On Civil Resistance and The Right to Bear Arms

-Alan Murdock

I have been reading a book, loaned to me by a pacifist friend, entitled, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” Before I dig in, I will give you an introduction to the material and some of the key concepts outlined by the authors, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. The premise of the book is that nonviolent insurrection is more effective than armed struggle when citizens want change from their government. There are several factors the book argues are necessary for success:

Mass, dispersed efforts – the authors argue that armed insurrections are performed by small bands of individuals willing to use deadly force who are backed by some form of financial support, either through factions in the country of conflict or through outside funding. They suggest that barriers to participation are high because ordinary citizens in many countries lack the skills, resources or willingness to participate in armed struggle. On the other hand, for the most part, attending a protest is a low barrier activity in contrast to armed resistance. The authors suggest that these efforts should be “dispersed” through a broad network. The authors mention using social media and mobile technologies to manage information across broad, grassroots networks. In their research they state that attempts to topple a government through the intervention of factions with strong leadership may fail due to power struggles among faction leaders.

Coercive force and media intervention – throughout the book, the authors highlight how media impressions, both through the amount of coverage, and the attitude about those countering the government, influence outcomes. They suggest that coercive force is absolutely necessary to create change in an unwilling leader. Armed insurrections reduce the insurgent’s power because they become complicit in bloodshed. Mass movements, on the other hand, evoke international response. Images of monks, laborers and the general masses being shot or beaten bring human rights groups and political power to the equation. Taking on victim status generates power – so long as there is coverage and someone with power to feel the protester’s pain.

Creating loyalty shifts within the government – a key to success, the authors indicate, is to move members of the existing power structure to the protester’s cause. With armed conflict, they argue, this is less likely, because groups entrench against their opposition. If their lives are in danger, they must fight or flee. Flight is an unlikely response from a group that holds power. In contrast, when the opposition uses nonviolence, it is more likely that some members within the government will have ethical qualms about excessive force, or that they will relate to some messages presented by the opposition.

A Complex Field of Contestation

The authors present several case studies that highlight the complexity of any political uprising. They describe the Iranian uprising against the Shah in 1979 as a partial success. The Shah was overthrown, but democratic groups that participated heavily in nonviolent protests to advocate for women’s rights, education, and liberalization of law were ejected from the decision process as a new Islamic religious government was established. The concept of democracy was exploited for another, more sinister purpose.

Another, more positive case study covers the 1986 Philippine ouster of Ferdinand Marcos for a new democratic government. The case demonstrates how mass movements and grass-roots organizing turned factions within the military against Marcos, leading to his removal from government and then to democratic elections. The case highlights the stabilizing force that the Catholic Church played in organizing anti-regime protests.

Evaluating the Cases from the Book

I find it a little disgusting to count the Iranian revolution as a success on any level. Citizen effort was exploited for other’s advantage. One tyrannical government was overturned for another. To count that as partial success, to me, seems like kowtowing to ideological thinking. The authors will bend over backwards to call a new tyrannical government a success if it manipulated peaceful protesters to do their dirty work for them.

In mass protests in the United States I have observed how interest groups utilize and leverage mass movements for their position. Anti-Iraq war protests in Portland, Oregon had groups such as anti-semites press anti-Israel, anarchists press anti-globalization, unions press anti-business and anti-enforcement on immigration policy. The war was the best thing that had happened for these fringe groups in a long time.

“Black Block” anarchist protesters at an anti-war protest in Portland, Oregon

Anti-Israel protester at an anti-war event. Location unknown

From my own observation it is hard to see this process as “working.” Occupy Wall Street encampments resulted in hot-spots for petty crime, like theft, drug related offenses, and felonies such as sexual assault. I’m hesitant to call this activity “working” to create something better.

In evaluating the case of the Philippine uprising, I suggest that the underlying mindset and grounding of opposition leaders in normative, stabilizing cultures such as long-standing religious traditions, in contrast to groups whose core objective is to destabilize culture (anarchists, adbusters affiliates, anti-semites, and occupyers).

The connection or lack thereof to campaign success based on a movement’s grounding in longstanding cultural institutions is something that is not investigated by the authors.

What Constitutes Sufficiency for the Public to Rise Up?

The book does not explore the question, “when should people rise up?” That question is explored in great depth in Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means by William T. Vollman. In his book, Vollman explores a broad range of means, from nonviolence to self-defense, to murder, and examines the ideological frame from which perpetrators act to justify their actions.

When you see the statistics Chenoweth and Stephan present, violent uprising, such as terrorist actions by insurgent groups, has only a 7 percent success rate. The authors state:

“Scholars often assume that violent methods of resistance are the most coercive or the most likely to force accommodation, thereby producing desired policy changes. For instance, some have argued that terrorism is an effective strategy, particularly in forcing democratic regimes to make territorial concessions. In contrast, Max Abrahms has shown that terrorists’ success rates are extremely low, accomplishing their policy objectives only 7 percent of the time. Abrahms nevertheless concludes that actors choose terrorism because it is still more effective than nonviolent resistance.”

The concept that peace can be more coercive than violence makes perfect sense to me, as you can understand from some of my earlier writing. Utilizing coercion against forces unwilling to yield is a foundational concept in peace studies literature. Looking at this from the perspective of self-defense and the use of force continuum, it is worth asking how one determines when coercive force is justified. The use of deadly force continuum is quite apparent – when one perceives death to be imminent. I suggest this nonviolent force continuum is much more murky.

When we look at the American landscape, we see a lot of leftist groups, such as the anarchists and anti-government agitators who show up at mass civil action, claiming our government is as tyrannical of the Shah, Marcos, or any of the rest of the truly tyrannical leaders around the globe.

We also have conservative groups making some of the same claims, but for different reasons. Federal actions against the Branch Davidians and other groups make some fearful that centralized government will act against people because of their beliefs.

In examining the political landscape in the United States, it seems that politicians are driving a wedge into this left-right split in the country, increasing the likelihood of various types of anti-government activity, whether of the non-violent type proposed by the authors or through violence.

Uprising in the United States

Over the past 20 years there have been both violent and nonviolent uprisings in the United States. On the violent side, Timothy McVeigh’s domestic terrorism comes to mind, as do eco-terrorist attacks by the Earth Liberation Front. Nonviolent uprising in the United States include anti-war protests, the Occupy movement, and the pro-Second Amendment activism that are currently underway.

Will Nonviolent Tactics Retain their Efficacy?

The book ends on a positive note. As it went to press, “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt threatened to topple a dictator. The authors tentatively called these a success, however, governments have adapted their response to the powerful tools of nonviolent protest, and the Arab Spring is widely considered a failure.

Because media coverage is a primary tool of social uprisings, governments have adapted, realizing their best response relies on effective media and public relations. Like politicians – Clinton smoked pot but didn’t inhale while Al Gore smoked pot with abandon and George Bush jr. hung his old college-era coke mirror in the oval office with impunity (that last is a joke, for those who don’t know me well) – governments have realized they can manage shock-and-awe media attacks through effective media intervention. Democratic, openly gay mayor of Portland, Oregon, Sam Adams successfully managed a sex scandal that came out in his first term. During his campaign, Adams had sexual contact with a minor. Despite the media risk, Adams maintained his position as Mayor with impunity. Adams later effectively justified police actions to shut down an Occupy Wall Street encampment, a movement that should have been successful in attaining its stated objectives, according to the premise of the book.

The Future of Nonviolent Protest

The authors indicate that nonviolence is a technique of warfare. This theme is repeated by many authors within peace studies. For strategies in conflict to be retained, they need to show continued success though time. As groups and individuals perceive they lack the ability to move their governments through politics or means of collective action, factions become more likely to form and rejection of nonviolence becomes a greater risk.

I am thinking about the pro second-amendment protests that are ongoing. As proposed bans on firearms have been pushed by Democratic representatives on the national and local level, various groups have had differing responses depending on their context and framework. Over the next few weeks I will explore the political and nonviolent protests, including state legislative actions to protest federal legislation, along with local rallying, social media, and other means, to protect the second amendment.

I will also discuss the seeming irony, which isn’t actually ironic at all, of using nonviolent means to protect the right to guns, tools of defense that might also be used as tools of violence. I’m looking forward to digging into this content.

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