Violence Is a Dangerous Route for Protesters

Activists’ voices have to be heard first on protest tactics.

Protesters march during an anti-government protest.
Protesters march during an anti-government protest in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 15, 2019. Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

In “Violence Is Sometimes the Answer,” Kai Thaler argues that the use of violence by protesters is sometimes necessary, particularly in the face of aggressive regime violence, and critiques those “preaching nonviolent resistance” from the outside. These are familiar critiques.

We agree with a number of Thaler’s points. First, he is right to question those on the outside who tell activists what to do or offer strategic or tactical advice. Local activists know their context best, and specific instructions from outside actors can place activists at great risk. People struggling under such conditions often say they learn the most from being in touch with other activists. But when activists approach scholars or practitioners for information or resources, it is crucial to make sure that a broad range of experience and evidence are publicly available and accessible. That was the purpose of a recent event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace that featured various scholarly and activist perspectives on how movements respond to repression.

Second, we appreciate how the article highlights the role of human agency in the struggle against authoritarianism and other forms of oppression. Civil resistance offers a way for marginalized and excluded groups to wage struggle using a wide range of direct-action tactics that can be used to disrupt injustices and challenge the status quo. It is more than simply an ideal or a normative preference. We also recognize that when activists seek out support or information, they decide for themselves whether the information is relevant to their context, or whether to discard it.

Third, we share his denunciation of repressive state violence targeting unarmed civilian dissenters. It is a regrettable reality that states often respond to those who challenge state power with violent repression, regardless of which methods of resistance they use. This state violence should never be normalized, nor should false moral equivalences or “both sides”-type narratives be tolerated. Outside actors should stand in solidarity with those fighting oppression and prioritize actions that protect fundamental human rights and mitigate violence targeting unarmed dissidents.Activists from around the world continue to make arguments about the strategic utility of nonviolent resistance.

Yet we differ on other important points. First, critics often claim that nonviolence is part of a Western hegemonic discourse that reinforces the legitimacy of state violence while simultaneously encouraging oppressed people to carry the unfair burden of good behavior under crushing conditions. Discourses advocating nonviolent resistance are in no way hegemonic, nor are they Western in origin. Over the millennia, states and nonstate groups have justified violence on the basis of its necessity, used cultural relativism as a way to prevent critiques of violence, and persecuted, imprisoned, and executed those who have advocated nonviolent approaches, which threaten two hegemonic discourses—the state’s monopoly on power, and the normalcy and necessity of violence.

Nonviolent resistance has been a counterhegemonic force that challenges both of these dominant discourses. The technique was developed and embraced by people living under colonial regimes throughout the global south, as well as by marginalized and oppressed communities within the West. Despite their views that violence was preferable to passivity, practitioners such as Mohandas Gandhi and Badshah Khan saw mass civil resistance as the only way for them to challenge the violence of Western imperialism on pragmatic grounds. Over the course of the past century, the technique spread from the global south to the United States and Europe, where people fighting racism, sexism, poverty, war, authoritarianism, and economic inequality have seen the strategic value of fighting structural violence by building and wielding inclusive power from below using nonviolent resistance.

Activists from around the world continue to make arguments about the strategic utility of nonviolent resistance, without any nudging from Westerners or Western researchers. Protesters facing a massive crackdown in Baghdad attempted to maintain nonviolent discipline by shouting “Peaceful! Peaceful!” while under fire from security forces. Women in Lebanon have organized human chains to maintain nonviolent discipline in the ongoing movement there, which is now in a particularly delicate phase. Dissidents associated with the Sudanese Revolution insisted on maintaining a remarkable level of nonviolent discipline, despite bloody crackdowns attempting to throw the transition into disarray. And in Algeria, the ongoing movement there has remained both disruptive and restrained in its use of violence.

Our book, Why Civil Resistance Works, presents evidence that mass, broad-based participation is critical to movement success and that movements that rely primarily on nonviolent tactics tend to enjoy more diverse participation, which in turn yields a number of political advantages for the campaign. Updated analyses reinforce these earlier findings, and other research helps to unpack these dynamics at a more granular level.Organized nonviolent movements most often succeed in spite of violent flanks—not because of them.

The scholarly and activist-based consensus seems to be that the use of violent tactics may achieve short-term gains such as boosting morale, winning street battles, gaining substantial media attention, or avenging harms. From recent research, we know that large, well-organized campaigns can sometimes coexist with violent flanks. However, it is less clear that low-level violence by protesters increases their long-term effectiveness.

As people who have participated in nonviolent resistance ourselves and worked closely with activists who have confronted some of the most brutal regimes imaginable, we sympathize with protesters’ desire to defend themselves and fellow protesters from state violence. It may very well be morally justified to do so.

However, the use of counterviolence carries steep risks for protesters, which often go unmentioned by those endorsing or defending these techniques. Street fighting may be disruptive, but it does not generally signal to a regime that a movement has long-term staying power. Such activities typically depress movement turnout, increase widespread repression toward dissidents and their suspected supporters, unify security forces and the opponent’s supporters instead of dividing them, and make opponents less accommodating toward the movement.

Limited evidence points the other way. One study finds that protest movements using unarmed violence (such as throwing Molotov cocktails, stone throwing, and street fighting) tend to lead to democratization more often than movements using nonviolent methods alone. Another study finds that movements can sometimes succeed in spite of fringe violence, but only when the movements are well organized, with a centralized and hierarchical leadership structure, unlike many of today’s movements. But the vast majority of studies conclude that organized nonviolent movements most often succeed in spite of violent flanks—not because of them.

While nonviolent discipline makes it easier for a movement to maintain diverse and inclusive participation against entrenched power, protester violence disproportionately empowers young, able-bodied men. There are certainly exceptions, but generally, children, elderly people, women, people with disabilities, and marginalized or vulnerable populations tend to be sidelined as protester violence escalates. This process has begun in Hong Kong, where an activist recently noted that women have been largely sidelined from leadership roles as protesters have begun to use more violence during the protests. A move toward embracing protester violence crowds out people whose preferences may diverge, while also generating sympathy for their opponents among observers.

Most importantly, there is an overwhelming scholarly consensus that the introduction of violence by protesters is typically followed by an escalation and intensification of state violence. The state repression almost always targets protesters indiscriminately, making no distinction between peaceful and violent participants. Surveys in India, Israel, and Argentina suggest popular support for such repression, suggesting that within domestic contexts protester violence tends to repel rather than attract broader support. It is telling that governments commonly deploy agents provocateurs in an attempt to foment protester violence, seeking to destroy or disempower movements from the inside out.The introduction of violence by protesters is typically followed by an escalation and intensification of state violence.

In the longer term, even if movements with violent flanks win, they are more likely to increase polarization, empower oppressive political forces, and heighten the probability that a conflict escalates into full-blown civil war, even when accounting for underlying contextual factors that make countries prone to armed conflict.

Noting these empirical tendencies is not to paint protester violence as morally equivalent to state violence, but rather to acknowledge the known political and humanitarian risks of embracing or overstating the value of this technique. As political scientist Evan Perkoski has pointed out, to advocate or apologize for violence without publicly communicating its risks is just as irresponsible as endorsing nonviolent action without communicating its risks.

For instance, it is important not to overstate street protests as the be-all and end-all of popular struggle. Street protests are one among thousands of different tactics available to protesters, making it difficult to exhaust all nonviolent options. Some of the most powerful nonviolent tactics, such as labor strikes and consumer boycotts, involve mass noncooperation and disruption that don’t rely on direct confrontations with security forces. It is often the quiet work of organizing, coalition building, and resolving internal disputes that is key to movements retaining resilience and momentum.

It is healthy and normal for people within a movement to discuss and argue about strategies and tactics. They should be able to do this without interference from outsiders whose lives and livelihoods will be unaffected by decisions that can be life-and-death matters for the activists and their communities. However, when scholars and practitioners attempt to “listen to people on the ground” to understand and amplify their struggles in whatever way is possible, it is crucial that they know whose voices from the front lines are being represented to outsiders, and whose voices are being silenced at home.

No movement is monolithic, and most mass movements fighting oppressive governments are also engaged in internal struggles regarding the most strategic way forward. When some activists claim that violence is the only answer, observers should not uncritically conclude that all activists on the ground—or even the majority of them—share this attitude. There are always dissenters arguing passionately and forcefully for nonviolent resistance within their movements. Outsiders can inadvertently push them further onto the sidelines by disappearing or ignoring them.

Erica Chenoweth is the Berthold Beitz professor in human rights and international affairs at Harvard University.

Maria J. Stephan is the director of the program on nonviolent action at the United States Institute of Peace.

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