The World Unpacked

Is Violence Sometimes the Answer?

Episode Summary

Over the past several years, large-scale protests have erupted all over the world. What happens when nonviolent protest movements devolve into violence? What should we expect to see in future uprisings?

Episode Notes

During the past several years, large-scale protests by citizens against their governments have erupted all over the world. Jen talks to Kai Thaler about what drives protest movements, the methods they employ, and how governments respond.  As protests continue to evolve, what should we watch for?

Episode Transcription

Intro (00:00):

Welcome to The World Unpacked. [into music]. The World Unpacked will return soon with new episodes breaking down the biggest topics in foreign policy. In the meantime, we'll continue releasing prerecorded episodes every two weeks. Stay safe and healthy.

News Audio (00:24):

Nonviolent resistance is the most powerful weapon that oppressed people can use in breaking loose from the bondage of oppression. Demonstrations against the South African government's strict apartheid policies flare into shocking violence. Things have turned violent in the last few hours. The security forces using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. From Paris to Hong Kong, Venezuela to Algeria. An outpouring of anger raged across nearly every continent with millions rallying against their governments to tell their leaders. This isn't good enough.

Jen Psaki (01:10):

Kai Thaler is an assistant professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studies civil conflict, political violence, regimes, and regime change, especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. So Kai, first, thanks for joining us on The World Unpacked and letting us call you in beautiful Santa Barbara today. You wrote a piece for Foreign Policy back in December titled Violence is Sometimes the Answer, it's a pretty edgy title, where you argue that nonviolence isn't necessarily the right approach for protest movements. Let's start with what led you to write the piece.

Kai Thaler (01:45):

So thank you for having me. Like with any piece of public writing, there's always some back and forth about the title. So it did wind up being provocatively titled. But to clarify, my point wasn't primarily that nonviolence is not the right approach for protest movements. In many cases it is quite effective, and from a personal ethical standpoint, I prefer nonviolence. But instead, at a time where mass protests were ongoing in places like Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond, I wanted to critique the rhetoric that violence does not work, that nonviolence is always more effective. Sometimes violence does in fact work. Violent resistance movements are able to achieve their goals. Toppling governments or achieving policy changes. Whether we like violence or not, whether we think it's justified or not, it's empirically false to say to to protesters that they should always be nonviolent because it is more effective.

Jen Psaki (03:05):

And where have you seen this? There's no shortage of protest movements, as I don't have to tell you, happening around the world these days. Where do you see this playing out as you're looking at the global landscape? I mean, you mentioned a couple of them, but where's the best example in your view?

Kai Thaler (03:19):

So we can see this in op-ed pages or commentary quite frequently. It's happened in the U.S. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, with critiques of antifascist protesters engaging in physical confrontations with white supremacist demonstrators. We can see it with the Hong Kong protests, when protesters started to use more violent tactics. There will often be a spate of op-eds or TV commentary where people will say nonviolence is more effective, why can't protesters be nonviolent, why can't they follow the example of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. And this rhetoric and public discourse emerges in part from the findings of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan's book Why Civil Resistance Works, which used statistics and case studies and found that nonviolent movements are on average more effective in seeking regime change or major policy changes. But like any large scale cross national study, the finding doesn't apply to every case they studied. There are many cases in their data set where nonviolent movements didn't work or violent movements did. And so in academic publishing, we always qualify our findings, we have all sorts of footnotes, there are various control variables and caveats. But in the public sphere it's often just the headline finding that gets trumpeted, so this finding has been used to say that protesters should always be nonviolent. And that reference was popping up around lots of the protests movements this fall.

Jen Psaki (05:28):

You talk about this in the piece that you wrote and you referenced, as you said, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. And as you said, you were very clear in the piece that you believe nonviolence obviously is the first resort, but why do you think that these figures have been so lionized in the West over the course of time? I think people lean heavily into them when they argue for nonviolence from protesters.

Kai Thaler (05:54):

So I think these figures quite rightly lionized. Gandhi, Mandela, and King are incredible historical figures and people who, while flawed like anyone, endured extraordinary and for two of them fatal hardship in the pursuit of collective goals. But it's incorrect to whitewash their beliefs and behavior. So just as we shouldn't ignore that Gandhi was racist against black Africans during his early activism in South Africa, or that all three men had problematic relationships with women in their lives, we shouldn't ignore that their stance on violence was more nuanced than it's often presented. These figures have in many cases become sanitized tropes who are trotted out to criticize protesters for being confrontational, when all three of them were very much confrontational. Gandhi and King were very careful to contrast nonviolent resistance with passivity, but they were also not necessarily, or certainly not always, pacifists.

Kai Thaler (07:11):

King believed in the use of violence in self-defense, if one was being personally attacked, though he wanted movement members not to strike back while conducting public acts of resistance. Gandhi said he would rather someone use violence than be a coward and not resist colonial injustices at all. And he actually helped organize Indian combat forces to fight alongside the British in World War One. Mandela of course embraced violent resistance in the early years of his activism. And the African National Congress kept its armed branch uMkhonto we Sizwe. So these figures I think are rightly celebrated for the sacrifices that they endured in the pursuit of justice and in the pursuit of maintaining largely nonviolent movements, but using them to always say that protesters should be nonviolent, or that no one should ever use violence, and that we shouldn't try to understand the motivations of people who use violence in protest, in resistance, is I think misguided.

Jen Psaki (08:29):

Today, protest movements seem to be rarely run by a single figurehead or organizing body. For example, the protests in Hong Kong and Sudan have been explicitly and intentionally leaderless. So that means that government can't just arrest the leadership and shut down the movement. What happens when one faction decides to use violent tactics while the others remain nonviolent? Does that cause division in the movements? And what impact does that have on the impact of the protest?

Kai Thaler (09:01):

So like you say, we often call things movements that had no clear leadership, or we'll say it was a protest campaign. And sometimes there is clear leadership, like with Solidarity in Poland. But in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, for instance, while the African National Congress are the ones who wound up in the most powerful position in government, it was in fact a very diverse coalition. And there were many disagreements within it about the degree of violence to use or to maintain nonviolent tactics. Some protesters turning to violence may cause division, but so to may demands to remain nonviolent in the face of overwhelming repression and state intransigence. These are debates within any movement. Violent factions may try to silence advocates of nonviolence, and resorting to armed violence may lead to blow back with a harsher crackdown by the government on all members of the movement.

Kai Thaler (10:14):

And these are terrible consequences and I don't take them lightly, but protest movements are always making decisions that do not affect them alone. And there are always going to be counterfactuals or questions asked: had people taken up arms, might repressive government have been toppled sooner and its violence curtailed. If people didn't take up arms, might the government have eventually changed its tune and collapsed. This always depends on the particular local context and we can't really predict it ex-ante beforehand. So that's why I think it's a problem to prescribe nonviolence as the more effective strategy across the board. And whether it's the more ethical strategy is for movement members and for philosophers to debate.

Jen Psaki (11:08):

When we come back, we're going to talk about state violence.

Jen Psaki (11:20):

So Kai, you talk a lot about state violence in your piece. Can you define that for us? What does it mean?

Kai Thaler (11:27):

So, state violence is the use of direct physical violence, at least as far as my piece is talking about it, the use of direct physical violence by government security forces or pro-government forces against other actors. And so this can be a police shooting people or beating them with truncheons, it can be pro-government militias clashing with protesters. So in the piece I was very focused on direct physical violence. But if we think about violence more broadly, as the peace researcher Johan Galtung asked us to do, and we consider structural violence, structures of oppression or inequality in society that are impeding and inhibiting people's life prospects, keeping them from living as well as they could or we think that they should, then it's often structural violence caused by the state or the prevailing system that's motivating protesters in the first place.

Jen Psaki (12:54):

In your piece, you point out that many of the widely lauded and successful nonviolent movements were actually accompanied by very targeted and strategic violence. Tell us about some of those examples and what really has struck you as moments people should be aware of.

Kai Thaler (13:11):

So attributing how strategic violence is in any given moment is always difficult in some of these more decentralized movements. But there I'm drawing on the work of scholars like Serhiy Kudelia on Ukraine or Neil Ketchley on Egypt, where in both cases, while nonviolent protests around Maidan and Tahrir Square garnered attention and were extremely powerful, there was also significant violence against both people and property. In Egypt, there was a campaign of burning police stations and violently attacking police officers. And this contributed to fracturing the police force and reducing officers ability or willingness to crack down on the movement when the police were the cornerstone of Mubarak's power. So Ketchley and his coauthor Ali Kadivar point out that these and many cases movements that are discussed popularly and sometimes by advocates of nonviolent resistance as cases of successful nonviolent movements were really just cases where people didn't take up firearms and bombs necessarily and form an organized rebel group or militia. Movements often feature what could Kadivar and Ketchley call unarmed collective violence. So using sticks, stones, fists, and molotov cocktails and with demonstrations often described as riots. So many movements feature some mix of both violent and nonviolent tactics. And it's very difficult to disentangle any sort of causal story about which exactly was the thing that tipped it towards policy change or regime change. We can try to get at that through retrospective interviews or process tracing, but still, even then it can be difficult to separate out the violence and nonviolence within a movement.

Jen Psaki (15:38):

You've been critical of Westerners, especially, for calling for nonviolent protest from the vantage point of places where state violence is pretty constrained. And this really struck me. I mean, I was at the State Department for two and a half years and it was almost like a knee jerk every time there was an episode of violence in a place where there were protests, we always called for calm. Which, you know, looking back was perhaps oversimplified. So tell us a little bit more about what you wish people in the West would understand about state violence.

Kai Thaler (16:12):

So people living in security in the global north, people like me who are relatively well off economically, who are white, and educated, living in areas where the government is relatively functional, we tend to have lots of institutional avenues to nonviolently engage in advocacy. And some hope that policies or practices might change in response to that. Marginalized people in the global north and around the world have a very different experience of what the state does and don't necessarily see it as restrained. So black, Latinx, and Native American communities in the U.S. for instance are violently policed and may receive little in the way of public goods and services. Same goes for very poor white communities. So for a lot of people in the world, there's no presumption that remaining nonviolent will lead to policy changes or will keep the government from training all its coercive powers against you.

Kai Thaler (17:20):

And the use of some violence can demonstrate the depths of grievances and the potential costs of a failure for a government or institution to change. As a demonstrator in Chile said, and I'll paraphrase it less profoundly, if we don't mess things up, nothing will change. They won't pay attention. So treating violence by protesters as something to be avoided at all times as counterproductive or wrong denies movements a powerful tool in their repertoire of contention while ceding that tool to the state, saying this belongs to the state. If protesters then decide to use violence, they might be critiqued for lacking discipline or admonished for not maintaining a nonviolent strategy. But it's expected for states to use violence. It's considered normal, something that happens all the time in protest policing, but that supposed normality assumes the state is legitimate, that it has the right to use force, and that assumption is worth questioning in most cases.

Jen Psaki (18:35):

And at the same time, some protest movements in recent history, like those in Syria and Iraq, have turned into more full on armed rebellions with external actors funneling weapons and money to protesters that they use in the conflict. How do you think about movements like that and how do you fit them into the argument?

Kai Thaler (18:56):

So in Syria, protesters remain generally nonviolent. In the early days of the protests, they weren't organizing into rebel groups. Violence was not the first resort, but the Assad government cracked down brutally and made clear that it was not going to peacefully give up power. This is a minority government where the president and top officials have maintained tight control over security forces. So defection was relatively unlikely at high levels, and defection by key actors in the security forces or at high levels of government is key for movements to achieve regime change nonviolently. So how long were protesters supposed to wait out in the streets or in their homes getting slaughtered before taking up arms? There are many different types of protest tactics and strategies beyond street protest, but street protests are particularly powerful symbols of resistance. They help mobilize people. They can demonstrate to people a high degree of common antigovernment or anti-institutional sentiments that people might be hiding.

Kai Thaler (20:21):

And so if people are not able to openly display or show their resistance to the government, it's going to help the government endure. So asking protesters in a place like Syria, who have tried to be nonviolent and who are getting killed for it, asking them to remain nonviolent is asking them to endure an extreme short term risk in the hopes that might lead to change in the future. And that's a change they might not live to see. So should we blame those who decide to take up arms in such circumstances, who feel like that gives them a bit more agency, a bit more ability to protect themselves or fight for what they care about? And the outcome in Syria has been an absolute mess with heavy fragmentation among opposition armed groups, extremist groups like Daesh, the Islamic State, taking advantage of the conflict and heavy foreign intervention. But without the Russian intervention, for instance, the rebellion might have succeeded in toppling the government. What would've come next is impossible to know, but we know full well what the Assad regime was willing to do to opponents even before protesters took up arms.

Jen Psaki (21:50):

When we come back, we'll talk about what we should learn.

Jen Psaki (22:02):

We've talked a lot about protests around the world. You've referenced of course the United States. We are certainly not immune from violent protests and violent reactions. And I wanted to ask you about a court case in December of last year, a U.S. appeals court ruled that a Louisiana police officer could hold Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson, legally liable for injuries that the officer sustained at the hands of a protester. Now I certainly understand you're not going to, you know, fully weigh into an ongoing court case, but what do you make of that case as somebody who's observed protests and the reactions around the world and in the United States? And what are the consequences?

Kai Thaler (22:43):

So this is an extremely disturbing case and it's part of broader efforts in the U.S. to try to silence protest and dissent. Sadly, it's not new. We can see police officers suing the families of people they shot. John Pike, the University of California police officer who became famous for casually pepper spraying nonviolent student protesters at UC Davis, sued the university and won damages for his dismissal and psychological distress. Legislatures in the U.S. are passing bills to give a free pass to drivers who hit protesters even in the aftermath of the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. So the Mckesson case is another attempt to silence dissent in favor of a repressive, exclusionary, unequal status quo. And as sociologist Anne Nassauer writes, whether a protest turns violent is highly dependent on the situation. Protesters who come prepared to use violence may not wind up doing so, while those who plan to be nonviolent and try to maintain nonviolent discipline may in the end wind up lashing out or fighting back against police or counter demonstrators in the moment.

Kai Thaler (24:06):

Unless there is a clear conspiracy to commit violence, which was alleged in the Mckesson case but is not at all a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, then it's absolutely ridiculous to hold the leader of a movement responsible for all the actions of those who claim to follow them when they have not advanced violence as part of their strategy. It's even dumber in this case because while Mckesson was at the protest, he wasn't directing it and he's by no means the only leader in the Black Lives Matter movement or the most important in a broad decentralized movement. This is instead an attempt to intimidate a movement that critiques and challenges white supremacy and police violence, with police as representatives of the state, and the hypocrisy becomes even clearer when we see the lack of consequences for the president for directly inciting violence at campaign rallies.

Jen Psaki (25:06):

How do people protest about treatment of protesters, I guess? If warranted, if that's how they feel.

Kai Thaler (25:13):

So one key factor is to ensure that we understand movements, listen to what activists are actually saying, and not just media narratives that arise around it or the framing provided by politicians, but in the face of attempts to crack down on protest or to persecute specific movements, then I think for people who support or sympathize with those movements, it's important to speak out and it's important to act. We can speak out not just on social media, but on op-ed pages and letters to the editor, in communications to state or congressional representatives, we should be paying attention more to local politics and who's getting elected as say the sheriff or the district attorney who have a lot of say in local policing, prison conditions, who's getting prosecuted. And also it's important to show up, to be an ally at protests. I was teaching students yesterday about the 1968 occupation of North Hall here at University of California Santa Barbara, where black students who were protesting systemic racism and discrimination on campus decided to occupy a campus building after the administration refused to listen to their complaints and act on them. And so they occupied the building, locked themselves in, but they put in work beforehand to build awareness around campus to build sympathy for their cause, and so many students who were white, Latinx, Asian American, showed up outside the building, surrounded it in solidarity with the protesters and put their bodies between the protesters and police who might've wanted to enter the building.

Kai Thaler (27:46):

So people can be as allies sometimes layers of protection for movements that are persecuted for people who are more marginalized. But of course we shouldn't do that in a patronizing manner. It should always be listening to what members of movements want and how they see allies as potentially helpful.

Jen Psaki (28:13):

Kai Thaler, you've given us a lot to think about. Thank you for joining us on The World Unpacked. We really appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much.

Kai Thaler (28:19):

Thanks for having me.

Conclusion (28:22):

Thanks for listening to The World Unpacked, which is produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. For more information and to subscribe, you can find us at Don't forget to rate the show. It helps other people find us. The audio engineer is Tim Martin and the executive producer is Maya Krishna-Rogers.