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How Repression Helps Nonviolent Activists Occupy the Public Sphere

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A turning point in many social movements comes when authorities try to repress nonviolent activists but their efforts backfire, attracting wider attention and expanding movement participation. Activists’ use of nonviolent methods matters, and in many cases, planning for repression can make it more likely that repression advances the movement. The emergence of the Occupy movement in the U.S. is a well-known example of this dynamic that  we and our colleagues explore in an edited volume titled The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements (Syracuse University Press).

“Activists’ use of nonviolent methods matters, and in many cases, planning for repression can make it more likely that repression advances the movement.”

In protest against control of the world’s wealth by 1% of the population, the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged in the United States captured the world’s attention in 2011. The occupation of parks and city hall grounds by nonviolent activists embodied a spirit of humane cooperation through collective decision making, free public libraries, childcare, and health services, but the world learned about Occupy because authorities attempted to repress it.

Activists occupied Zuccotti Park in New York’s Wall Street District on 17 September 2011 calling themselves the 99% and dramatizing widespread inequality and the control of the US economy by a mere one percent of the population. Over the next two months, the protest spread nationally and internationally to 82 countries and 1,000 cities, occupying much political discourse.

Media attention from the beginning focused as much on the repression of the movement as on its message. The initial story in The New York Times on the first day of protests reported that “By 10 a.m., metal barricades manned by police officers ringed the blocks of Wall Street between Broadway and William Street to the east” a blog in the Times reported.

 

New York Times Coverage of Occupy Wall Street during the first two weeks. Red dots indicate robust coverage or mention of state repression.

In the first two weeks of the protest, all but ten of the forty-one articles about Occupy actions in the New York Times reported on events in which authorities attempted to repress activists. While repression featured in Occupy coverage from the beginning, the paper usually only published one article on the movement per day during the first week. In their book, This is an Uprising, Mark and Paul Engler note the same lag in coverage and identify police pepper-spraying two women on September 24 as “the first pivotal event.” Repression intended to suppress the movement ironically catapulted coverage of the campaign by The New York Times.

 

 

The paradox of repression is a fundamental dynamic of nonviolent civil resistance. When authorities, elites, or counter-protesters use physical force to try to demobilize nonviolent activists, the resulting images can generate moral outrage leading to greater mobilization, support for activists, and sometimes even defections to the movement by opponents.

Even more, strategic activists can anticipate and manage repression. In other words, they can prepare for the backfire effect and enhance it. By executing powerful nonviolent actions that clearly contrast determined nonviolence with the state’s use of violence, activists can demonstrate sacrifice and generate moral outrage that builds movements. Then, when nonviolent activists remain nonviolent in the face of violence, they heighten the contrast between the violence of their opponents and their own actions, increasing the possibility that repression will backfire and authorities will lose legitimacy.

“By executing powerful nonviolent actions that clearly contrast determined nonviolence with the state’s use of violence, activists can demonstrate sacrifice and generate moral outrage that builds movements.”

Occupy actions across the U.S. illustrate this kind of repression management, the efforts of nonviolent activists to anticipate repressive measures and increase the possibility that it will backfire. Occupy activists used methods of nonviolent intervention by occupying sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces, raising questions about the state’s relationship with elite capital and economic inequality and setting the stage on which police repression backfired. Widespread commitment to remain nonviolent despite provocation arguably proved even more important to ensuring that repression backfired. We have written elsewhere about the remarkable discipline displayed by Occupy students at the University of California at Davis, when another pepper-spray incident there helped propel the movement.

The ability of nonviolent activists to prepare for repression and cultivate the paradox of repression through careful and creative planning is perhaps under-appreciated, but we find it ubiquitous. Instances of authorities overstepping the bounds of their legitimacy and using excessive force are common across the United States and around the world. Indeed, the Occupy movement quickly followed the nonviolent Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square, about which one of our colleagues writes in our book.

You can read a further selection of cases in which the paradox of repression was at play by visiting the Global Nonviolent Action Database, and you can learn more about the paradox of repression and repression management in The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements.

Lee A. Smithey

Lee A. Smithey is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Sociology at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, USA. He studies peacebuilding, social conflict, and social movements, particularly with respect to ethnopolitical conflict and nonviolent conflict methods. He is Primary Investigator of the Northern Ireland Mural Mapping Project.

 

Lester R. Kurtz

Lester R. Kurtz is a Professor of public sociology at George Mason University Korea, where he teaches peace and conflict studies, comparative sociology of religion, and social theory. He is editor of the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute of Nanjing Massacre History and International Peace.

 

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