What Makes Nonviolent Movements Explode?

What Makes Nonviolent Movements Explode?

A case study in the strange alchemy of disruption and sacrifice.

The last time protesters shut down the Brooklyn Bridge… October 1, 2011 (Mat McDermott / Flickr)

Cross-posted from Waging Nonviolence.

Why are some protests ignored and forgotten while others explode, dominating the news cycle for weeks and becoming touchstones in political life?

For all of those seeking to promote change, this is a critical question. And it was a particularly pressing concern after the financial meltdown of 2008.

In the years following the crash, America entered into its worst economic crisis in three quarters of a century. The unemployment rate reached into double digits, something that had not happened in the lifetimes of more than a third of all Americans. State governments reported record demand for food stamps. And yet, debate in Washington, D.C.—influenced by the activism of the insurgent Tea Party—revolved around cutting the budget and trimming social programs. “We were basically having an insane national discussion,” remarked economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

It took an outburst of popular action to change this. And that outburst came in an unexpected form.

By the fall of 2011, three years after the economic downturn had begun, political observers such as Krugman had long wondered when worsening conditions would result in public demonstrations against joblessness and foreclosures. Labor unions and major nonprofit organizations had attempted to build mass movement energy around these very issues. In the fall of 2010, the “One Nation Working Together” march—initiated primarily by the AFL-CIO and the NAACP—drew more than 175,000 people to Washington, D.C., with demands to combat runaway inequality. The next year, long-time organizer and charismatic former White House staffer Van Jones launched Rebuild the Dream, a major drive to form a progressive alternative to the Tea Party.

According to the rules of conventional organizing, these efforts did everything right. They rallied significant resources, they drew on the strength of organizations with robust membership bases, they came up with sophisticated policy demands, and they forged impressive coalitions. And yet, they made little headway. Even their largest mobilizations attracted only modest press attention and quickly faded from popular political memory.

What worked was something different. “A group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park,” Krugman explained just weeks after Occupy burst into the national consciousness, “and all of a sudden the conversation has changed significantly towards being about the right things.”

“It’s kind of a miracle,” he added.

For those who study the use of strategic nonviolent conflict, the abrupt rise of Occupy Wall Street was certainly impressive, but its emergence was not a product of miraculous, otherworldly intervention. Instead, it was an example of two powerful forces working in tandem: namely, disruption and sacrifice.

The haphazard assembly of activists who came together under the Occupy banner did not follow the time-honored rules of community organizing. But they were willing to risk actions that were highly disruptive, and they put on display a high level of sacrifice among participants. Each of these contributed momentum to their escalating drive, allowing a loose and underfunded collection of protesters to alter the terms of national debate in ways that those with far greater organizational might had been unable to manage.

Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and shine light on injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see these two elements—disruption and sacrifice—combining in forceful ways. Examining their strange alchemy yields many intriguing lessons.

The power of disruption

The amount of momentum that a movement generates can consistently be linked to the level of disruption its actions cause. The more that a protest directly affects members of the public, and the more it interferes with an adversary’s ability to do business, the more likely it is to draw widespread attention. Snarling traffic, interrupting a public event, shutting down a convention, stopping a construction project, making a scene at the mall, or impeding operations at a factory—all of these reflect varying degrees of disruption.

San Francisco housing organizer Randy Shaw quotes former Washington Post reporter and Berkeley journalism dean Ben Bagdikian, who explains that, in the corporate-driven media, the disenfranchised and their social movements are seldom able to break into the mainstream news cycle at all, and even more rarely on favorable terms. “[S]ince World War I hardly a mainstream American news medium has failed to grant its most favored treatment to corporate life,” Bagdikian writes. Meanwhile, “large classes of people are ignored in the news, are reported as exotic fads, or appear only at their worst—minorities, blue-collar workers, the lower middle class, the poor. They become publicized mainly when they are in spectacular accidents, go on strike, or are arrested.”

As the mention of strikes and arrests suggests, moments of unusual unrest provide opportunities for those without money or influence to break through attitudes of indifference—and to highlight social and political injustices. “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable,” argued prominent civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places, so wheels don’t turn.”

A variety of scholars have echoed Rustin’s insight and elaborated on the dynamics of disruption.

For Frances Fox Piven, the eminent sociologist and social movement theorist, “protest movements are significant because they mobilize disruptive power.” Piven has specifically been interested in the type of disruption that occurs when people are willing to “break the rules” of social decorum and step out of conventional roles. In their classic 1977 volume Poor People’s Movements, Piven and co-author Richard Cloward explain, “Factories are shut down when workers walk out or sit down; welfare bureaucracies are thrown into chaos when crowds demand relief; landlords may be bankrupted when tenants refuse to pay rent. In each of these cases, people cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles; they withhold their accustomed cooperation, and by doing so, cause institutional disruptions.”

Piven has forcefully argued that such unrest is the engine of social change. In her 2006 book Challenging Authority, she contends that the “great moments of equalizing reform in American political history” have been responses to periods when disruptive power was most widely deployed.

Gene Sharp, the godfather of the field devoted to studying “civil resistance,” has emphasized similar aspects of noncompliance and disruption. When he devised his now-famous list of “198 methods of nonviolent action,” Sharp divided the tactics into three categories.

The first encompasses methods of “protest and persuasion,” including public assemblies, processions, displays of banners, and formal statements by organizations. These make up the bulk of routine protest actions in the United States, and they tend to involve minimal disruption.

Sharp’s other two categories, however, involve increasingly confrontational measures.

His second grouping, “methods of noncooperation,” encompasses economic boycotts, student walkouts, and workplace strikes. Meanwhile, his third category, “nonviolent intervention,” includes sit-ins, land seizures, and civil disobedience.

This last category involves not only a refusal to participate in political or economic structures, but also intent to actively interrupt normal daily activity. Such interventions, Sharp writes, pose a “direct and immediate challenge.” A lunch counter sit-in, after all, is more urgently troublesome for a storeowner than a more removed consumer boycott. And, Sharp contends, since “the disruptive effects of the intervention are harder to withstand for a considerable period of time,” these actions can produce results more swiftly and dramatically than other approaches to nonviolent conflict.

Occupy everywhere

The scenario for confrontation offered by Occupy Wall Street fell into Sharp’s third category, and owing to this, it possessed a different tenor than the marches and rallies that had come before. Because the “One Nation Working Together” march had taken place on a weekend, and because it was viewed as a standard-issue march in Washington, D.C.—one of several major rallies that took place within just a few months in the nation’s capital—it could be easily overlooked, even through it brought out more than 175,000 people.

In the long run, the breadth of participation in a protest movement matters; but in the short term, a sense of drama and momentum can trump numbers. Occupy Wall Street involved a much smaller number of people, particularly at its beginning. Yet it set out to generate a much greater level of disruption. Activists intended to go to the investment banks in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district and erect an encampment on their doorstep, impeding the daily business of those most responsible for the economic crisis.

Although the police ultimately pushed protesters into a location several blocks from Wall Street itself, the occupation at Zuccotti Park effectively posed a dilemma for those in power. They could allow activists to hold the space indefinitely, permitting a staging ground for continual protests against the area’s financial institutions. Or police could act on behalf of the country’s wealthiest 1 percent and shut down dissent, a move that would perfectly illustrate the protesters’ claims about what American democracy had become. It was a no-win situation for the state.

While authorities pondered these unattractive options, the question of “how long will the occupation hold?” fostered a growing sense of dramatic tension for the public.

The tactic of occupation had other advantages as well. One was that it could be replicated. Somewhat jokingly, a few weeks in to the mobilization, organizers unveiled the slogan “Occupy Everywhere!” Much to their surprise, it actually happened: the disruptive impact of Occupy grew as encampments sprung up in cities throughout the country. They even sprouted internationally, as with Occupy London, which set up shop directly outside of the London Stock Exchange.

As Occupy progressed, protesters staged sit-ins at banks and marches that blocked streets and bridges. By the end of the year, Occupy-related actions had resulted in an estimated 5,500 arrests in dozens of cities, big and small—from Fresno, California, to Mobile, Alabama, from Boston to Anchorage, Alaska, from Colorado Springs to Honolulu.

Such actions propelled Occupy forward. However, like all exercises in disruption, they also posed risks.

While tactics that interrupt business as usual are the most likely to draw attention, this attention is not necessarily positive. Because these actions inconvenience people and create disorder, they risk inviting a negative response—backlash that can reinforce status quo injustices. Therefore, the use of disruption places activists in a precarious position. In crafting scenarios for political conflict, they must carefully cultivate sympathy, working to ensure that observers recognize the legitimacy of their cause. Strategic judgment is needed to maximize the disruption’s transformative potential, while at the same time minimizing backlash from the public.

The use of sacrifice

It is precisely for this reason that disruption pairs well with a second key factor that works as kindling for mass uprisings: personal sacrifice. Movements are primed to flare up when participants demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment. One main way of doing this is through showing a willingness to endure hardship and inconvenience, to face arrest, or even to risk physical harm in dramatizing an injustice.

The ways in which strategies of nonviolent escalation make use of personal sacrifice are often counter-intuitive and commonly misunderstood.

Unlike some forms of moral pacifism, strategic nonviolence does not seek to avoid conflict. On the contrary, it uses methods of unarmed protest to produce highly visible confrontations. Going back to Gandhi’s experiments in mass mobilization, commentators have noted that such nonviolence has little to do with passivity; in fact, it can more accurately be considered as a form of asymmetric warfare.

In War Without Violence, an early study of Gandhian strategies published in 1939, Krishnalal Shridharani notes that both war and satyagraha—Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent resistance—recognize suffering as a core source of power. In the case of war, this notion is straightforward: “By inflicting suffering on the enemy, the warriors seek to break the former’s will, to make him surrender, to annihilate him, to destroy him, and with him all opposition,” Shridharani writes. “Suffering thus becomes a source of social power which compels and coerces.”

The main twist with nonviolent action, of course, is that participants do not seek to impose physical suffering, but are willing to face it themselves. “Gandhi’s whole theory is based on the concept of suffering as a source of … social force,” Shridharani explains. “In Satyagraha, it is by inviting suffering from the opponent and not after inflicting suffering upon him that the resultant power is produced. The basic formula is the same, but its application is about-face. It almost amounts to putting the energy in reverse gear.”

Contrary to the stereotype of nonviolent adherents being starry-eyed and naïve, Gandhi was startlingly frank about the potential consequences of this form of political conflict. In his drive for Indian self-rule, he argued, “No country has ever risen without being purified through the fire of suffering.”

There is a strong spiritual component in Gandhi’s explanation of how this works. This aspect of his thinking has historically been appealing to religious-minded interpreters and sometimes off-putting to more secular-minded readers. Gandhi invokes ideas ranging from the Hindu concept of ascetic renunciation, tapasya, to the Christian emphasis on the redemptive suffering of Jesuspointing to how forms of self-suffering have motivated religious movements for centuries, often with history-shaping consequences.

The modern tradition of civil resistance, which is interested in the strategic use of nonviolent conflict rather than the moral demands of pacifism, has adopted a different emphasis. It has drawn out the more practical side of Gandhi’s thinking. Even those not inclined toward spiritual considerations can find impressive results in the empirical record of protests in which participants have been willing to put their bodies on the line.

Nonviolent actions involving the risk of arrest, reprisal or physical trauma allow those who undertake them to display courage and resolve. When participants must ask themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice for a cause, it clarifies their values and strengthens their commitment. It can become a moment of personal transformation. Within successful social movements, organizers constantly ask members to make sacrifices—to make contributions of time, energy, and resources; to risk tension with neighbors or family members who prefer to avoid controversial issues; or even to endanger their livelihood by standing up on the job or coming out as a whistleblower. Nonviolent confrontations often involve making such sacrifices visible, creating scenarios in which those involved can publicly convey their seriousness of purpose.

Personal acts of sacrifice thus have public repercussions. They both draw attention and invite empathy: a bus boycotter willing to walk five miles to work rather than to ride on segregated public transportation; a teacher going on hunger strike against school budget cuts; an environmentalist who commits to sitting in an old-growth tree for weeks to prevent it from being cut down; or an indigenous rights advocate who chains herself to a bulldozer to prevent construction on a sacred site. Gandhi contended that these displays could effectively activate public opinion, serving to “quicken the dead conscience into life” and “make people think and act.” When bystanders see someone in front of them suffering, it is difficult for them to remain detached and uninvolved. The scene compels them to pick a side.

A common misconception about nonviolent action is that it is necessarily focused on touching the heart of the opponent and leading to a conversion. In fact, the impact of sacrifice can have little to do with changing the views of one’s adversaries—and much more to do with affecting one’s friends. When someone decides to risk their safety or to face arrest, their decision has the effect of mobilizing the communities of people closest to them. During the civil rights movement, the students who organized sit-ins at lunch counters in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee experienced this phenomenon. They soon found that their parents, their ministers, and their classmates—many of whom had previously been reluctant to speak out—were drawn in by their actions.

As the documentary Eyes on the Prize explains of the 1960 Nashville protests: “The local black community began to unite behind the students. Black merchants supplied food to those in jail. Homeowners put up property for bail money. Z. Alexander Looby, the city’s leading black lawyer, headed the defense.” Family members were especially galvanized. “Parents worried that arrest records could hurt their children’s future, and they feared for the safety of their children.” In response, they “turned to the power of their own pocketbook,” launching an economic boycott in support of the sit-ins.

A powerful combination

Independently, sacrifice and disruption can each produce forceful results. But together, they form an unusually effective pairing. Sacrifice helps to address two of the great problems of disruptive protest: the risk of backlash and the danger of swift and severe repression. First, by invoking an empathetic response in the public, sacrifice dampens negative reactions and allows for mobilizations to attempt more profound ruptures of business as usual. Second, sacrifice can take the crackdowns that often accompany disruptive protests and turn them into unexpected assets.

Such was the case with Occupy, where sacrifice complemented disruption in critical ways. From the start, protesters signaled an intention to endure significant hardship in order to voice an ongoing objection to Wall Street’s misdeeds. One of the first images associated with the movement, a publicity poster released in advance by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, featured a ballerina atop Wall Street’s infamous charging bull. The dancer posed serenely while police in gas masks amassed in the background. The text of below the bull read simply, “#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent.”

The poster’s suggestion that camping gear would be required for the mobilization—and that police reprisal would be a looming danger—immediately set the action apart from countless other demonstrations, in which participants might show up for an afternoon with a sign, chant for an hour or two in a permitted area, and then call it a day and go home. As Occupy commenced, media and participants alike were drawn to the spectacle of protesters ready to sleep on slabs of concrete in lower Manhattan’s sterile financial district in order to bring populist discontent to the doors of those who presided over the financial crisis.

Interest did not build immediately, however. As MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann noted, “After five straight days of sit-ins, marches and shouting, and some arrests, actual North American newspaper coverage of this—even by those who have thought it farce or failure—has been limited to one blurb in a free newspaper in Manhattan and a column in the Toronto Star.”

It took two further developments to break through the de facto blackout of the protest. Each would involve even greater personal suffering, and each would ignite outrage about police suppression of free speech.

When repression fuels resistance

The first pivotal event occurred on September 24, a hot day that marked the one-week anniversary of the occupation. On that occasion, protesters hiked two-and-a-half miles to Union Square, then turned around to return to Zuccotti. But before they made it back, the NYPD penned in groups of marchers and started to make arrests. In total, 80 people were taken into custody.

The arrests themselves were significant, but the most consequential product of the day’s activity would be a video of a police officer later identified as Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna. The video showed two women who had been penned in to orange police netting standing and talking calmly. Unprovoked, Bologna walks up to them, pulls out a can of pepper spray, and lifts it towards their faces. He then sprays them at virtually point-blank range. Grainy cell phone footage captured the scene of the women dropping to their knees in pain, crying out in agony, and cupping their eyes.

Video of the malicious attack went viral, accumulating over a million views within four days. It became the incident that put Occupy Wall Street on the map nationally, spurring a new flood of articles about the mobilization. Rather than deterring participants wary of facing violence, as one might expect, the video fueled public outrage. It motivated new occupiers to join the assembly in Zuccotti, and it prompted many who lived further away to start encampments in their own cities.

A second important development occurred exactly a week later, at a larger march marking two weeks of occupation. For this procession, protesters made their way toward the Brooklyn Bridge. As they approached, the NYPD directed marchers onto the bridge’s main roadway. There, they promptly surrounded the assembly and methodically arrested some 700 people, binding their wrists with plastic zip-tie cuffs. Several activists on the pedestrian walkway above live-streamed video of the arrests, making the event an internet sensation even as it was still taking place.

The roundup involved by far the most arrests for Occupy to that date—and represented one of the largest mass arrests in the New York City’s history. Yet, like the previous week’s video, footage of the police action on the Brooklyn Bridge did not dampen dissent. Instead, it conveyed a sense of escalating momentum and attracted fresh participants. Just a few days later, on October 5, Occupy held its largest march yet, bringing out 15,000 people, including delegations from the city’s most prominent labor unions.

The idea that repression can actually help a movement, rather than hurt it, is a notion that stands a conventional understanding of power on its head. And yet, the ability of nonviolent demonstrators to benefit from the zealousness of authorities is a well-studied occurrence within the field of civil resistance. This phenomenon is commonly described as “political jiu-jitsu.”

Dictatorial security states and heavily armed police forces are well prepared to deal with violent outbursts, which conveniently serve to justify heavy-handed repression and legitimate a trend toward militarization. The corporate media is all too willing to play along, with local news stations fixating on acts they perceive as violent and valorizing attempts to restore order. What confounds and destabilizes authorities is a different type of militancy. Gene Sharp writes, “Nonviolent struggle against violent repression creates a special, asymmetrical conflict situation,” in which the use of force by those in power can rebound against them and embolden opposition.

There is a parallel here to the martial art of jiu-jitsu, where practitioners use the momentum of an opponent’s blow to throw him off balance. “Harsh repression against nonviolent resisters may be perceived as unreasonable, distasteful, inhuman, or harmful to … the society,” Sharp explains. Therefore, it turns the public against the attackers, provokes sympathetic onlookers to join the demonstrations, and encourages defections even within those groups that might regularly be opposed to protests.

No greater friend than its enemy

As Occupy progressed, this dynamic continued to fuel the mobilization at critical moments. One highly publicized incident involved demonstrators at the University of California-Davis. On November 18, 2011, police arrived on the Davis campus in full riot gear and began to remove tents that students had erected. A group of perhaps two dozen students sat down along a walkway, linking arms, to try to stop the eviction.

Within minutes, campus police officer John Pike approached with military grade pepper spray and began dousing the students. Video showed Pike casually strolling down the line of protesters, spraying toxic fluid, while those seated on the walkway doubled over and attempted to shield their eyes. Once again, footage of the attack began circulating almost immediately. In the aftermath of the soon-notorious incident, outraged students and faculty called for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. Nationally, the event helped keep Occupy in the headlines—and turned Lt. Pike into an unlikely Internet celebrity. Popular memes on Facebook and Twitter featured Photoshopped images of Pike “casually” pepper-spraying everyone from the Mona Lisa to the Beatles to the founding fathers.

Occupy is hardly unique as a mobilization that grew stronger as a result of efforts to quash protests. While too many factors are at play in a given protest to ensure that the gains of enduring abuse will be worth the cost, there is a rich history of repression serving as a turning point for movements promoting change.

Certainly this was the case in the push for civil rights in the segregated South. As congressman Emmanuel Sellers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, remarked in 1966, “There are times when the civil rights movement has no greater friend than its enemy. It is the enemy of civil rights who again and again produces the evidence … that we cannot afford to stand still.” Likewise, Saul Alinsky argued, “A Bull Connor with his police dogs and fire hoses down in Birmingham did more to advance civil rights than the civil rights fighters themselves.”

Alinsky gives the civil rights protesters too little credit, just as Occupy activists often receive slight acknowledgement for what they did right in propelling inequality to the fore of national discussion. The truth is that, despite the demonstrated power of sacrifice and disruption, it is rare that groups risk either in significant measure—and even rarer that the two are combined in thoughtful and creative ways. Yet if we want to predict which movements are most likely to explode in the future, we would do well to seek out those committed to conducting new experiments with this potent and combustible mixture.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, an editorial board member at Dissent, and a contributing editor at Yes! magazine. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles. They are writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. They can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com.