The success of nonviolent civil resistance: Erica Chenoweth at TEDxBoulder

Caption from this TEDxBoulder talk

I’d like you to imagine that you live
in a really repressive country.
There are elections, but they’re fake.
The leader wins
100% of the vote each time.
Security forces beat up
opposition leaders with impunity,
and they harass everyone else.
This is a country where being in this room
right now would get you on a list.
Now let’s say you’ve had enough,
and so have many other people
that you talk with in low whispers.
I’m not talking about The Hunger Games,
although that would be awesome!
Unfortunately, I’m talking
about real world conditions
that many people face right now.
So assuming you’ve decided to act,
what would be the best way
for you to challenge the system
and create something new?
My own answer to this question
has changed over the past few years.
In 2006, I was a PhD student here
at CU Boulder, studying Political Science,
and my dissertation was
on how and why people use violence
to create political change
in their countries.
As for the scenario I just described,
back then I bought into the idea
that power flows from the barrel of a gun,
and what I would have said was
that, although it was tragic,
it was logical in such situations
for people to use violence
to seek their change.
But then I was invited
to an academic workshop
put on by the International Center
on Nonviolent Conflict.
They were giving a week-long primer
on nonviolent resistance
to try to get people like me
to teach about it in our classes.
My view of all of this at the time
was that it was well-intentioned
but dangerously naive.
I mean, the readings
they sent me in advance argued
that the best way for people
to seek really difficult political changes
was through nonviolent
or civil resistance.
They described civil resistance
as an active form of conflict,
where unarmed civilians would use tactics
like protests, boycotts, demonstrations,
and lots of other forms
of mass non-cooperation
to seek change.
They brought up cases like Serbia,
where a nonviolent revolution
toppled Slobodan Milošević,
the Butcher of the Balkans,
in October 2000,
and the Philippines,
where the People Power Movement
ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
At the workshop, I said stuff like,
“Well, those were probably exceptions.
For every successful case
you guys bring up,
I can think of a failed case
like Tienanmen Square.
I can also think of plenty of cases
where violence worked pretty well
like the Russian, French,
and Algerian revolutions.
Maybe nonviolent resistance works
if you’re seeking environmental reforms,
gender rights, labor rights,
but it can’t work, generally,
if you’re trying to overthrow a dictator
or become a new country.
And it definitely can’t work
if the authoritarian leader
you’re facing is not incompetent,
it’s somebody who’s
really brutal and ruthless.”
So by the end of the week,
as you can imagine, I wasn’t very popular.
But my soon to be co-author,
Maria Stephan, came up to me
and said something like,
“If you’re right, why don’t you prove it?
Are you curious enough to study this
in a serious way, empirically?”
Believe it or not, nobody had
really done that before systematically,
and although I was still skeptical,
I was curious.
I figured that if they were right,
and I was wrong, somebody better find out.
So for the next two years,
I collected data on all major
nonviolent and violent campaigns
for the overthrow of a government
or a territorial liberation since 1900.
The data covered the entire world
and consisted of every known case
where there were
at least 1,000 observed participants;
this is hundreds of cases.
Then I analyzed the data,
and the results blew me away.
From 1900 to 2006,
nonviolent campaigns worldwide
were twice as likely to succeed outright
as violent insurgencies.
And there’s more.
This trend has been increasing over time,
so that in the last 50 years,
nonviolent campaigns are becoming
increasingly successful and common,
whereas violent insurgencies are becoming
increasingly rare and unsuccessful.
This is true even in those extremely
brutal, authoritarian conditions
where I expected
nonviolent resistance to fail.
So, why is civil resistance so much
more effective than armed struggle?
The answer seems to lie
in people power itself.
Researchers used to say
that no government could survive
if just 5% of its population
rose up against it.
Our data showed that the number
may be lower than that.
No single campaign has failed
during that time period
after they had achieved
the active and sustained participation
of just 3.5% of the population.
And lots of them succeeded
with far fewer than that.
3.5% is nothing to sneeze at.
In the U.S. today,
that’s like 11 million people.
But get this:
every single campaign
that surpassed that 3.5%
was a nonviolent one.
In fact, the nonviolent campaigns
were on average
four times larger
than the average violent campaigns,
and they were often much more
inclusive and representative
in terms of gender, age,
race, political party, class,
and the urban-rural distinction.
Civil resistance allows
people of all different levels
of physical ability to participate,
so this can include the elderly,
people with disabilities,
women, children,
and anyone else who wants to.
If you think about it,
everyone is born with a natural
physical ability to resist nonviolently.
Anyone here who has kids knows
how hard it is to pick up a child
who doesn’t want to move
or to feed a child
who doesn’t want to eat.
Violent resistance, on the other hand,
is a little more physically demanding,
and that makes it
a little bit more exclusive.
In my case, when I was in college,
I was in Military Science classes
because I planned
to go through the ROTC program
and become an army officer.
I really liked the rappelling,
the shooting at the range,
the map reading, of course,
and the uniforms.
But I wasn’t stoked
when they asked me to get up
in the wee hours of the morning
and run until I vomited.
So I quit and chose the far less
demanding career of a professor.
Not everybody wants to take
the same chances in life,
and many people won’t turn up
unless they expect safety in numbers.
The visibility of many civil resistance
tactics, like protests, allow them
to draw these risk-averse people
into the fray.
Put yourself back in that repressive
country for just a minute.
Let’s say your trusted friend
and neighbor comes to you and says,
“I know you sympathize with our cause.
We’ll have a mass demonstration
down the street tonight at 8 o’clock.
I hope to see you there.”
I don’t know about you all,
but I am not the person
who is going to show up
at 7:55 and see what’s up.
I’m probably going to look
outside my window at 8:30
and see what’s going on.
If I see six people congregated there
in the square, I’ll sit this one out.
But if I see 6,000 and more coming
down the alleyway, I just might join in.
My point here is that the visibility
of civil resistance actions allows them
to attract more active
and diverse participation
from these ambivalent people,
and once they become involved,
it’s almost guaranteed that the movement
will then have links to security forces,
civilian bureaucrats,
economic and business elites,
educational elites, state media,
religious authorities, and the like,
and those people start
to reevaluate their own allegiances.
No regime loyalists, at any country,
live entirely isolated
from the population itself.
They have friends,
they have family members,
they have existing relationships
that they have to live with
in the long term,
whether or not the leader stays or goes.
In Serbia, when it became obvious
that hundreds of thousands of Serbs
were descending on Belgrade
to demand that Milošević leave office,
police officers started to disobey
the order to shoot on demonstrators.
When one of them was asked
why he did so, he said simply,
“I knew my kids would be in the crowd.”
Some of you are thinking,
“Is this person insane?
I watch the news, and I see protesters
getting shot at all the time.”
And it’s true.
Sometimes, crackdowns do happen,
but even in those cases,
the nonviolent campaigns were
outperforming the violent ones by 2 to 1.
It turns out that when security forces
beat up, arrest, or even shoot
unarmed activists,
there is indeed safety in numbers.
Large, well-coordinated
campaigns can shift
between tactics that are concentrated,
like protests or demonstrations,
to tactics of dispersion,
where people stay away
from places they were expected to go.
They do strikes, they bang
on pots and pans, they stay at home,
they shut off their electricity
at a coordinated time of day.
These tactics are much less risky,
they’re very hard, or at least
very costly to suppress,
but the movement stays just as disruptive.
What happens in these countries
once the dust settles?
It turns out that the way you resist
matters in the long run too.
Most strikingly, countries
in which people wage nonviolent struggle
were way more likely to emerge
with democratic institutions
than countries
in which they wage violent struggle.
Those countries with nonviolent campaigns
were 15% less likely
to relapse into civil war.
The data are clear:
when people rely on civil resistance,
their size grows,
and when large numbers of people
remove their cooperation
from an oppressive system,
the odds are ever in their favor.
So, I and many others like me had ignored
the millions of people worldwide
who were skillfully using civil resistance
in favor of studying
just things that blow up.
I was left with a few questions
about the way I used to think.
Why was it so easy and comfortable
for me to think that violence works?
Why did I find it acceptable to assume
that violence happens
almost automatically
because of circumstances
or by necessity,
that it’s the only way out
of some situations?
In a society that celebrates
battlefield heroes on national holidays,
I guess it was natural
to grow up believing
that violence and courage
are one and the same,
and that true victories cannot come
without bloodshed on both sides.
But the evidence I presented
here today suggests
that for people
serious about seeking change,
there are realistic alternatives.
Imagine what our world
would look like now
if we allowed ourselves
to develop some faith in them.
What if our history courses emphasized
the decade of mass civil disobedience
that came before
the Declaration of Independence
rather than the war that came after?
What if our social studies textbooks
emphasized Gandhi and King
in the first chapter
rather than as an afterthought?
And what if every child
left elementary school
knowing more about the Suffragist Movement
than they did
about the Battle of Bunker Hill?
What if it became common knowledge
that when protest becomes too dangerous,
there are many nonviolent
techniques of dispersion
that might keep movement safe and active?
So here we are, in 2013,
in Boulder, Colorado.
Maybe some of you are thinking,
“That’s great that civil resistance works.
What can I do?”
Encourage your children to learn more
about the nonviolent legacies
of the past 200 years
and explore the potential of people power.
Tell your elected representatives
to stop perpetuating
the misguided view that violence pays
by supporting the first groups
in a civil uprising who take up arms.
Although civil resistance
cannot be exported or imported,
it’s time for our officials to embrace
a different way of thinking;
that in both the short and longer term,
civil resistance tends
to lead behind societies
in which people can live more freely
and more peaceably together.
Now that we know what we know
about the power of nonviolent conflict,
I see it as our shared responsibility
to spread the word,
so that future generations
don’t fall for the myth
that violence is their only way out.
Thank you.

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