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Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Erica Chenoweth, assistant professor at the
Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver

Carol Boss: So Erica Chenoweth, if you can give us some quick basics for listeners, what is civil, also called nonviolent resistance?

Erica Chenoweth:
Nonviolent resistance is when unarmed civilians actively confront an opponent using a variety of techniques like strikes, boycotts, protests, stay-away’s, go slows and the like in order to produce political or social change.

Boss: What is the distinction between nonviolent resistance and pacifism?

The difference between nonviolent resistance and pacifism is that nonviolent resistance is a set of coordinated techniques that can be applied in conflict whereas pacifism is a moral or philosophical position that precludes the use of violence on the basis of it being view as immoral. So nonviolent resistance often is used by pacifists as a way to prosecute conflict, but not all of those who use nonviolent resistance are pacifists themselves.

Boss: Erica, you would up delving into research on nonviolent resistance and for someone who had considered being in the military and was working on our PhD in security studies, what was the impetus for you to study and compare violent rebellions with nonviolent campaigns?

To tell you the truth, the impetus for the comparison for me between nonviolent and violent resistance was more or less an accidental meeting that I had with my soon to be coauthor Maria Stephan. We both were at a workshop in June of 2005 that was put on by The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. They’re an educational foundation in Washington, D.C. and they aim to promote knowledge and research about the use of nonviolent resistance. They were putting on a workshop trying to convince social scientists like me to take nonviolent resistance seriously in the classroom and when they were talking about the different cases of nonviolent resistance and its successes.

I couldn’t help but think of equivalent failures that I had learned about; Tiananmen Square, the Hungarian uprising and many other examples where I thought nonviolent resistance had failed disastrously.

So toward the end of the workshop, Maria and I spoke about how to really know if nonviolent resistance is more effective or as effective as armed rebellion. We can’t know that just by pulling out case studies where we think nonviolent resistance has worked. We have to use some kind of systematic comparison of nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns and look at their outcomes.

So the study was really derived out a series of conversations that I had as a skeptic with this woman Maria who was herself maybe more of an optimist. We developed a research design where we looked from 1900 to 2006, worldwide at every known example where people had used nonviolent resistance to either remove an incumbent leader from power or to achieve territorial independence through secession or through the expulsion of a military occupation or colonial power and we compared them against their violent counterparts and that’s basically where the research came from.

What we found of course is that the nonviolent campaigns succeeded twice as often as the violent ones and they also achieved significant material concessions such as autonomy or the forcing of competitive elections more than twice as often as their violent counterparts.

Boss: Could you be more specific too about what the differences in results between violent tactics and nonviolent tactics; why the success with the nonviolent tactics?

Well we drilled down into the data. We had hundreds of cases to compare and what we did was we looked at the characteristics of violent and nonviolent campaigns and found that the nonviolent campaigns had one thing that really differentiated them from the violent ones and that was their sheer size. Nonviolent campaigns tend to be about 11 times larger on average as a proportion of the overall population compared with violent insurgencies. They are just way bigger and their sheer size allows them to activate all kinds of political dynamics that put pressure on the security forces, economic elites, business elites, educational authorities, cultural authorities and the like to reevaluate their own interests in the long term and that starts to pull those pillars of support away from their loyalty to the opponent. Basically size is really important. Nonviolent resistance allows popular campaigns to get really big because there are many lower barriers to participation and that’s what allows them to be so politically powerful.

Boss: You make reference in your book to People Power Movements and you write about the People Power Movement in the Philippines in the ‘80s. Could you tell us about that movement and detail some of the factors that made this a really impressive example of successful nonviolent resistance?

I think many people think of the Philippines as an iconic example of where nonviolent resistance and people power was truly, truly transformative in a society and part of the reasons it’s so striking is because there have been longstanding violent insurgencies in the Philippines for decades before the People Power Movement made its appearance on the scene.

As soon as it did make its appearance through the EDSA protests, what happened was Ninoy Aquino, who was running for presidency against Ferdinand Marcos, was assassinated. It was a classic example of an authoritarian regime assassinating a powerful political opponent and cutting short his potential to challenge the existing status quo. This act backfired and as a result, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people around the country coalesced on a large scale uprising that brought together Catholics, that brought together leftists, intellectuals, students, labor unions, the middle class. It cut across ethnicity. It cut across class and religious affiliation and so it really was this burst of popular mobilization.

One of the key important features of the People Power Movement was that it featured not only large-scale mass demonstrations, which many people think of as an iconic example of nonviolent resistance, but it also featured things like non-cooperation’s, stay-away’s, general strikes, boycotts and these techniques in addition to large-scale demonstrations really allowed the movement to diversify its pressure points.

The military defected, the internal security forces defected. Many business and economic [inaudible] defected. Ultimately even Ferdinand Marcos external sponsor and ally, the U.S. Government under Ronald Reagan withdrew support from the regime and ultimately it’s a great example of how a large and growing diverse set of social actors can build power from below and can test a very repressive regime.

Boss: This is Peace Talks Radio. I’m Carol Boss and I’m talking today with Erica Chenoweth, author of Why Civil Resistance Works. Well, it doesn’t always work. There have been some failures. Are there any on the top of your mind that you can talk about and give us the reasons why they didn’t succeed?

Sure. There are many examples where nonviolent resistance has failed. There are certainly many examples where violent resistance has failed as well.

The ones at the top of my mind for nonviolent resistance or cases like Iran in 2009 and Burma in 2007, many people will point to those two as iconic failures. The 2007 and really 1998 uprisings in Burma show us a few really important things.
The first is that when the campaign remains largely urban, leftists intellectuals and students and doesn’t really expand out to other bases of support among the poor, among the rural classes and among different ethnic and social categories that may be arbitrary in the country, it’s often unlikely that the campaign has the growth potential in terms of the numbers that it need to succeed.

The second thing we learned is that when there is over reliance on techniques such as demonstrations, rather than the flexibility and innovation of new techniques like boycotts and stay-away’s and other methods of dispersion, we tend to see these movements become a little bit predictable and the predictability of them makes it easier for the opponent to suppress them.
Then the third thing would simply be the inability of these movements to create meaningful defections within those pillars of support. Economically it’s business [inaudible], security forces didn’t defect and part of that is mainly because the movements never became rural-based or diverse enough to force that crucial self-interested choice that occurs within those pillars of support.

Boss: Just out of curiosity, how soon into your studies did you start seeing some of their patterns? I heard you say in a talk that you gave that you used to think that nonviolent resistance was well-intentioned, but dangerously naïve and I think you said (you can correct me if I’m wrong) that “power flows from a barrel of a gun.”

: Right.

Boss: Were you kind of shocked and started by the results that you were coming up with?

Yes. The data collection lasted from the time Maria and I met in June of 2000 until early 2008 and then we wrote our first article based on the results. It was sometime early in 2008 when I ran the initial analysis and was pretty surprised to find that the nonviolent resistance campaigns were outperforming the violent ones. That was not my expectation. I thought at best they would be equivalent and probably more likely that the nonviolent campaigns would be less successful. I was really surprised. It took me a while to figure out why that was going on. It completely turned on its head most of the basic education that I had had about what makes movements powerful.

It also turned on its head a lot of basic assumptions that I think we have, not just in my field, but in human society in general about where power comes from. I think a lot of people buy into the dictum that power flows from the barrel of a gun, that it’s basically monolithic, that it’s basically constantly replenishing itself, there is no possible way for people to affect change in their societies and those types of approaches became something that I think I would just buy into without having examined the evidence.

Boss: Okay, thus far we’ve been talking about regions in the world. Let’s turn to our country, the USA. Do you think that nonviolent resistance has an image problem in our country?

Well I think nonviolent resistance has an image problem in a lot of places. I think that part of the reason Maria and I generally use the term “civil resistance” for example is because we find that it has less baggage than using the term “nonviolent resistance” where people immediately assume that you’re arguing from a moral position rather than a strategic or politically efficacious position. I think that part of that is nomenclature; part of it is just sheer misunderstanding about the power of nonviolent resistance.

The way that people are taught in school is that Gandhi and King were just wonderful human beings who had very admirable moral qualities and behavior, but that they both got assassinated and neither of them really ended up getting what they wanted in the end. The nice guys finished last.

We celebrate warfare, we celebrate our war heroes much more even when they fail, so it’s kind of a strange double standard that occurs with talking about nonviolent resistance and many progressive or radical communities, nonviolent resistance is a dirty word because it is equated with passivity or pacification. There are arguments out there that nonviolence helps the stat because people are not really willing to engage in truly militant, radical action and therefore the state wins. I think both of these perspectives that are very skeptical about nonviolent resistance are just not support in the empirical record at all.

Boss: Talk about the challenge of nonviolent movements keeping “fringe elements” from sparking violence that can bring law enforcement or military power down on an otherwise nonviolent gathering.

Nonviolent discipline is one of the major challenges of social movements, so the question is how do you basically keep a movement nonviolent, particularly when it’s being provoked into violence by the opponent and there are some useful lessons, at least at the tactical level that we can draw from recent cases.

One comes from the Serbian case actually where many of the fears of violent flanks emerging from within the movement were dealt with by developing marshals who would actually go around in groups and if they saw somebody who was beginning to react violently to police or something along those lines, they would immediately surround them and take them over to a line of taxi’s where they had arranged for the drivers to take the person into the back seat of the car and drive them about ten miles away so that they couldn’t actually disrupt the demonstration.

Another way to deal with this is actually to explicitly state that the campaign is nonviolent and committed to nonviolent action such that people who don’t participate in that way are not members of the campaign and there is a lot of controversy about that of course, but it is one way to signal that those that are engaging in violent flank behavior are not actually doing so with the permission of the campaign as a whole.

Another thing that’s been done just to create some impulse control within the campaign as training. Many campaigns, including campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement in The United States engaged in routine regular training where people prepared themselves to be antagonized into violence by thugs, hooligans and the police and they were able to develop in themselves a sense of self restraint and impulse control such that they did not have to react violently when confronted. This is not easy. Many humans are designed to actually react to violent provocation with self-defensive acts of violence and so I’m learning that can be a process. Those movements that have used training as an active component of doing that have found some success at the tactical level in so doing.

Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Ken Butigan, Executive Director of Pace E Bene

Carol Boss: So Ken, when you think of all your years of studying and teaching and practicing nonviolent action, is there a story, is there an experience that sticks in your mind that really moves you and, in a way, reinforces your commitment to this work?

Ken Butigan:
In 1985, I was involved in a movement that was trying to end the U.S. War in Central America which had been going on for several years. As part of that effort, we started a group called The Pledge of Resistance which was 100,000 across The United States who took a pledge to engage in nonviolence action if the U.S. escalated its military intervention in Central America.

As part of that, at one point I engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and actually ended up receiving a six week prison sentence. I was engaging in nonviolent action at a federal building in San Francisco and they decided to make an example of us I guess. There were three of us and then I was sent off to 14 different prisons and eventually landed at Boron Federal Prison in the Mojave Desert in California. Basically it’s a minimum security prison, but they try to keep you in line psychologically.
We got an orientation from a guard named (if you can believe it) Sergeant Lord. Sergeant Lord had a job to basically put fear of the Lord in us and said that if we stepped out of line in any way, we would be sent off to maximum security prison and we would face all kinds of retribution.

Anyway, one day I was walking along in the prison yard and Sergeant Lord came up and said, “You, get up on the ridge and pick up garbage.” I said, “Oh, okay, good, I’ll do that.” So I walked up there and about a half hour later as I’m picking up trash overlooking the Mojave Desert out in the middle of nowhere, this Jeep Cherokee pulls up with tinted windows and the window comes down and it’s Sergeant Lord. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “You told me to come and pick up trash.” He said, “No, what are you doing in this prison?” I said, “Oh, well I engaged in nonviolent action because my sisters and brothers are being killed in Central America.”

He got the meanest look on his face I’d ever seen anybody give me and I thought; well, this is it. This is where it all ends. Then he looked both directions and then, in a quieter voice, said, “They sent me to Vietnam and I killed a lot of people. I don’t sleep at night.” Then he said, “If the government wants my kids in the next war, I’m driving them to Canada.” And then he said, “What you did will probably make no difference, but I’m glad you did it.”

For this moment, we had this flow of what I have come to think of as the infinity between the eyes. It might have been the first time that Sergeant Lord ever had a chance to cop to what he had done in Vietnam. It might have been his first chance to mention this to anyone. I realized in that moment that while I had done this nonviolent action for a political reason, it was really to meet Sergeant Lord. I got a real lesson in what nonviolent action can do. We can actually not only meet people we normally wouldn’t meet, but actually change can happen.

I have my whole life been having one experience like that after another, not only individually, but collectively and seeing the power of nonviolent change.

Boss: Define active nonviolence for us.

Active nonviolence or what I sometimes call “liberating nonviolence,” is the force for justice, peace and the well-being of all that is neither violent nor passive. It’s a force. It’s not a non-thing. It’s active. It’s for justice. It’s for peace and the well-being of all, not almost all, not some of us, but for everyone and it uses neither violence nor passivates. Nonviolence is not passive. It’s active, creative, challenging, liberating and audacious. I’ve seen this at work individually and interpersonally, but also I’ve seen it in the power of movements to change our society and our world.

Boss: Can you give us a short illustration of how you have seen it personally?

I was engaging in nonviolent action one time at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which is a facility that has created and designed 50% of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

I had decided I was just going to lie on the ground to show or symbolize withdrawing consent. I wasn’t going to cooperate with this process because I didn’t want to cooperate with nuclear weapons any longer.

So a police officer comes to arrest and orders me to get up and I explain; “Well, I really don’t want to do that today.” He pulls and yanks my arm and tries to pull me up and finally his superior officer across the street said, “Don’t fool around with him anymore. Just break his wrist.” I felt him beginning to break my wrist! I hadn’t planned this, but I kind of leaned up a bit and moved in the direction of his ear and I said, “You don’t have to do this.” I felt him begin to break it even more, but then he stopped and I realized he had just given me something. He had given my wrist back to me, so I decided to give him something. I got up and walked with him over to the police bus.

Finally he turned to me and he said, “Thank you so much for telling me “I didn’t have to do that.’ They brought these people in last week to teach us how to break the activists’ wrists. I didn’t want to do it at the time, but I had just gotten an order. You broke the spell.” And I realized I didn’t have to do that. I had some agency, I had some power in this situation. We ended up spending the next half hour having the most delightful conversation about this life and my life. I’ve seen this over and over again; there’s something about taking nonviolent action, but there’s also the potential in all of us to make a choice, in this case this police officer.

Boss: Ken, you went on to form Pace e Bene which is an organization. In a sentence or two, can you tell us what the mission of it is?

Pace e Bene Nonviolent Service. I actually didn’t start it. I arrived about a year and a half after it started, but I have been there for 25 years, so it feels like I started it I guess.

Pace e Bene’ Nonviolent Service organizes nonviolence training, resources and nonviolent action for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. We have been organizing now over 800 trainings and workshops, classes and seminars, webinars in nonviolence and nonviolent change. About 35,000 people now have taken these trainings in this country and around the world.

We also have published a series of books on the power of nonviolence.

We also have been very involved in a variety of social movements and one of the things that we did in 2006 was help create something called The Declaration of Peace which was a nationwide effort to try to create the conditions or the people power that would support a just and peaceful end to the war in Iraq. We organized people all over this country around that.

Boss: Let me ask you how effective you think marches are. Do you think they are truly productive marches in and of themselves?

What I’ve been persuaded by not only my experience of now a series of nonviolent social movements I’ve been part of around the War in Iraq, the wars in Afghanistan, Freedom for East Timor and a whole campaign we did around homelessness in California.

In addition to my experience, actually the study of nonviolent movements show us that these kinds of activities are part of an overall effort, a road map, of getting to success, getting to a win-win.

I’m very moved by a model that was created called “The Movement Action Plan” in which there are eight stages of the social movement and you can see that any one march doesn’t make change possible, but there is a process where activities build on one another and create that possibility.

We don’t criticize a sophomore in college because she hasn’t graduated yet. Yet in our movements, sometimes thinking we’re powerless, we’re not making any difference when we organize that march.

This model the late Bill Moyer created in this great book Doing Democracy, shows that we’re actually building on one semester after another, one quarter after another, one stage or step after another.

Interestingly, smack dab in the middle of his model is Stage 5 which is “Activist Failure” because we haven’t created enough people power yet, but that’s true of every successful social movement. They go through these ups and downs, but what they’re doing is alerting, educating, winning and mobilizing the populace because ultimately, those who are making these decisions; the power holders and the policymakers, ultimately depend on these pillars of support including the vast majority of the population.

So a goal of a movement is to have a conversation with ones’ society to help that society change its mind.

I went to bed one night during the Vietnam War and the country was for the war and I woke up the next morning and the country was against the war. It wasn’t really like that, but actually that shift felt like that.

We’ve seen that kind of shift in a lot of movements whether that’s the rights of LGBTQ people or whether it’s the shift in ending nuclear weapons. We saw polling data shift. We saw the country shift and change its mind and that didn’t happen by accident. It happened because ordinary people took extraordinary actions to alert and educate the public and ask them to change their mind.

Boss: You’ve been active in a lot of movements and actions. Have you ever experienced negative consequences of nonviolent actions where the action itself wound up provoking others who didn’t agree with what you were doing or representing and it turned into a confrontational violent or destructive behavior scene?

I was at a big demonstration in Seattle in 1999 at The World Trade Organization meeting and 70,000 people came but 100 people came to disrupt the nonviolent protest by using tactics such as putting newspaper boxes through plate glass windows at various shops in Seattle. I’m from Seattle and I didn’t want to see that kind of activity happen, not only because I’m from the city I love, but also because I felt it was counterproductive to focus on the real issues and the focus would now become violence.

I had a very powerful exchange with a young person who wanted throw one of those newspaper boxes in the window. She said, “But you see the violence that this company is doing with sweatshops in Indonesia.” I said, “I’m totally in agreement with you. I disagree on your tactics because now the focus is going to be on this violence. We ended up having a half hour conversation where we found a lot of agreement and then in the end, she put that newspaper box down.

Boss: Do you have some very specific concrete things you can share with listeners that you can suggest on how to mainstream nonviolence in their own lives or in their communities, some effective tools they can use every day?

Butigan: We highly encourage people everywhere to get the training that our schools typically have not given us or our families have not given us, this power of nonviolence, to learn about it. There are now a growing number of books that are available. You can come to the Pace e Bene website at: and see our range of books that are available to learn about this, but also training. Form a study group.

I would most encourage people to recognize we have more power than we think. We have been taught that there are only these alternatives of passivity or violence which often leads to fatalism or destruction. We can find other people to engage in this active, creative, challenging audacious, nonviolent power.