Rules for effective resistance
Non-violence, the rule of 3.5 per cent, and variety of protest methods: Why huge protest movements such as Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter may have the potential to incite real change. Read More
In recent months, millions of people have taken to the streets to demand social or environmental change. Movements such as Fridays for Future (FFF) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) have spread all over the world and their mass marches, always peaceful, have occupied the front pages of the newspapers. But just how effective are these actions in eliciting a response to their demands?
From New York to Paris and Dakar to Buenos Aires, over the past two years, young people around the world have come together in a peaceful battalion on the streets to send an ultimatum to the highest political levels: “Our planet is in danger, and we must hurry to save it”. Since it began in August 2018 with protest by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, the youth climate strike movement Fridays for Future estimates it has mobilized some 14 million young people in 7,500 cities in 212 countries.
In 2020, following the brutal murder of African American George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota, the anti-racist social movement Black Lives Matter resurged and gained strength, even expanding beyond the US border. The US Crisis Monitor initiative counted nearly 9,000 demonstrations in solidarity and support of the Black population in some 74 countries between 25th May and the beginning of November 2020. Although some protests in the United States were marked by violence, the vast majority and almost all those that took place in other countries were peaceful marches in which millions of people took part.
Both movements have succeeded in raising awareness of social and environmental issues and have shown that peaceful protests can mobilize large numbers of people. But is this kind of protest really effective and will participants’ demands actually be heard? Science has some of the answers.
The 3.5 per cent rule
We do know one thing for sure: a non-violent approach is generally more effective than its violent counterpart. According to Gene Sharp’s pioneering book on the theories of non-violent action, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” (1973), this type of resistance to an established power has a greater chance of achieving its objectives.
Years later, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan supported Sharp’s theories in their 2012 book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”. The political scientists gathered data from 323 violent and non-violent campaigns between 1900 and 2006 and assessed this empirical evidence to gauge the effectiveness of various protest movements.
They primarily selected movements aimed at regime change and considered them a success if they achieved their goals within a year of peak engagement and as a direct result of a movement’s activities. In other words, foreign military intervention, for instance, wasn’t defined as success, even if it was a consequence of protests and brought about the desired change.
They found that non-violent campaigns are two times more likely to succeed than violent protests – and that they were especially successful if they engaged masses of people.
According to their findings, numbers are one of the keys to success. While in general about half of all non-violent movements were considered successful (compared to 23 per cent of violent campaigns), success appeared inevitable once around 3.5 per cent of an entire population had begun actively participating. The researchers concluded that reaching that magic crowd size was most probably a guarantee for effectiveness. “There weren’t any campaigns that had failed after they had achieved 3.5 per cent participation during a peak event,” Chenoweth pointed out.
Success appears inevitable once 3.5 per cent of a population begin participating.
Examples include the People Power Movement in the Philippines, the Singing Revolution in Estonia in the late 1980s, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and, most recently, the successful 2019 revolutions in Sudan and Algeria – all of which succeeded in overthrowing their respective countries’ regimes. Peaceful resistance also proved more likely to push a movement past the magic 3.5 per cent line. This could be because methods of non-violent protest are generally not too risky and don’t require great sacrifices, so they have the potential to attract more people. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that non-violent campaigns were on average four times larger than violent campaigns. They were also more inclusive, representative, active and diverse.
Boycotts and non-cooperation
It is not just about the numbers though. Chenoweth reports that, apart from attracting large numbers of people, protest movements are also more likely to achieve their goals if they use various protest methods and innovative tactics. Demonstrations aren’t necessarily always the best choice, as an example from South Africa where protesters opted for a consumer boycott to fight Apartheid showed. The economic crisis caused when Black citizens started refusing to buy products from companies with white owners contributed to the end of segregation in the early 1990s.
There are manifold ways to exercise non-violent action – as many as 198, according to Gene Sharp – and they have different effects. Sharp names about 50 procedures of persuasion, such as speeches, petitions, and communication campaigns, along with some methods of social, economic or political non-cooperation, including strikes or boycotts, and what he calls ‘non-violent interventions’ which involve more radical actions such as hunger strikes.
From France, Saphia Aït Ouarabi, vice president of the SOS Racisme anti-discrimination association, supports the researchers’ claims and explains that activities such as face-to-face activism, communication campaigns, and concrete actions on the ground can also be very effective. SOS Racisme sometimes even transcends the law with strategies of non-cooperation to ensure peaceful actions are relevant. Aït Ouarabi notes, “It is often forgotten that peaceful does not necessarily mean legal. We have frequently won victories through civil disobedience. Peaceful action is the opposite of violent action, but it does not necessarily imply staying within the law. At SOS Racisme we sometimes take actions that disobey the law to change opinions and shed light on certain issues.”
Aït Ouarabi is also convinced Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings that peaceful movements attract many more people hold true. She says, “in France, peaceful movements always involve more people than violent ones.” The protests happening on the other side of the Pyrenees in Spain, offer an interesting counter example. Here a powerful movement, Tsunami Democràtic, the most extreme Catalan independence faction, has radicalised. Despite promulgating a non-violent ethos, on the ground many protests led to pitched battles in 2019. Photos of Barcelona in flames flooded the front pages of the international press. Today, following this departure from non-violence, the movement is languishing, practically inactive and has not achieved its goal. The spoils of success seem to go to peaceful demonstrators.
The boomerang effect
Chenoweth and Stephan identified another success factor and found that protest movements must maintain discipline and non-violence even when met with repression. According to Gene Sharp, it is psychologically harder to conduct a peaceful struggle than a violent one. He explains that like in military training programmes, peaceful activists have to prepare for the physical and psychological challenges they may face on the ground.
It is psychologically harder to conduct a peaceful struggle than a violent one.
“In our association, veterans tell us about the peaceful struggles of Martin Luther King and the people who accompanied him,” Saphia Aït Ouarabi tells. “There were people who agreed to be bitten by dogs to become more resistant to pain and stronger during sit-ins before the police. When you are peaceful, you develop greater capacity to be patient, more psychological resilience, and in the end, you are better trained than when you carry out a violent action.” While violent movements risk losing credibility due to their actions, non-violent actions can flip the script and cause the regime to lose face, she explains. “When the police react violently toward a peaceful movement, they lose credibility and legitimacy.” The regime’s brutality then has a counterproductive boomerang effect.
Since 2010 though, Chenoweth and Stephan have observed a general decline in successful peaceful protests. “The last decade from 2010 to 2019 featured the most maximalist nonviolent campaigns that we have in recorded history since 1900. […] And even as more people began to use the technique, we started to see a decline in the relative effectiveness of it.”
Chenoweth suggests the influence of internet technology and social media may be a reason for this shift. Surveillance becomes easier when people express their views publicly on social media and when private information can be hacked. There have also been cases of regimes entrapping activists – such as in Sudan, where protestors who showed up to a demonstration promulgated by fake accounts were rounded up by police – or undermining a movement’s legitimacy by spreading fake news and misinformation.
“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.”
Back to BLM and FFF
Let’s get back to the initial question and look at what this information tell us about the mass protest movements of today. If the mathematical rules apply, BLM has certainly reached the 3.5 per cent benchmark in the US, with an estimated 15 to 26 million people having participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd in the first three months. In fact, about 10 per cent of American adults claim to have participated in BLM protests.
Apart from huge mass protests, both movements have incorporated a variety of other forms of activities. The BLM movement includes numerous rather autonomous community groups and activists who organise their own local activities. Visually powerful actions have made the rounds on social media – from pranks such as hacking the police radio system to dance performances in front of confederate monuments like the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia.
About 10 per cent of American adults claim to have participated in BLM protests.
“It is estimated that 96 per cent of all US BLM protests were peaceful.”
And although FFF itself focuses on a small scope of actions such as rallies, strikes and dialogues with politicians, the climate movement in general is incorporating measures ranging from chaining activists to coal excavators and filing lawsuits against decision-makers.
Both campaigns have also remained almost completely peaceful. FFF has been criticized for participating in acts of civil disobedience, but not of violence. And while BLM protests have caught flak for occasional outbreaks of violence, the actual extent of this violence seems to have been widely overestimated.
Research by Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman found that more than 96 per cent of all US BLM protests were peaceful. Saphia Aït Ouarabi stresses that, in her experience, this holds true for France as well. “The violent struggle is not the majority, despite existing tensions between the police and some population groups – for instance police violence against radicalised people. During BLM demonstrations, some have used the ‘black bloc’ technique, which is more offensive, but they represent a minority. Violence exists, and may even be necessary, but never in a generalized way.”
Despite attracting masses of people and using various peaceful protest methods, there seem to be few tangible achievements so far for both FFF and BLM. But measuring the success of BLM and FFF is not straightforward, given that the two movements aren’t about regime change and target societal and policy change.
The future will show whether they are ultimately able to change the course of world politics and to what extent.
But for now, Chenoweth together with the researchers Lara Putnam and Jeremy Pressman draw some positive conclusions: As one of the largest movements in modern US history, BLM has sparked political engagement even among people who are historically less politically active. They found that about half of US adults participating in BLM demonstrations identified as political independents – neither Democrat nor Republican – a group of people generally less likely to be politically engaged and vote.
Everything we know about political engagement suggests that protest involvement builds new personal networks that make people more knowledgeable and engaged with politics — and more likely to vote,” the researchers conclude.
“All this suggests that the current wave of anti-racism protests may reshape local political engagement, and through it regional and state politics, even more than the Tea Party or the suburban-led anti-Trump ‘Resistance.’”