Why We Must Choose Peaceful Protest, Even When it Feels Impossible

America has seen levels of unrest in the streets that are unprecedented in the 21st century over the past week. However, for all the looting and burning and beatings, little progress has been achieved so far. This is not to say that most of the protesters are violent — only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of protesters in the streets are engaging in looting, vandalism or violence — but these coercive measures have only entrenched the opponents of the movement in their positions against the goals of police reform. Instead of reducing police violence, the rioters who engage in vandalism have provoked heavy-handed responses against peaceful protesters across the nation. Conservatives in particular now see the peaceful protests that happen during the day as laying the groundwork for the lawlessness that consumes city streets during the night. The result of the mix of violent riots and peaceful protests is indisputable: the violence and mayhem have overshadowed the peaceful protests and caused more damage to the cause of black liberation than good.

With all of the turmoil, America has had to grapple with an uncomfortable question: do we believe in peaceful protests, and are peaceful protests even possible in a nation where police violence is the norm? The answer is complicated. In theory, peaceful protests, which are characterized by the tactics of civil resistance are on average much more successful than tactics involving violence. In their seminal book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Dr. Maria Stephan present a data-driven analysis of hundreds of violent and nonviolent protest movements from the past century. The results are clear and unequivocal: 26% of violent revolutions were successful, compared to 53% of those that were nonviolent. They also discovered a curious fact in the data that is an avenue for future research which they call the 3.5% rule: 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change. 

The profundity of the 3.5% rule for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement cannot be overstated. What it suggests is that for the BLM movement to enact police reforms and truly change the fabric of American society, they must only convince 3.5% percent of the population to join the movement, which in America translates to roughly 11.5 million people. At that point, Dr. Chenoweth and Dr. Stephan show, the movement will begin to attract a wider range of sympathizers across all echelons of society, from the working class and poor to the professional classes and even the super-rich. The reason is simple: people in the movement work to convince their family and friends, who in turn convince others, and so on. In this way, the message of the movement can spread like wildfire through a population, and that is when miraculous things begin to happen. Police officers, whose parents, spouses, siblings, and children have joined the movement, lay down their batons and join the protests rather than injure their own family; business managers whose workers have threatened to damage their bottom lines join the movement rather than resist the growing tide; and lawmakers who depend on the moneyed classes begin to change their tune, so as not to lose donations and votes. It is a powerful process, and it can only be achieved via peaceful protest, because violence inherently closes the doors of the movement to the “enemy,” while civil resistance opens the doors to anyone on the side of the opposition who could change their minds.

Thankfully, all the important sides of the debate surrounding the murder of George Floyd agree that the way forward for the BLM movement is a peaceful one. They agree that looting and violence are not only morally reprehensible but also ineffective forms of political action. There are a few groups on the fringes who are spoiling for a fight, and these groups must be reckoned with. But by and large, the mainstream of both the right and the left, the Black Lives Matter movement and the conservatives watching at home, agree that the way forward must be peaceful and in line with the legacy of the civil rights era of the 1960s. Change must come from within the system, and as soon as one steps outside of the social contract that makes America one of the greatest nations in history, they are sacrificing the moral high ground. The big question is about how to implement peaceful protest strategies during this particular moment in American history.

Currently, the obstacles to peaceful protests are numerous and daunting. The first major obstacle is leadership within the BLM movement. Peaceful protests rely on civil resistance tactics, which in many cases must be communicated to followers by strong leadership and implemented by robust organization on local, state, and national levels. Rarely does a population find these tactics naturally (though it can happen). Sit-ins, strikes, marches, and voluntary arrests are complex and require actions that run counter to our basic human tendencies to give into fight or flight responses in the face of violence and coercion. In addition, they also require a unified commitment across protest locations and groups who are often riven with divisions and competing interests because if even one group breaks the peace, the opposition can use them as a scapegoat to discredit the wider movement, just as the rightwing has used Antifa to discredit the George Floyd protests in recent days. As a result of this need for unity and counterintuitive behaviors, civil resistance tactics do not often come naturally and are extremely difficult to implement across large populations without strong leadership. Not always, but very often, the followers of a peace movement must be coached and educated, just as Martin Luther King coached and educated black Americans during the 1950’s and 1960’s. 

It is important to note that there is a distinction between the Black Lives Matter organization and the wider movement. The organization is often fraught with internal divisions at local levels, petty squabbles, and a lack of vision. But the leadership, especially Opal Tometi and her Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garzawider, as well as the wider movement, are strong. That is encouraging because beyond educating followers in the tactics of civil resistance, there is little hope of mounting a mass movement of peaceful protesters without robust logistical supply lines, communication channels, and outreach efforts. It can be done, but without organization and leadership, there is less of a chance that such a movement can survive the turmoil of repeated confrontations with security forces, especially over longer timelines of weeks, months, and years. And the benefits of strong organizations are myriad. 

With good organizational infrastructure, various wings of the movement are able to communicate and coordinate demonstrations; supplies such as food and water can be provided to those on the front lines of civil resistance actions; medical care can be delivered to the injured; and importantly, money can be procured to pay lawyers and fines. Despite moments of minor organizational discord, the BLM organization has so far done a fantastic job of providing these things to the wider movement.

Ironically, one thing that is not necessarily an obstacle to peaceful protests is the proliferation of militarized police and hyper-aggressive police tactics. The purpose of civil resistance is to turn the violence of aggressors on themselves by shining a light on the injustice of employing such tactics against peaceful actors. This approach works even better in the internet age when police brutality against protesters can be broadcast instantly to the rest of the population. As Dr. Chenoweth has noted, as a result of social media, peaceful protests are growing more numerous across the world. The ability to document unwarranted police aggression means that police forces who mistreat protesters end up pushing more of the population to join the movement and hit the streets. Whereas violent responses to police brutality serve to justify heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces, peaceful responses expose the corruption of the system. The anger and injustice of watching peaceful protests met with aggression and violence only serve to fuel the movement. With any luck, it may also win over members of these police departments themselves. 

In fact, some police chiefs already appear to have chosen the option of de-escalation and consolation. In Flint, Michigan, one police chief took off his helmet and gear and joined the protesters, walking arm in arm with them in a show of solidarity that touched the hearts of people across the country. In another similar show of solidarity, police in Camden NJ who have undergone extensive de-escalation training in recent years marched with protesters and then held a barbecue for the community where they supplied food and drinks. Unsurprisingly, rates of looting and vandalism, injuries and ill will, were lower in Flint and Camden last weekend. These moments demonstrate the power of peaceful protest.

The looting and vandalism that characterized the first few nights of the protests is abating. In an extraordinary moment, James Mattis, a former Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration and decorated Marine General wrote in a statement to the Atlantic, “We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.” He is correct. We will likely see the emergence of a sustained protest movement in the coming days and perhaps weeks that is characterized by peaceful protest and civil resistance. If security forces respond with coercion, they will lose the hearts of the Americans they swore to protect, and they know this. The longer the Trump administration fights peace with fire, the faster the movement will grow to meet that golden 3.5% mark. Success through peaceful resistance, as Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrated, is almost inevitable when done properly. The BLM movement has already committed to peace, and they will get their wishes if they stay the course. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

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