimacy can be so important because the first thing these movements have to do is get very large in cross cutting. So anything that divides the movement or wedges the population into those that are potential recruits into a movement and those that aren’t undermines movements’ ability—or at least adds a new layer—to the movements’ need to sort of attract a broad base of support.
So a couple of examples of this misinformation and fake news that has undermined the movements’ public image would be big stories where governments who are opponents of movements have used images from riots or other more violent protests to depict a current movement that was clearly staying with nonviolent discipline. There are also fake accounts. I mentioned this, the Sudanese example of entrapping people in an event, but there’s also fake accounts that basically truly stick to the narrative form of disruption. And some of them were disturbing examples from the Russian operations in 2016 and the United States. The Russian government had... The IRA had set up an account called Blacktivist on Facebook, which meant to simulate black racial justice activists in the United States, but actually was trying to basically divide Black Lives Matter and make it look more radical in the public mind. They also set up an Instagram account called Woke Black that discouraged people from voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, spreading stories about her and trying to discourage black voters from turning out and supporting anyone in the polls. And then using the Black Lives Matter hashtag to try to depict legitimate solidarity while also using divisive messages into their media operations. There’s also the issue of deep fakes, which has become even more concerning with facial recognition technologies, which many people worry about enabling opponents of peaceful activists using to essentially spread completely irrefutable fake stories about them. So basically, all of these things can undermine the unity of movements, the ability to attract large and diverse segments of society. It can undermine their discipline. It can increase targeted repression, and it can reduce their ability to expand their basis of support.
I do want to say that I think this moment is a little bit different. I’m one of those people that actually thinks there’s a lot more continuity than change in the world, but I do think there are some particular characteristics of the digital age that do differentiate these challenges from, say, movements facing down propaganda. The first is that there are so many actors because of the horizontal nature of these technologies. There’s just a multiplicity of actors who can engage in disinformation campaigns. So it doesn’t necessarily require coordination, organization, or committed resources by governments to create this propaganda. It’s sort of, anyone can do it from where they’re sitting and it can have outsized effects. The second thing is that it is a truly unprecedented time in terms of levels of individual surveillance penetration because everyone carries around at least one device of active surveillance in their pockets at any time. But some have more than one, and they can be used to triangulate opinions and activities.
And then the third reason it’s different is because of the complexity of tech innovation in the sector in general. We’re talking about governments that use these technologies, but also companies that are innovating around these technologies and selling the software without much regulation. And so the capabilities of one’s opponents are often unknown. Precisely because of their incentives to conceal what they’re capable of and to misrepresent it. So it’s hard to know where activists should start if they’re trying to change the nature of the game. Do they focus on tech companies? Do they focus on governments to regulate tech companies? Is this a transnational problem? Like it is really complex and difficult as opposed to the age of propaganda when it was clear that the opponent was organizing an effort centrally. So on that note, I’m ever an optimist because exactly, I have collected data on nonviolent movements that have succeeded against the odds in many, many different contexts worldwide.
And I want to just outline what I think, based on what I’ve said might be five pathways forward. Although I’m new to this subject and so, will have to do a lot more deep thinking about it and I encourage your comments and questions as well to help with that. So the first of the five paths I think is leading from the last point, which is pick the target at the right scale. So there’s a technique that many movements use called power mapping or a spectrum of allies mapping. And that’s really an effort to figure out who are the different stakeholders? Who are perpetuating systems in which there’s no regulation and no accountability around tech innovation and the ways that it can affect and undermine people’s human rights and democratic practice. So the first things, first for developing any kind of unified strategy is to map the power structures. Map where movements are in those power structures and then come up with some focus on where to fight back. Whether it’s against the practice of surveillance or manipulation or the systems that allow it to continue.
The second thing that is a potential path forward is to innovate. So this is where movements would actually collaborate with one another and take it upon themselves to create new and more attractive platforms that actually disrupt the existing ones and attract more followers. So to some extent, this is something that many movements working under propaganda conditions used to do. Like the Polish Solidarity Movement was able to expand its base under pretty severe restrictions by the communist government from 1980 to 1989 by essentially building its own newspaper. The newspaper was so subversive because it had the, quote unquote, real information in it that it became widely popular. So there was all of a sudden 10 million subscribers to this newspaper. Of course, the Polish Communist Party had the outline at that point, make it illegal to circulate it. The newspaper continued to circulate and got even more popular. Then the communist government had to outlaw printing presses that weren’t state-owned and locked up. And at that point, the movement which had thought ahead had been collecting onion skins in factories for weeks and just simply rolled out the paper through press onion skins for a time, which then made the communist government have to consider outlawing onions, which made it look so ridiculous that they couldn’t do that. And of course, loosen restrictions on circulation because they realized they were losing a legitimacy game. And that this movement had created a platform that was better than the one that they were trying to promote. So we can see some examples of this with sites like Fake news DZ in Algeria, which is a Facebook site. It’s kind of their version of Snopes, specifically developed by the protest movement that ousted Bouteflika last spring to counteract a massive information campaign against that protest movement. And they were able to debunk about 300 stories as fake. And it’s already the most popular Facebook page in Algeria, just having been founded in April. So these are ways that movements can sort of break through and create something that is more attractive.
It’s interesting with the facial recognition technology. Hong Kong protesters have started wearing face masks and, of course, the government tried to ban face masks. And that bill has been violated now by many of the protesters because it’s become more attractive and a way to circumvent repression. So the third thing that is a potential path forward is to really analyze the strategic playbook that is being used against these movements. So what is the purpose of these disinformation campaigns? What are they trying to do to the movements? It’s clear that they want the movements to think it’s a good idea to use violence. They want to disrupt them and disunify them and make them look totally chaotic in the public imagination. They want to shroud them in secrecy and conspiracy. And so movements should basically not succumb to those traps. If movements want to win, they should recommit explicitly to nonviolent action, to discipline, to unity, and to transparency because those are the things clearly their opponents don’t want them to do because it’s threatening.
The fourth thing that is a potential path forward is for these movements to be rigorous and truthful. And I say this because the temptation for movements to their supporters to essentially retaliate through their own disinformation programs is profound. And it’s very hard to contain as well, because so many of these movements are decentralized and have a decentralized leadership structure. But previous history shows that particularly for progressive movements, it can be incredibly costly for them to succumb to this temptation. One of my colleagues is a woman named Mary King, who was a press secretary for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. And one of her responsibilities was writing up press releases to send a mainstream news media, and the aftermath of different events associated with the civil rights movement. And she said that when she would get a phone call about a certain number of people who were arrested or beaten or killed in the course of a match or a demonstration, that she would always triangulate and try to verify to the fullest extent possible. But she would always report the most conservative number. Because she was very worried that if she reported more, maybe exaggerated figures, that the movement’s credibility and legitimacy would be undermined. And that they were fighting a battle of legitimacy and politics and they couldn’t afford being accused of being liars or hypocrites. So what’s kind of interesting about her experience is she said that the mainstream media always used her numbers. And that actually created a level of trust between journalists and SNCC that was very important to allowing them continual access to news outlets that could amplify their message.
And then finally, the fifth potential pathway forward is more broad of resurrecting truth as itself a revolutionary value. The reason why Solidarity in Poland was so popular is that it was counterculture and counter hegemonic at the time to want to publish your own newspaper and have it highlight a few more liberal democratic ideas. At the time, that was the revolutionary moment for them. Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia talked about living in truth as the best way to undermine authoritarian regimes, or at least their abilities to interfere with people’s day-to-day lives.
And so there is in a sense, given this time, we have an opportunity to popularize truth as a value in itself. Framing the truth as a path to liberation, framing the truth as an end that’s worthy of protracted fight and to lay claim to truth as the movements’ terrain, so movements are actually trustworthy, that they are attractive, and that they’ll pull people together because exactly, they’re focused on this primary purpose. So with that, I think I just put out a lot of different ideas and I’m really excited to hear where the discussion goes from here.
Q: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, when you’re speaking about the proliferation of anti-government protests around the world, put the blame on a growing deficit of trust between citizens and the political class. Do you think this is an adequate explanation or do you think we’re seeing more structural challenges to the global status quo? Are there risks to spillover effects from civil resistance movements into other countries?
Yeah. So I think this is a great question. There’s a lot to it. I think that that Guterres was right to point out this growing deficit of trust between people and their governments. I think this is kind of sort of familiar idea that people are tired of the establishment and they want new faces and new ideas. But I think a more kind of general cause of that frustration with the establishment is more a growing sense that the way that governments are organized today makes it very difficult for them to address urgent and pressing problems that people have. So there is a frustration, especially among youth around the world about inaction on climate change, for example. There’s frustration about inaction on economic inequality or poverty alleviation, or at least some kind of level of fairness that people experience in their access to resources and opportunities that they see others have where they live. There’s also this rising resurgence of authoritarianism. And I think a lot of the movements are actually rising up in their minds while they still can, while there’s still freedom of assembly and things like that.
And then I also think that we still haven’t really tackled some of the major issues as corruption. And there’s more widespread knowledge of corrupt deals and bad governance because of the information environment that we live in. And then of course, like I just said, there’s more access to information. So people know these days that they can organize movements to challenge the status quo, that other people are doing it right now around the world, millions of people in fact, and that they want to give it a try as well. In terms of a spillover effects, I would say that recent research has suggested that there are diffusion effects. That is to say, when people rise up in a certain region, it is more likely that other countries in the region will experience a similar uprising. So this is why you often see this in waves like the East European Spring, the color revolutions, the Arab Spring, the Latin American Spring or October revolutions, etc. So I think that is a phenomenon. It doesn’t explain all of these movements, but it does mean that if there’s an uprising in a region, it makes the country slightly more to experience one of these mass uprisings.
Q: I’m an independent consultant working on anti-corruption issues and a 2013 graduate from the Kennedy School and a big fan of your work. So thanks for all your leadership on this. I had two questions and feel free to touch on either or both. One is the connection between nonviolent social movements and organized civil society, established NGOs, and how you’ve seen the two of them interact, collaborate or otherwise link up to be able to sustain momentum after the protest into a lasting policy change? And the second question is about donor funding of movements, which is quite a topic and in vogue among some foundations lately, how they can be part of this trend in a supportive way. But of course, there’s all of the risks that come with making the accountability pathways towards donors instead of towards the grassroots activists themselves. So I’m curious what practices or resources you’ve seen in the donor space to look at this question? Thank you.
Thank you so much. Those are great questions. So I’ll speak to the first one, the connection between nonviolent movements and civil society NGOs. One of the things... There are two things I’ll say about it. The first is that it seems really clear from previous cases that at least during the transition phase, it can be really important for movements to have access to organized civil society in the sense that they can form coalitions that keep the pressure on for the reforms to take place after large scale mobilization has subsided, but also enhance different values that are pushing in a more rights-respecting direction. So there’s a really interesting book about this phenomenon in the Polish case, it’s called Rebellious Civil Society. It was published by two different Polish scholars, and they’re basically saying there has to be some continual level of leverage even after the movement demobilize because there are lots of temptations for there to be reversals after a movement has won. But the other thing is NGOs often can offer a level of specialization around different skills like election monitoring or community development and other things that movements really aren’t built to do. Movements are essentially there to create leverage and defections. NGOs can often help to support a society that’s in transition.
And then in terms of donor funding, I have an active project on this topic with Maria Stephan right now at USIP. And we’re just now analyzing and writing up our results. What I would say about this is basically, I think she has a pretty good report out at USIP on having a movement mindset when it comes to supporting these movements. And I’d encourage you to take a look at that. Shaazka Beyerle who’s also at USIP wrote a great book called Curtailing Corruption, which is about civic mobilization against corruption in particular, and she has a really nice chapter about how donors can support these movements. But basically, one of the things that can be the most important for them is skills transfer from other movements. So I think donors can play a really valuable role in allowing these movements to convene with one another. In fact, probably the most useful thing for them is to be together and train together with other activists, either from where they live that they haven’t had an opportunity to connect with or with activists from a similar country that can share their own experience without undermining the accountability issues that you mentioned.
Q: Good afternoon. First of all, my compliments to what you are doing because I find your arguments and your academic-grounded insights compelling and substantive. My comment question to you Ms. Chenoweth is this, the aspect of legitimacy is absolutely paramount. And as you have stated very clearly and profoundly, the era of digital is a blessing as well as a curse in terms of command and control. However, my question to you is this, recently in Congo, there were massive protests, nonviolence, grounded within an ethos of discipline and speaking truth to the gangster oligarchy still running the country. Elections were held, profoundly flawed. I was there on the ground. And yet the West made it very clear that there is a two tier system of democratic governance. One for us in the West according to rule of law, standards, and all of the relevant adjacencies, and then another for those who are vested in a nation rich in natural resources. How does one deal? How does one continue to inspire the national local peoples who are filled with fervor and yet you have leaders of government who traffic with oligarchies and dictators and complain that these are the people are well worthy and doing business? I thank you very much.
Thanks. So I think there’s this question about how do nonviolent movements succeed when powerful international interests align line up behind their opponents. And there are many examples of this as you can imagine from the period that I studied, which is 1900 through last year. I think that there are two things that I want to mention here. First in my book with Maria Stephan, which we published in 2011, we found that actually nonviolent movements don’t necessarily benefit. One, Western countries come out overtly supporting them with direct assistance. And this is actually because of something that the previous caller brought up, which is that providing direct material assistance to your grassroots nonviolent movement can actually reinforce the opponents’ claims that they are outsiders, even if that’s not true. But it gives some level of credence to that claim. And the other thing is that it tends to undermine their local bases of support because their skepticism about movements that receive large amounts of cash or something because there’s concerns that they’re basically puppets or they’re getting rich while ordinary people are struggling and suffering, and putting themselves on the line without benefits. And so it creates these sort of demobilizing or collective action effects. That said, it can be very important for powerful governments to withhold support from regimes that they typically support. So for example, during the People Power movement in the Philippines, the Reagan administration sent an envoy to Ferdinand Marcos, his administration. This was in the mid-80s of course, and told them in the peak of the crisis of the People Power movement, that the Reagan administration would not continue to support Marcos if he cracked down on essentially unarmed nuns who were amassing in the streets. But that the U.S. would help Marcos escape the situation, essentially with the golden parachute. And that’s what he opted to do. So that transition took place, not because the government supported the movement overtly, but because they withheld support from an ally in a way that basically removed that pillar from him to stay in power.
So I think that the Congo example is important in that I think that movements around the world have often won even when the international community was stacked against their favor. But it can be a formidable challenge for those movements to remove the pillar of support that is an enabling government from the outside. Another example is Syria, of course, where Russia and Iran have supported Assad. If they had not supported Assad, there would not have been a civil war in my opinion. So I think there is a real risk with governments sticking to their allies in these types of cases. But Maria and I also found that it wasn’t a necessary condition for lots of these campaigns to win. So many of them won even without that level of international assistance.
Q: I retired recently, but I’ve been watching this environment. I mean, obviously things are a lot more intense these days and I’m deeply concerned. I know that the policemen in Virginia the other day were afraid that the civil war was going to start by this group that was coming to protest with guns. And I know for a fact, I was online with a program that I was sort of stalking, because it was nasty program, and they had one day a tool to help sign up for the revolution on the right wing side. And I’m deeply concerned about how we interpret the Constitution to allow for violence of any kind, real violence. People getting hurt, stones being thrown at cops, and things like that. How do we peel back from that? Or can we, or should we?
Yeah. So this is a great question. I think that the rally in Virginia and Richmond this last week is a good example of how not all protest is an example of nonviolent resistance, right? So people gathering at a state house with military grade weaponry to make a point would not classify... I would not classify that as the same phenomenon as what I’ve been mentioning with regard to nonviolent assistance. First, they’re not unarmed. And second, they openly embrace the possibility as you said, that violence might break out and they were willing to take that risk and basically, didn’t call off the event in light of knowing that this risk was present. And so for me, a campaign is only nonviolent if the people who are using the method are unarmed and they are committed to a discipline of nonviolent action. So they’re not trying to hurt anybody. And if there is word that people are going to get hurt, they don’t do it, right? So they call off the event. Which was the case in this instance, that there were many different counter protesters who at first were planning to go and counter protest to that event and called it off because they couldn’t guarantee that it would be nonviolent on their side. So I think that’s important to register. But I agree with you. I think that it is very dangerous for people to be organizing provocative actions and in some sense, welcoming the outbreak of armed conflict. I don’t think people fully appreciate and understand the way that the dynamics of violence takeover, and that they go well beyond anyone’s control once they break out. So it’s very dangerous for this type of both discourse and activities to be taking place in our country right now. So I think what needed is more knowledge and information about effective methods of creating political change, using nonviolent methods. A clear denunciation of both violent discourse and violent activity by anyone in a position of authority or responsibility over these issues. And certainly, a real attempt to embolden and empower our civil society groups to engage people who are feeling left behind or unheard in ways that can channel that descent into a productive direction or a constructive direction. Not everybody in our country is going to be well situated to carry out that work, but we need to be supporting groups that can and are doing that and giving them a lot more attention and praise because it’s very difficult. But if I were in any other country... I specialized a lot in political violence. If I were in any other country, driving around and seeing groups like were collected and Richmond, or frankly any number of different groups that are training in firearms for kind of militarized purposes, I guarantee we would be calling that a certain thing and saying this is very dangerous. This country is at great risk, and we need to have some major conflict resolution efforts underway comprehensively in every direction at this point before it escalates.
Q: Hi. I took the nonviolence course online and have been training in the Arab world. My question is about situations where, yes there are protests, but a faction in society, the size of the portion, let’s say 20 percent or 30 percent like in Lebanon or in Syria, that are with the regime and are with the system. The nonviolence is not like clearly the whole population against a dictator. It’s actually one fraction against the other.
Yeah. I think that is the nature of the political game, which is that sometimes there are real limits to the ability of a nonviolent campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the power holders. And sometimes, societies are so deeply polarized that it can look like a 50-50 split or something along those lines. And I guess for me, there’s a real question about sequencing of mobilization and then more groundwork of building alliances, building coalitions, reasoning with others, trying to persuade people. And it’s not always the time for mass mobilization. And many movements engage in mass mobilization when they launched because they’ve run out of other options. But also, sometimes they do it once they’re already sure that they’ve kind of won the argument and are able to elicit the types of defections from groups of society or whatever that they need to assure success. It’s very difficult, but it’s much more about political game and long-term political maneuvering I think than just assembling math and getting huge numbers of people to turn out and winning without being able to maintain some kind of effective governing coalition in the aftermath. There’s a time for it and then a time for building those coalitions.
And in Poland for example, I’ve been kind referring to the solidarity movement. It’s notable that their first collective effort was actually to demand the right to form trade unions, which they picked precisely because it was really hard for the communist party to get away with not allowing them to do that, given the nature of the system. But they still tried to prevent them from doing that. But then they didn’t immediately escalate to asking for a democracy because the society wasn’t ready and the regime was too brutal. And they instead went to try to do more like what people would call community organizing, which is trying to help dissidents’ families when those dissidents were in jail, doing their underground newspaper, becoming a popular political force. Having what’s called blind universities, which were subversive schools that took place in people’s homes. So much more kind of building parallel institutions, what Gandhi would call constructive programs. They did it for nine years before even starting to come back and full force and make claims about democracy. So I think like I said, there’s sort of times for mass mobilization and there’s time for constructive programs. And then there’s time for trying to forge those alliances across difference.
Q: I’m calling because I am originally from Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rico is going through its own process of popular uprising. But it has two enemies. It has an Imperial Congress that exercises absolute power over it and its colonial status. And it has a corrupt local government that has largely been fostered by the colonial situation. My question is, should the people of Puerto Rico keep these two enemies separate or do they come back to both of them at the same time? And how do they keep the energy to maintain a protest situation that has been totally nonviolent and largely energized by music, art, and the popular voice?
Such a great question. Puerto Rico has been one of those spectacular cases over the last year. A place where people are just totally taking the future of Puerto Rico into their hands and trying to shape the nature of governance there. And so it’s really, I’m watching it with a lot of interest. I don’t know what the people should do. I think people there are much better positioned to understand the nature of the strategic game than I am. And I think you’re really astute in pointing out these two different dimensions of the problem. And so what I can do is sort of speak to maybe some more cases where there were attempts to confront colonial authorities or colonial-backed authorities. Many of the movements that I’ve studied are movements that were trying to expel foreign occupations or colonial powers. So many of the cases in my dataset from the 1950s through the 1970s are exactly these cases where there was this question about whether to focus more on the colonial-backed rulers locally or whether to focus on the colonialism itself.
And there are various pathways through which this has happened. But one thing they all have in common is that they all developed an international constituency. So they were able to expand their bases of support to people outside the country in which they were operating and form head of global action networks that help expand their leverage particularly over the colonial power. So in East Timor, for example, this is a place that was annexed in 1964 by Indonesia after Dutch colonial rule and then became independent in 1999 to 2000 precisely because of a mass campaign that forged alliances with Indonesian students who were human rights focused in the universities in Jakarta and elsewhere. And then those students expanded the leverage of the movement by lobbying in the U.S. Congress and other places for the U.S. and other powers to stop providing military assistance to the Indonesian occupation, which they did. They succeeded in getting laws on the books preventing that. And then ultimately, during the Asian financial crisis actually, when Indonesia was essentially forced to reckon with East Timorese independence claims, Indonesia was actually toppled in the process and East Timor became independent with the UN-mediated process. That was messy, but resulted in an independence. So here I think, the key takeaway is that movements that have territorial claims or anti-colonial claims in particular have been effective when they’ve built a global constituency because that can help enhance their leverage.
Great. Well, thank you very much. And I’d like to thank everyone who called in to today’s Wiener Conference Call, and especially thank our speaker, Professor Erica Chenoweth.