Peaceful Protest—Slow And Steady—Is Winning The Race To Create Change

Want to correct an injustice or topple a government? Nonviolent resistance, researchers say, is the way to go.

Peaceful Protest—Slow And Steady—Is Winning The Race To Create Change
[Illustration: Greg Kletsel for Fast Company]

Nonviolent movements have come and gone in the last century, some successful, others not. In either case, whether during Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence, the Palestinian uprising during the First Intifada, or today’s Black Lives Matter protests, participants have questioned and debated the effectiveness of their tactics: Is peaceful protest the best way to make your voice heard? Or is there a time when a smaller violence is the right response in the face of an even more violent injustice? Are the tenets of nonviolence holding back change that could happen with a more aggressive fight?


These questions were asked–and acted upon–during the 1960’s at the height of the civil rights movement. They are asked all around the world, practically every time a protest movement or armed faction has aimed to topple a dictator from his perch.

But only in the last few years have researchers started to answer these questions by looking at the data. And it turns out the data says something hopeful: In the face of even the worst oppression, violence is not the answer. Peaceful movements are simply more effective.

A demonstrator offers a flower to military police at an National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam sponsored protest in Arlington, Virginia, 21 October 1967—Department of Defense.

“I never use the term peaceful, by the way,” says Maria Stephan, a senior policy fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Stephan and her colleague, Erica Chenoweth, are scholars of nonviolent action and civil resistance, both terms are their preferred alternatives to the more passively-perceived idea of “peace.” The pair met in 2006, and that same year were assigned as roommates at a conference sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

At the time, however, Chenoweth studied political violence and was quietly skeptical throughout the workshop of how much power a nonviolent movement could, in fact, wield compared to armed struggles. The two would debate at night in their room: Was armed insurrection—war, guns, and bombs—the most effective method for a movement that wanted to, say, overthrow a dictator or gain independence? Or could nonviolent acts of resistance, such as marches, boycotts, occupations, and hunger strikes, truly hold more power, even against very brutal regimes? Beyond anecdotes and a small number of case studies, it dawned on them that there was no quantitative way to compare.

Consider how much nonviolent movements have shaped societies in the 20th and 21st centuries, from the fall of much of the Soviet Union in the 1980s to the Arab Spring, there’s surprisingly little study of it as a strategy for achieving political and social change—and certainly not in comparison to the extent that war is studied at military colleges, think tanks, and training camps around the world. One man, Gene Sharp, essentially invented the field of nonviolent studies in the 1970s, developing formal theories about why, when, and how they succeed. Only last year did a university even start an initiative entirely dedicated to nonviolent action and civil resistance. (Its head, Stellan Vinthagen at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is also launching the field’s first journal this year.)


And so Stephan and Chenoweth set out to bring empirical rigor to a subject that needed it badly. Rather than look at the hugely broad world of protest causes, they decided to focus on only movements with the most difficult goals to achieve–overthrowing a regime, kicking out an occupying force, or territorial self-determination–in order to really test the question they were asking. Their initial dataset in 2011 cataloged the outcomes of all such mass movements they could find from 1900 to 2006—adding to 323 nonviolent and violent movements in all, from Gandhi’s movement in 1919 to the coup that removed Thailand’s prime minister from power in 2006.

Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong are pushed back by the police. “Police forcing the protesters back southwards on Nathan Road in the evening” by Wikimedia user Wing1990hk

Their most striking finding: Nonviolent campaigns were successful against government repression 46% of the time, more than twice the success rate (20%) of their violent counterparts. Not only that, they found the success rate of violent insurgencies has actually been declining in recent decades, and that nonviolent resistance campaigns have a stronger tendency to lead to democratic governments and lasting peace later on.

Their work was published at a propitious time, as the Arab Spring democracy movements swept through Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The wave of strong nonviolent movements has continued, whether it’s fighting for political rights in Hong Kong, an end to police brutality in Ferguson, against corruption in Mexico, or the fall of a dictator in Burkina Faso.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965—Peter Pettus – Library of Congress.

“We have never in history seen such a mass mobilization like we are seeing in the last one or two decades,” says Professor Vinthagen. “Imagine what would happen with this potent people-powered method if it would be getting just a small fraction of the resources, training, and organizing as we see with the military.”

Despite all of this, even today, nonviolence is consistently misunderstood as a passive form of resistance, not a powerful tool of active confrontation against oppression—one that is more effective because it can attract a critical mass of participation. Two of the most celebrated nonviolence heroes, Gandhi and MLK, are viewed as saints today, Vinthagen notes, even as “they were filling up the prisons” then. As the latter’s recent portrayal in Selma showed, their nonviolence was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic–in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition.

Nor does this research mean that nonviolent movements can magically bring about lasting change or any change at all. The Arab Spring in particular has had a mixed record since its initial successes, leaving a wake of violent insurrection and renewed repression. A mostly nonviolent movement in the Ukraine successfully rose up against a regime last year, only to quickly fall back into a civil war stoked by Russia. Working for the U.S. State Department on Syria policy and operations, Stephan saw the firsthand horror of a burgeoning nonviolent protest movement being overshadowed by armed struggle and collapsing into the deadly chaos that exists today.

Black Lives Matter Black Friday by Flickr user The All-Nite Images

For Stephan, this experience only underscores the urgency of studying what circumstances make nonviolence work as a tool for enduring progress and communicating research results to movements on the ground—giving them more and better options, whether these movements are for the most basic human rights within the world’s most repressive regimes or for social justice in established democracies such as the U.S. Increasingly, she’s asked to look at how people can build movements that resist non-state extremists like ISIS as well (it is possible) or how the U.S. government and NGOs can effectively support nonviolent movements from afar without undermining their legitimacy.

Today, relatively small organizations like the Nonviolent Peaceforce, an unarmed, paid civilian peacekeeping force that has worked in South Sudan and Sri Lanka, and the unarmed bodyguards of Peace Brigades International, a group inspired by Gandhi’s concept of a “peace army,” show what an alternative to military interventions could actually look like. One recent study showed that no less than 50 organizations have used unarmed civilian peacekeeping tactics since 1990, in 35 regions globally. The tactical knowledge of nonviolence is only starting to be shared across the world, and experts believe there’s still more to learn.

“People living under oppression, they can’t just be told not to be violent,” Stephan says. “They have to have options.”


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire