Violence Is a Dangerous Route for Protesters (2023)

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.

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.

(Video) Violent Protests Break Out in France Following Deadly Police Shooting

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.

(Video) Some bus routes in Dublin curtailed after antisocial behaviour

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.

(Video) Refugees risk violence and death on Europe’s Balkan route | Focus on Europe

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.

(Video) Police take down protestor approaching POTUS motorcade at Summit of the Americas

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.

(Video) Migrant group attempts mass entry into US at Mexico border


Why should protesters avoid violence? ›

Peaceful protests are a way for ordinary people to have their voices heard. Inherent power imbalances in society can result in people feeling marginalised and disenfranchised. Non-violent civil movements can offer anyone the opportunity to become involved and have a voice.

Why protests become violent? ›

As a protest becomes less organized and protestors become less famil- iar with one another, the level of uncertainty at the individual level increases, which in turn raises the likelihood of violent escalation.

What is a word for violent protests? ›

a noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, as by a crowd protesting against another group, a government policy, etc., in the streets.

What is violent protest movements? ›

Violent protests usually concern specific issues such as taxes, conscription into the military, and food shortages, issues that are confined to particular situations and times. Although these types of protest do not evolve into major social movements, they may have severe and immediate consequences.

Why do social movements use violence? ›

Violence is not an intrinsic feature of social movements. Some movements are avow- edly nonviolent; others use violence as a tactical weapon to be employed only under the most extreme circumstances; for others again, violence is a natural and necessary resource in the struggle.

Why violent protesting is better? ›

The reality is that—objectively examining protests—violent protest has a positive impact on political and policy change. Nonviolent protest brings awareness to an issue; violent protest brings urgency to an issue.

How do you deal with violent protests? ›

Apply the law – Police officers should apply the legal rules they have learnt. This means that they should not suppress protest out of hand, but instead work to facilitate the peaceful nature of that protest. They should not arrest or react to protesters unless protesters have broken the law.

Are violent protests increasing? ›

Armed protests on legislative grounds increased by nearly 20% between 2020 and 2021 and were also more likely to turn violent.

What is it called when you protest without violence? ›

A peaceful protest, also known as nonviolent resistance or nonviolent action, is the act of expressing disapproval through a statement or action without the use of violence.

What is a violent activist called? ›

A "militant [political] activist" would be expected to be more confrontational and aggressive than an activist not described as militant. Militance may or may not include physical violence, armed combat, terrorism, and the like.

What's a fancy word for violent? ›

Synonyms of violent (adj.

brutal. crazy. cruel. fierce. homicidal.

What are examples of violent protests? ›

Examples of violent protests include the Watts Riots, the Black Panther takeover of the California legislature, among others. The two MLK groups will confer together, as will the two Malcolm X groups.

Does violence cause social change? ›

This is strong evidence that violence is not an effective means of social change in representative systems. In many campaigns in representative systems, violence is used to a limited degree or not at all: it is hard to find an issue in which violence was a crucial tool in bringing about change.

What were the first violent protests? ›

The October 1967 demonstration against the Dow Chemical Company (and by proxy, against the Vietnam War) at the University of Wisconsin was the first violent antiwar demonstration to take place on a university campus. But from that point on, the antiwar movement grew larger.

Is it important to protect the right to protest? ›

The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and at the core of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, law enforcement officials sometimes violate this right through means intended to thwart free public expression.

What do protesters have the right to do? ›

The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views through protest. However, police and other government officials are allowed to place certain narrow restrictions on the exercise of speech rights. Make sure you're prepared by brushing up on your rights before heading out into the streets.


1. Chaos in New York city as thousands seen stomping on cars, tossing chairs in large crowd
2. SAPS and CPT taxi drivers clash in CBD after taxi impound operation
(Eyewitness News)
3. Watch: Secret Service run to Trump as protester rushes stage
(CBS News)
4. Zoo animals released in France as riots continue
5. Deadliest mass shooting in US history
(ABC News)
6. The protest in Atlantis turns violent
(SABC News)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Fr. Dewey Fisher

Last Updated: 16/06/2023

Views: 6371

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Fr. Dewey Fisher

Birthday: 1993-03-26

Address: 917 Hyun Views, Rogahnmouth, KY 91013-8827

Phone: +5938540192553

Job: Administration Developer

Hobby: Embroidery, Horseback riding, Juggling, Urban exploration, Skiing, Cycling, Handball

Introduction: My name is Fr. Dewey Fisher, I am a powerful, open, faithful, combative, spotless, faithful, fair person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.