Category Archives: Nonviolence

Book review. Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know by Erica Chenoweth

Book review. Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know by Erica Chenoweth
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2022


Nonviolent resistance campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. That was the conclusion of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, making it a seminal book in the study and practice of nonviolent struggle (see PN 2547 – 2548).

With Civil Resistance, Chenoweth, currently professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard university, has arguably written an even more important book.

As part of Oxford University Press’s ‘What Everyone Needs To Know’ series, the text is made up of nearly 100 questions and answers.

Chenoweth starts with the definition of civil resistance as ‘a form of collective action that seeks to affect the political, social, or economic status quo without using violence or the threat of violence against people to do so’.

She goes on to address common myths – that it’s passive, doesn’t work against dictators, only works by morally converting the opponent, and so on.

Chenoweth also highlights four key factors behind successful nonviolent campaigns: large-scale participation, loyalty shifts amongst regime supporters, tactical innovation, and resilience in the face of repression.

Along with celebrated movements like the US civil rights struggle and Otpor’s work to remove Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in 2000, plenty of lesser-known, inspiring nonviolent activism is also referenced. This includes the 1929 Igbo Women’s War in Nigeria, a mass nonviolent campaign by women opposing the attempt to levy taxes by British authorities. Another case mentioned is the use of female nudity by the Green Belt Movement to shame and repel the police in 1990s Kenya.

Having received criticism for ignoring the role of unarmed violence in successful campaigns, Chenoweth engages with the debate by devoting a whole chapter to the topic.

The data is clear, she argues. From 1900 to 2019, 65 percent of nonviolent campaigns without fringe violence succeeded in overthrowing regimes or winning self-determination, compared to only 35 percent of nonviolent campaigns that included some fringe violence. Why? ‘Fringe violence tends to drive supporters away… tends to repel potential allies, increase government repression, and discourage those supporting the regime from defecting.’

An accessible, one-stop bible of nonviolent struggle, Civil Resistance includes an academic-quality bibliography along with a helpful list of essential books, documentary films, websites and training guides. There is also a huge 30-page list of nonviolent and violent revolutionary campaigns between 1900 and 2019.

Civil Resistance is an absolutely essential book for peace activists and anybody interested in history or in creating a better world. So pretty much everyone, then.

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 November 2021

Non-violence is under attack.

Many influential figures on the Left in the UK dismiss, misrepresent or ignore the concept of non-violent struggle, also known as civil resistance. Indeed, two books have recently been published that explicitly criticise non-violence – Andreas Malm’s ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ and ‘In Defense of Looting’ by Vicky Osterweil. In a June 2020 editorial, the revolutionary Leftist magazine Salvage proclaimed: “Salvage glorifies the burning down of the Minneapolis third police precinct [in response to the murder of African-American man George Floyd]”.

Below I respond to some of the myths often repeated on the Left about non-violent struggle.

Myth One: violence is more effective than non-violence in making change

“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it,” wrote Afua Hirsch in The Guardian in April 2018 about the end of apartheid in South Africa. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Yet while there is disagreement about the relative importance of violence and non-violence in the struggle, it is clear that at the very least, non-violent struggle played an important contributory role in the end of apartheid.

Summarising the key events – which included labour strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and civil disobedience, activities involving hundreds of thousands of people – in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Lester Kurtz, a professor at George Mason University, wrote: “In the end, a concerted grassroots non-violent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate.” Of course, many highlight the importance of the armed resistance but I’m confident no serious historian or observer would be dismissive of the incredibly brave non-violent resistance to apartheid.

More broadly, to quote the non-violent action guru George Lakey, “the underlying assumption” of a view such as Hirsch’s “is that violence is the most powerful force in the world”. As Lakey noted in 2001: “This is conventional wisdom, shared by most right-wingers, left-wingers, and people in the middle. It’s as popular as the old consensus that the earth is flat. And it is just as incorrect.”

The 2011 book ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’ by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan provides academic evidence in support of the efficacy of non-violent struggle. The 2012 winner of the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international relations, the study was a key inspiration for the founders of Extinction Rebellion, arguably one of the most successful protest movements in recent British history (though writing in Peace News Gabriel Carlyle notes their analysis of the book isn’t quite right).

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, the authors concluded that non-violent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They argued this difference is down to non-violent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support. This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters, and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the chances of success.

Their findings are broadly supported by the research of Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Using a different data set of violent and non-violent strategies of groups seeking self-determination between 1960 and 2005, she concluded that non-violent resistance “is more effective than violence in obtaining concessions over self-determination”.

2020 journal article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow of Princeton University provides further evidence. Evaluating Black-led protests in the US between 1960 and 1972, he found that “non-violent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to non-violent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6-2.5%.”

In contrast, “Protester-initiated violence… helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward ‘social control’.” He concluded that violent protests likely caused a 1.5-7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans in the 1968 presidential election, tipping the close-run election for Richard Nixon.

Myth Two: non-violent struggle is passive

Hirsch’s framing above implies that ‘peaceful’ activists don’t break the law, aren’t willing to get killed, and aren’t revolutionaries. This ahistorical muddle feeds into another popular myth about non-violent struggle – that it is passive and avoids conflict.

Chenoweth sets out the reality in her new book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’: “Civil resistance is a method of conflict – an active, confrontational technique that people or movements use to assert political, social, economic or moral claims… In a very real sense, civil resistance constructively promotes conflict.”

Having created a list of 198 methods of non-violent action, Gene Sharp – sometimes called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” – described them as “non-violent weapons… the direct equivalent of military weapons”. Sharp saw non-violent struggle as a form of warfare, arguing that a non-violent campaign should have the same level of strategic vision, tactical smarts and coordination as a successful military campaign – one reason he sought out the influential military historian and strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart to discuss the topic in the late 1950s.

The often strategically brilliant US civil rights movement provides a good case study. Writing about the representation of Martin Luther King in the 2014 film ‘Selma’, Jessica Leber noted that the non-violent campaign he led in 1965 for African-American voting rights “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition”.

Myth Three: non-violent struggle isn’t a realistic option when confronting dictatorships

Writing last year in support of Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, Louis Allday approvingly quoted the former resistance fighter and South African president, Nelson Mandela: “Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do, but if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

Like Allday, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, also believes non-violent struggle is not a realistic tactic in the face of violence. Speaking to Giles Fraser on the latter’s Confessions podcast, Andrews argued: “You have to be realistic. If you create a politics which can overturn Western capitalism, you are going to have to use violence. You are not going to have a choice because there will be violence meted out against you.”

In contrast, Chenoweth and Stephan noted: “The notion that non-violent action can be successful only if the adversary does not use violent repression is neither theoretically nor historically substantiated.” They argued that their findings are “true even under conditions in which most people would expect non-violent resistance to be futile, including situations in which dissent is typically met with harsh regime pressure”. Writing in 2003 about the misconceptions around non-violent resistance, the political scientist Kurt Schock argued that the evidence actually points to the opposite conclusion: “In fact non-violent action has been effective in brutally repressive contexts, and it has been ineffective in open democratic polities.”

There are many historical examples showing how largely non-violent movements played a central role in overthrowing repressive governments. The Shah of Iran in 1979, President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986 and President Bashir in Sudan in 2019 are just a few.

One reason non-violent struggle can overthrow brutal dictatorships is because, as Chenoweth and Stephan note, government repression is more likely to backfire against a non-violent campaign than it is against a violent campaign. This backfiring often leads to even greater mobilisation against the government, shifts among loyalists to the regime and sanctions against the violent offender.

What’s more, using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski, from the University of Connecticut, highlight a “counterintuitive paradox” – that those campaigns which remain non-violent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings. They concluded: “Non-violent uprisings are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.”

Myth Four: non-violence isn’t realistic in the Global South

Speaking on a Novara Media livestream last year, host Michael Walker explained that he supports a strategy of non-violence in countries like the US and UK, countries which “are liberal democracies where public opinion matters”. However, he went on to note “the limits of non-violence in Global South countries” such as Indonesia and Chile, where reformist, largely non-violent social democratic movements and governments were violently overthrown by the military and CIA.

Last year, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote that in 2010, as she was travelling to Sudan, the country of her birth, at the beginning of what became the Arab Spring, “it was simply unfathomable that peaceful protests would overthrow an Arab dictator. It had never happened before.”

In reality, movements that have primarily relied on non-violent struggle have a long history in the Global South, including some successes in the Arab world.

Sudan itself provides two examples, with dictatorships toppled in 1964 and 1985 “through massive civil resistance campaigns”, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, an assessment confirmed by Dr Willow Berridge in his 2015 book ‘Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: the “Khartoum Springs” of 1964 and 1985’.

It is also worth noting that in the Novara Media livestream, Walker was referring to President Suharto’s murderous seizure of power in Indonesia in 1967, and Augusto Pinochet’s destruction of Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in 1973. But he failed to mention that non-violent campaigns played a central role in ousting Suharto in 1999 and Pinochet in 1988.

Though pretty much unknown in the West, there are many other examples of non-violent campaigns playing a central role in regime change in the Global South. In 1944 peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico. The same year, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador was removed by mass civil resistance. Influenced by Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah led a popular, largely non-violent uprising to win independence for Ghana in 1957. Many more examples of the power of non-violent struggle are listed in Chenoweth’s book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’ – from the campaign for Zambia’s independence in 1964 to Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to popular democracy in the 1980s, and Malawians bringing down 30-year dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s.

Is the data on non-violence reliable?

As a seminal text with a bold conclusion, Chenoweth and Stephan’s ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ has unsurprisingly received some criticism, including a number of academic responses.

All of the three critiques I have read argue the NAVCO database that Chenoweth and Stephan base their conclusions on is flawed.

In 2018 Mohammad Ali Kadivar and Neil Ketchley noted: “The coding of violence used in NAVCO derives primarily from the Correlates of War data set, which requires that all combatants be armed and for there to be at least one thousand battle deaths during the course of a campaign.” This definition, they added, “excises incidents of unarmed collective violence, which are otherwise coded as episodes of nonviolent protest.” Therefore, in addition to non-violent and violent campaigns, Kadivar and Ketchley presented a third category: “unarmed collective violence”, described as episodes which “inflict physical damage on persons and/or objects… without the use of firearms or explosives”.

With this expanded terminology, they concluded: “An event history analysis finds that riots are positively associated with political liberalisation in 103 non-democracies from 1990 to 2004,” and that, “In contrast to the assertions by non-violent resistance literature… acts of [unarmed collective] violence have not been detrimental to the cause of democratisation but may have even enhanced the chances of a democratising outcome.”

In a 2020 journal article in Critical Sociology, Alexei Anisin highlighted a number of campaigns that are missing from the NAVCO dataset. When these are included, he noted that from 1900-2006 non-violent campaigns were successful 48% of the time, unarmed violent campaigns 56% of the time, and violent campaigns 29% of the time.

Similarly, writing in the Comparative Politics journal in 2016, Fabrice Lehoucq noted that Chenoweth and Stephan omitted several campaigns that took place in Central America after 1900. Adding in these omitted examples he finds the success rate of non-violent and violent campaigns to be pretty much the same – 42% and 41%, respectively.

Chenoweth replied directly to Lehoucq’s criticism, noting the NAVCO database had been expanded and refined since 2011, and that “the aggregate statistics are virtually identical to those cited in ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’, with non-violent campaigns having a much higher success rate than violent campaigns.” Moreover, even if one were to agree that Lehoucq’s and Anisin’s analyses are accurate, then non-violent campaigns have close to the same success rate as “unarmed violence campaigns”, and close to or better success rates than “violent campaigns” – results which are very far away from the dismissive assertions of the UK Left.

It is also worth highlighting two key takeaways from ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ that I am not aware of being seriously challenged. First, non-violent campaigns are associated with far less death and destruction than violent campaigns – compare the orgy of violence in Syria and Libya after 2011 with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. Second, non-violent campaigns are more likely to lead to more democratic forms of governance than violent campaigns, a finding which is echoed by a 2005 Freedom House study.

As Chenoweth noted in her reply to Lehoucq: “‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ was not intended to be the final word on the matter, but it has helped to provoke systematic academic inquiry on a topic that has long been neglected or even derided in scholarly circles.”

Future research will refine and challenge our existing assumptions about non-violence and violence. Having read a little around the subject, I’m struck by how complicated and often contradictory campaigns and movements are in the real world – history rarely provides definite answers. In addition to actively reading about the topic, supporters of non-violent action should welcome sincere, evidence-based research and criticism. This is, after all, how one gains a greater understanding of how the world works and how to make it better – not by reflexively rejecting and misrepresenting a concept that has a long history of creating positive change.

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

Steve Melia has taken a topic that could be dully technical and written a book that is both interesting and infused with a sense of urgency in terms of the climate crisis.

Underpinned with 50 original interviews with activists, policymakers and lobbyists, he surveys the key campaigns against government transport policy over the past 30 years, from the anti-roads protests of the 90s to the fight against airport expansion, and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) mass actions in 2019. His review includes the fuel protests of 2000, which nearly brought the country to a standstill.

As a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England, Melia’s writing leans toward the academic, though he has a journalist’s eye for detail and a good story. He relates how one of the first targets of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, with its new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’, was ‘a pantomime cow called Buttercup’ at the Newbury Bypass protests: ‘The front half pleaded guilty to aggravated trespass while the rear half argued that his vision was obscured when they pranced across a security cordon’.

His analysis of the impact of protest will be of particular interest to activists – all the movements in the book ‘did have at least some influence on policy and practice’, he argues. For example, the anti-roads movement triggered a significant shift in public opinion and government policy, with most of the Tories’ planned road schemes dropped by the mid-90s. ‘Swampy had a lasting impact,’ notes a government advisor in the mid-2000s. ‘To build a road now is a lot of aggro.’

However, Melia notes government transport policy tends to change for three interconnected reasons: the strength of argument and evidence, the economic context, and public opinion – often driven by direct action. On the last point, he maintains ‘the main message of this book for XR or any other protest groups is that your actions will only work if you bring public opinion with you.’ This reference to XR – Melia was arrested during the April 2019 Rebellion – is, in part, about the controversial action to occupy a tube train at Canning Town in October 2019.

‘The need for disruptive protest action has never been greater’, he concludes. With the government attempting to push ahead with the expansion of Heathrow airport and a huge road building programme (sound familiar?), Roads, Runways and Resistance couldn’t be more timely.

Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.


Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2021

Having directed the award-winning 2011 documentary about Gene Sharp, How To Start A Revolution, Ruaridh Arrow has now published an engrossing biography of the man who CNN once called ‘the father of nonviolent struggle’.

Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, led an extraordinary life.

He was sent to prison for refusing to be drafted at the time of the Korean War, worked as assistant editor at Peace News in the late 1950s, observed firsthand the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and trained activists in Burma in the early 1990s.

Along the way he corresponded with Albert Einstein, argued with Frantz Fanon in Accra and tried to convert Yasser Arafat into adopting a nonviolent strategy.

This was crucial: Sharp saw strategic planning as essential if a nonviolent movement was to succeed. ‘No military commander would ever dream of putting 1,000 soldiers on a battlefield without a strategy for how to use them and so it was of nonviolent action’, Arrow summarises.

Moreover, Sharp’s argument for pursuing nonviolent struggle is not that it is moral but that it’s the most effective method to effect change – something confirmed by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

With his journalistic eye for a story and access to archival material, Arrow runs through a number of fascinating case studies, highlighting the impact Sharp’s thinking had on the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, as well as in Burma, the Baltic states (against the Soviet Union), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Arguably Sharp’s most spectacular influence was on the Otpor movement that played a central role in the overthrow of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević – described by Arrow as ‘the most advanced nonviolent campaign in history’.

Though he clearly admires Sharp, Arrow provides a rounded, very human portrait, noting how he could often be obstinate – it was Sharp who chose the Albert Einstein Institution as the confusing name of the organisation that he founded in 1983 – and how several close professional relationships eventually broke down.

Anti-imperialist activists will likely baulk at Sharp’s links with the US defence and state departments, as well as with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.

However, it’s Sharp’s huge, power-threatening body of work – something he argued could be used by anyone – that is most important to peace activists today. And there is much to do.

As Sharp told US activist George Lakey: ‘We are simply at the bow and arrow stage of the development of nonviolent struggle.’

For those hungry for more, Arrow provides good news – Jamila Raqib, Sharp’s colleague at the Albert Einstein Institution in his later years, is currently writing her own book about Sharp.

How To Start A Revolution is published by Big Inky Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance by Helen Beynon with Chris Gillham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2021

IN 1989 the Thatcher government announced the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. One of the new schemes was the M3 extension past Winchester across Twyford Down.

With local groups having fought the planned road for decades with little success, in the early 1990s there was a shift to direct action. Concerned about the proposed road’s impact on the land, the so-called Dongas Tribe – named after the ancient trackways in the area – set up camp on the Down.

Skilfully using original interviews, letters, memoirs, photos and poems, the authors paint a vivid picture of outdoor living, with many people recalling a deep, spiritual connection to the land.

The Dongas were soon joined by members of radical environment network Earth First!, while local residents, such as ex-Tory Councillor David Croker, continued to lobby against the road through more conventional methods (some also participated in actions too).

There were tensions between the different groups, of course, but from summer 1992 onwards they were able to carry out regular nonviolent direct action, often forcing a stop to work on the site. In 1993 the Department of Transport claimed the protests were adding £20,000 a day to the costs of the road.

The crunch came on 9 December 1992 – known as “Yellow Wednesday” – when the camp was violently evicted by a small army of private security guards. The authors painfully highlight just how traumatic the clearance was for those who experienced it. Activist Becca records “Female protesters were sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off.”

With the camp forced off the Down, people continued organising, with large rallies and mass trespasses taking place at the work site in 1993 and 1994, including one in which Kinder Scout trespasser Benny Rothman spoke at.

The road was eventually built but not before the resistance at Twyford Down had lit the touch paper for the wider anti-roads movement. There were protests against the M11 Link Road in east London, Fairmile in Devon, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and, most famously, the Newbury Bypass. Like Twyford, these hard fought battles ended in defeat for the protesters, though arguably they won the war.

“When we began campaigning there were 600 proposed schemes in the Government’s roads programme”, John Stewart, then chair of the anti-roads group ALARM UK, noted in 1998. “Now there are 150 and we expect that number to be cut further… we have done our job.”

More broadly, Twyford “begat a hundred campaigns”, activist Shane Collins notes, including Reclaim The Streets and the anti-GM movement of the late 90s. Key figures also assisted Plane Stupid with their campaign against airport expansion, and there is a clear link between the anti-roads movement and the climate camps of the 2000s and Extinction Rebellion.

Hugely inspiring, Twyford Rising is an engrossing account of one of the most important protests in recent British history. As the authors conclude: “Twyford richly deserves to be part of the legends of these Islands, for it is a lost land now, which once was filled with beauty and hope.”

To order Twyford Rising visit https://twyfordrising.org/.

Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil

Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

March 2021

Written in the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Vicky Osterweil’s central argument is that looting and rioting are positive actions, which ‘in most instances… transform and build a nascent moment into a movement’. She maintains looting makes ‘day-to-day life easier by changing the price of goods to zero’, redistributes wealth and ‘reinforces bonds of solidarity’, concluding ‘we need to argue for and defend every tactic that might overturn white supremacy, capitalism, empire and property. [my emphasis added]

A significant part of the book is devoted to criticising nonviolent struggle which, at one point, she claims ‘is structured around victim blaming and anti-Blackness.’

Centred on the US, there are, to be sure, interesting sections – on the racial roots of property, the slavery origins of the police, and the Black-led resistance to these oppressive historical forces. There is a reliance on secondary sources, which wouldn’t be a problem if all the provocative arguments were referenced adequately. Instead, one can go pages without any citations, rendering assertions like Black riots formed ‘a central part of the [1960s civil rights] movement’s power and effectiveness’ largely meaningless.

I’m often attracted to polemical writing, but Osterweil is maddingly simplistic. One chapter is titled ‘All cops are bastards’. Elsewhere, she claims FDR’s New Deal ‘did nothing more than strangle a revolutionary movement in its cradle’ [my emphasis added], and seems to think pointing out Martin Luther King travelled with an armed entourage fatally undermines the case for nonviolence (there is no reference for this, of course, though a 2016 Associated Press report I found suggests this only applies to King’s early activism in the mid-50s).

Tellingly, Osterweil fails to engage with any of the academic or historical literature highlighting the efficacy of nonviolence, with no mention of the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, researchers in the orbit of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Gene Sharp or George Lakey.

She is also blasé about the fact looting and rioting often leads to people being injured, and sometimes killed – either by state repression or the rioters and looters themselves – and shows little interest in evidence confirming nonviolence engenders more support from the public and media. For example, a June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll of Americans about the Black Lives Matter protests found 73% of respondents supported ‘peaceful protest and demonstrations’, but only 22% backed violent protests. A recent peer-reviewed article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow came to similar conclusions, as well as finding violent protest caused a rightward shift amongst voters.

Unserious and incurious, this book won’t change the minds of seasoned peace activists though, worryingly, it might influence those who are in the process of forming their views on protest and political change.

In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action is published by Bold Type Books, priced £16.99.

Book review. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Book review. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October 2020

The basic argument of this book is very simple. Contrary to the ‘persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish’, Dutch author Rutger Bregman argues that ‘most people, deep down, are pretty decent.’

The assumption of human selfishness underpins huge portions of mainstream political and economic thinking, including the influential veneer theory – ‘the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation’. Bregman believes the opposite to be true: ‘It’s when crisis hits… that we humans become our best selves.’

He considers the notion that humans are innately good to be a ‘radical idea’ with huge ramifications, because ‘to stand for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be’, for whom ‘a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening.’

Framing the book as a personal journey of discovery, Bregman ranges far and wide to construct and prove his proposition. He engages with thinkers and ideas from archaeology, anthropology, biology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics and history. The book’s plentiful references are similarly diverse, and provide a great guide for those interested in going deeper into particular subjects.

There is much here that will interest peace activists, including a discussion of SLA Marshall’s claim that only a minority of US soldiers in combat in the Second World War fired their weapons at the enemy in any given encounter, a passage looking at the ineffective Allied bombing of civilian areas in Germany in the 1940s and an inspiring account of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Bregman is particularly keen on slaying a number of sacred cows, including two famous social psychology experiments that seemed to prove human beings’ darker nature: Stanley Milgrim’s 1960s work on obedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

Fittingly, the book ends by highlighting a number of hopeful initiatives from around the world that assume human beings want to do good, such as Universal Basic Income in Alaska, Norway’s progressive prison system and participatory budgeting in South America.

Bregman is a great storyteller, which makes for a really enjoyable and engaging read. Even though he approvingly quotes Bertrand Russell about not letting wishful thinking get in the way of the truth, the book is very much a polemic, with the nagging feeling of being guided down a particular path using carefully selected evidence and argument.

For example, while the many criticisms of Zimbardo’s work leads to Bregman dismissing the academic’s findings, when it comes to Marshall’s also heavily-criticised research, Bregman is happy to broadly accept his results, which happen to back up his argument.

But even if you aren’t completely persuaded by Bregman’s argument, Humankind is nevertheless a welcome rebalancing of the scales in the age-old ‘human nature’ debate in favour of co-operation, compassion and nonviolence – something that can only help peace activists and the struggle for a better world.

Humankind is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20.

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star

13 July 2020

Like many people I’ve followed and been inspired by the extensive news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. But I really didn’t understand their extraordinary size until I read a recent New York Times analysis.

For the uninitiated the women-founded movement began in 2013 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted after he shot and killed 17-year old African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida. Since them BLM has highlighted and opposed the brutality, injustice and unaccountability that black people experience in America, especially from the police and legal system.

BLM activists played a leading role in the demonstrations sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and have led the protests in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on 25 May.

According to the 3 July New York Times analysis the recent demonstrations peaked on 6 June, with half a million people on the streets in nearly 550 locations across the US. Overall, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on 26 May.

“Four recent polls… suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks”, the report notes.

After interviewing academics and crowd-counting experts the New York Times states “These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history” – bigger than the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the Women’s March of 2017.

“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement”, Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School, comments.

Once one comprehends the immense size of the protests, their wide-ranging and deep impacts are less surprising.

Across the US cities and police forces have responded by instituting a series of reforms – highlighting how BLM has mainstreamed the concept of ‘defund the police’. In New York City Mayor Bill de Blaiso has pledged to reallocate police funding. “We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation, and we want to figure out what makes sense,” de Blasio said, according to the New York Times. Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would be redirecting $250 million from the police budget into health care, jobs and “healing” programmes for the city’s communities of colour, the Los Angeles Times reported in June.

The state of Iowa, Dallas and Denver have banned the use of chokeholds, with the Mile-High City introducing a new policy meaning police officers will have “to alert supervisors any time they point a gun at someone”, according to the Denver Post.

Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 29 June, Melina Abdullah, Professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and BLM activist, noted “The number of killings at the hands of police has remained relatively stable” in the US. “However… in cities with strong Black Lives Matter chapters the numbers have dropped dramatically”.

On the national political stage, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to establish a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office and address institutional racism. And globally, BLM in the US has inspired protests in many countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa.

Crucial though these changes are, perhaps the most exciting and important influence of BLM is the impact it has had on American public opinion.

“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago”, Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on 8 June.

He was referring to a 2 June Monmouth poll that showed 57 percent of Americans agreed that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, compared to 33 percent when asked the same question after the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in 2014. In the same survey 76 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of white people, said racism and discrimination was “a big problem” in the United States – a 26 percentage-point increase since 2015.

The New York Times notes “Public opinion on race and criminal justice issues has been steadily moving left since the first [BLM-led] protests ignited over the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.” However, according to the New York Times data from online survey firm Civiqs shows that since the death of Floyd support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years: a majority of Americans support the movement by a 25-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

As the Monmouth poll above highlights, there has been a significant shift in opinion amongst white Americans. This includes views of the police, with the percentage of white Americans who have a very favourable or somewhat favourable impression of police officers dropping from 72% to 61% within a week, according to a survey in early June organised by the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today newspaper. White people have been a significant part of the recent BLM protests. Explaining that a recent BLM protest in her predominantly black Brooklyn neighbourhood was attended by mostly white people, African-American novelist Brit Bennett told BBC’s Start The Week programme last month that this “mainstream white support” gives her hope for the future of the movement.

The protests are continuing, though with much less media attention. And while they remain popular, the New York Times notes “events could move public opinion the other way”, suggesting “a sense that protests were getting out of control, with looting and violence, could… harm the public image of the movement.”

Polling suggests this is a danger, with a 2 June Reuters/Ipsos poll finding 73 per cent of respondents support “peaceful protest and demonstrations,” but only 22% back violent protests, with 79% believing looting and vandalism “undermine the original protest’s case for justice.”

Let’s hope BLM continues to thrive and force the change that is so desperately needed in the US and beyond.

As Professor Douglas McAdam, an Emeritus Professor at Stanford University who studies social movements, commented in the New York Times: “It looks… like these protests are achieving what very few do: setting in motion a period of significant, sustained, and widespread social, political change. We appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point — that is as rare in society as it is potentially consequential.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 April 2020

Ignored by the mainstream media, in 2018 Dr Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth, a Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a very important study titled Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings.

With commentator Gary Younge heralding the 2010s as the decade of protest, and huge demonstrations continuing in places such as India, Chile and Iraq, Ian Sinclair questioned Perkoski about his co-authored report.

Ian Sinclair: Your report is informed by the seminal 2011 Columbia University Press study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by your co-author Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. For those unfamiliar with the idea of nonviolent resistance, can you summarise the key findings of Chenoweth and Stephan’s book?

Evan Perkoski: Chenoweth and Stephan produced a ground-breaking book in 2011 that was the first to systematically compare the efficacy of violent and nonviolent resistance methods. In other words, it statistically evaluates how likely popular uprisings are to succeed – to remove a dictator from power or to gain territorial independence, for example – when using either violent or nonviolent strategies. They find that nonviolent strategies are nearly twice as effective. As to why, there are many possible reasons. Nonviolent uprisings tend to be bigger and more diverse since lots of people can participate; they are difficult to suppress owing to their size, but also because militaries might not follow orders to crack down on protesters;  and they are often seen as more legitimate by international audience. As a result, these uprisings can very effectively disrupt civic affairs and apply pressure to governments. Yet, Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent movements have to grow quite large if they are to succeed. Specifically, if 3.5 percent of a state’s population actively participates at a campaign’s peak, then success is almost inevitable. But that’s a lot of people: in the US, for example, that would require over ten million individuals to turn out.

IS: What does your report tell us about nonviolent and violent resistance and the incidence of mass killings during popular uprisings?

EP: We find that mass killings tend to occur less frequently when dissidents use strategies of civil resistance and nonviolence compared to violence. Specifically, nearly half as many cases of nonviolent resistance experience mass violence as do cases of violent resistance. There are a few reasons why. Nonviolence might seem less threatening to regime elites and their families, giving them a way out without using force. Nonviolent movements also probably make it easier for members of the regime, including soldiers, to defect to the opposition, which they might hesitate to do when the opposition is a violent insurgency. And nonviolent movements don’t give the regime any cover for resorting to violence. In other words, they make it hard for states to justify a crackdown to their domestic and international allies.

IS: What are the other key factors which influence the chances of government forces carrying out mass killings in response to an uprising?

EP: Overall, we find that the interaction between dissidents and states matters greatly when it comes to the onset of mass violence. For instance, while strategies of nonviolent resistance seem to be safer, so are movements that can elicit defections from members of the armed forces. We also find that those resistance movements seeking to overthrow the incumbent regime are at a greater risk of violence. Which makes sense: leaders in such cases have the most to lose – compared to a secessionist campaign, for instance.

But we also find that outside actors can have a big effect. One of our most consistent findings is that highly internationalised conflicts, where foreign states are supporting dissidents as well as the regime they’re fighting against, are particularly dangerous.

But it’s not only the dynamics of the uprising that affect whether mass violence happens, either. Certain types of states are especially likely to kill their own civilians, and this includes non-democracies, military-based regimes (where the military controls the state), and those that are generally less developed.

IS: Can you give a real world example of this playing out in a recent struggle?

EP: One of the cases where we’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a terrible way is Syria. In some ways it fits with our findings, and in other ways it doesn’t. In terms of it fitting, this is a highly internationalised conflict with foreign states supporting both dissidents and the regime in very overt ways. Syrian dissidents are also seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, which might explain why Assad is willing to use lethal force – specifically, to stay in power. Dissidents and the regime are also engaging in direct battles against one another which can help explain the high level of civilian victimization. Of course, dissidents initially began protesting the regime with nonviolent means and only escalated after the regime began its campaign of brutal repression. This shows how it is important to remember that cross-national statistical findings will not always explain every case perfectly, and they are instead most useful for identifying broader patterns that will generally – but not always – hold true across contexts.

IS: If resistance campaigns who receive external support are more likely to experience mass killings by government forces, are there any practical steps concerned citizens and organisations in the US and UK can take if they want to assist resistance campaigns in other countries?

EP: In our research we focus on a very specific type of foreign support: namely, overt material assistance. While we find that this particular type of engagement can make violence more likely, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of engagement should be avoided. States and other interested groups might therefore avoid sending money and arms, and instead provide training materials, to help develop organizational capacity, support dissidents through acts of diplomacy, and to use their leverage to isolate and sanction any regimes that resort to violence. Doing so would also send a powerful signal to other states that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings is published by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and can be downloaded for free from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/nonviolent-resistance-and-prevention-of-mass-killings/.

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2020

Influenced by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s seminal 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works, this short report looks at the circumstances surrounding mass killings – the intentional killing of 1,000 or more civilians in a continuous event – by government forces during popular uprisings.

‘The strategic interaction between dissidents and regimes is central to the occurrence of mass violence’, argue Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, and Chenoweth, a Professor at the University of Denver. In addition, they note the ‘characteristics… of campaigns play a significant role in explaining the likelihood of mass atrocities.’

Using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, and illustrating their findings with a number of case studies, they conclude ‘nonviolent uprising are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.’ They put this down to a number of campaign-level factors: nonviolent resistance is less threatening to the physical well-being of regime elites, thus lowering the chances of violent retaliation; government crackdowns on nonviolent protestors often produce defections amongst the armed forces; and ‘the likelihood of mass killings is greater when foreign state provide material aid to dissidents’, something violent insurgencies tend to rely on.

There are, of course, structural factors which influence the likelihood of government violence – regime type and whether mass killings have occurred in the past, to name two – though the authors note these are ‘slow-moving’ and therefore provide ‘little actionable information’ for activists.

This ‘counterintuitive paradox’ – that those campaigns which remain nonviolent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings – has huge implications, both for those participating in popular uprisings and for peace and anti-war activists in the UK. For example, the research suggests those who have supported sending arms to the Syrian opposition forces, including activists who would identify as being on the progressive left, are pushing for a course of action that increases the chances of the mass killing of civilians.

The report helpfully ends with several practical steps interested external parties could take when considering how to support popular uprisings. These include trying to steer protests “toward strategies, actions and dynamics that are associated with a lower odds of mass violence”, and sharing knowledge and skills rather than providing direct financial or material assistance. External forces can also undermine the cohesion of the repressing government forces by offering exile to leaders or supporting defections – a course of action more appropriate for powerful governments rather than grassroots activists.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings was published by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in May 2018.