How repression can fuel a movement

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This text is adapted from “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements,” edited by Lester R. Kurtz and Lee A. Smithey for Syracuse University Press.

From Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses attacking U.S. civil rights demonstrators to the massacre at Amritsar in colonial India, the use of coercive force against dissidents often backfires, becoming a transformative event that can change the course of a conflict. Rather than demobilizing a movement, repression often ironically fuels resistance and undercuts the legitimacy of a power elite. Although a long scholarly tradition explores the unintended consequences of martyrdom and other acts of violence, more attention could be paid to what we call the paradox of repression — that is, when repression creates unanticipated consequences that authorities do not desire. Efforts by power elites to oppress movements often backfire, mobilizing popular support for the movements and undermining authorities, potentially leading to significant reforms or even a regime’s overthrow.

As civil rights activist, clergyman and author Will Campbell writes, “Of one thing I am certain: [the civil rights movement] was not destroyed by hooded vigilantes and flaming crosses. Nor by chains used on school children, dynamiting of churches and homes, mass jailings. All those things were an impetus to the movement and brought determination to the victims.” Repressive coercion can weaken a regime’s authority, turning public opinion against it. Paradoxically, the more a power elite applies force, the more citizens and third parties are likely to become disaffected, sometimes inducing the regime to disintegrate from internal dissent.

According to political scientist Christian Davenport, repression is often defined as “actual or threatened use of physical sanctions against an individual or organization, within the territorial jurisdiction of the state, for the purpose of imposing a cost on the target as well as deterring specific activities and/or beliefs perceived to be challenging to government personnel, practices or institutions.” We prefer to see repression as a much more complex phenomenon that goes far beyond physical threats or sanctions. We find it conceptually helpful to place these methods along a continuum stretching from overt violence, on one end, to hegemony on the other. Viewing repression from this broad perspective helps to correct some of the narrowness of previous research.

Overt violence includes the actions we usually think of when we consider repression, such as beatings, torture, shooting unarmed demonstrators and arrests. They are the repressive tactics most likely to cause moral outrage within the broader population and are, therefore, more likely to precipitate backfire. Because authorities are sometimes aware of the risks involved in using brute force, they may employ less-lethal methods such as pepper spray or “active denial systems” or simply intimidate activists with indirect threats, harassment or surveillance. Soft repression, a concept developed by Myra Marx Ferree, includes such actions as stigmatization of protesters and their movements, framing contests, and manipulative attempts to divide, divert, or distract social movement organizations or their pool of potential recruits. “The distinguishing criterion of soft repression,” Marx Ferree explains, “is the collective mobilization of power, albeit in nonviolent forms and often highly informal ways, to limit and exclude ideas and identities from the public forum.” Although she develops the concept to explain gender-based movements, it is a strategy widely used by power elites to minimize the participation of movements and dissidents. Finally, the most effective demobilization technique used by authorities is the promotion of hegemony, in which dissidents censor themselves.

Nonviolence and the paradox of repression

As Jonathan Schell eloquently asserts in “The Unconquerable World,” one of the most profound legacies within modernity has been the realization of popular nonviolent power. The last century produced a surge of innovation in nonviolent conflict strategies and methods, many of which have made effective use of the paradox of repression. (Violent insurgencies may also sometimes benefit from the paradox of repression, but their own use of violence can undermine and diminish support within their own communities and especially among third parties.)

Despite its ubiquity, the obscurity of the paradox of repression should not be particularly surprising. It is most apparent in conflicts in which one party employs strategic nonviolent strategy. However, it is only in the 20th century that we witness the prodigious expansion of nonviolence corresponding with globalization and accelerating technological development. In a globalizing world where communications, travel and arms technologies have become widely available, even small pockets of resistance have developed the capacity to challenge more traditionally powerful institutions, such as corporations and states.

Greater international interdependence requires economic and political cooperation across an increasingly complex network of cross-cutting alliances. The use of coercive force in this environment may offend or inconvenience mutual allies and neighbors and leave an aggressor isolated. The United States has experienced this dilemma in connection with the invasion of Iraq. Despite considerable support from the United Kingdom, the Bush administration encountered significant obstacles in cobbling together a coalition of smaller, less influential states. Larger states on the United Nations Security Council, such as France, Germany, and Russia, probably declined to participate in part because of significant economic interests in the region, but they were also under pressure from their own citizens who sympathized with the Iraqi people and considered the invasion unjustified aggression.

The structure of insurgent groups has also changed to take advantage of ever-emerging electronic communications technologies, such as fax machines, the internet, cell phones and instant messaging, while limiting the ability of authorities to repress resistance. Nonviolent direct action sometimes takes on the form of cell or affinity groups developed by non-state terror organizations to avoid repression. However, this trend may diminish the paradox of repression. As explained later in the book, the paradox of repression relies in large part not on avoiding repression but on enduring and sometimes provoking it. In order for insurgents to invoke the sympathy and outrage of bystander publics, these publics must relate to and identify with the target of repression. Although affinity groups may make resistance groups appear shadowy and unrecognizable, much important organizing for nonviolent campaigns has taken place underground. The latter approach is more likely to prove effective in highly asymmetrical scenarios, where there is little ambiguity over public sympathies and the illegitimacy of a regime.

The paradox of repression is one manifestation of what the pre-eminent scholar of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, calls “political jiu-jitsu.” In the martial art of jiu-jitsu, one uses the weight and momentum of one’s opponent to throw the opponent. Similarly, in strategic nonviolent action, one can use an opponent’s resources, needs and culture to one’s own advantage. Thus, for example, arrests and imprisonment have always been a primary tool of governmental authorities against agents of social change. Nonviolent activists, however, have often prepared for arrest and willingly accepted or even sought incarceration in order to overload jails and strain government bureaucracies. The same dynamic can apply to the use of cultural resources to trigger the paradox of repression. Social philosopher Richard Gregg first wrote about this dynamic as “moral jiu-jitsu,” drawing on Gandhi’s idea that self-suffering would induce conversion by an opponent, who, when confronted by a nonviolent resister, would lose “the moral support which the violent resistance of most victims would render him.”

As students and activists of nonviolence understand, the paradox of repression can be cultivated. True, in some cases, such as the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, repression has been so complete as to overcome nearly all resistance. In other cases, however, where the relationship between opponents has been better integrated and where those traditionally considered less powerful have developed effective methods of resistance (such as cell structures and nonviolent collective action techniques), imperial and authoritarian states have found themselves unable to contend with grassroots opposition, often because the movement was able to rob the regime of some of its legitimacy. While the overtly systematic use of nonviolent collective action theory varies widely from case to case, training and strategic planning continues to spread. The cases we offer as illustrations do not always document an intentional preparation for the paradox of repression (though preparation is common, as we elaborate below) but indicate how challengers adopted collective action tactics that often both amplified and subverted attempts to repress and intimidate nonviolent activists.

An overview of the book

The chapters in this book have two main goals: to gain a more nuanced understanding of how the paradox of repression works and when it has happened, on the one hand, and to examine how nonviolent activists have managed it, on the other, to enhance the extent to which it empowers movements and undermines unjust systems. We hope this book will be valuable to scholars and activists alike, and we have recruited both scholars and activists as chapter authors (including several authors who are both). The first task of the contributors is thus to look at various aspects and cases of the paradox of repression to get a better sense of its topography beyond the isolated anecdotal cases diffused through the scholarly literature and activists’ lore. We provide a conceptual and empirical overview and bring together quantitative and qualitative scholarship with activists who have experienced repression and experimented with its management. We begin with Erica Chenoweth’s quantitative birdseye view of the phenomenon across the globe over half a century. Chapter two, “Backfire in Action: Insights from Nonviolent Campaigns, 1945–2006,” analyzes her large data set comparing 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns for major change to evaluate how backfire works and which movement features are most likely to provoke it.

Chenoweth identifies three critical factors facilitating a positive outcome from repression: (1) sustained high levels of campaign participation, (2) loyalty shifts among security forces and civilian leaders, and (3) the withdrawal of support from its foreign allies.

Doron Shultziner’s conceptual chapter addresses a key aspect of the paradox of repression by delving into two historical cases. In chapter three, “Transformative Events, Repression, and Regime Change,” he focuses on the central tension between the parameters of opportunity structures and the agency of collective action. He explores the social psychological impact of “transformative events,” which can sometimes suspend the habits and assumptions that normally underpin the political status quo and open up new opportunities for resistance. Transformative events that involve repression can thus operate as a causal mechanism or path to regime change and democratic outcomes. Shultziner focuses on cases such as the Soweto Uprising in South Africa and the Montgomery bus boycott to illustrate the relationship between repression and backfire as transformative events.

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Elite defection has been identified as an important factor in the success or failure of nonviolent civil resistance campaigns, demanding that we delve into the ways in which agents of repression experience the repression they carry out. In her exploration of successful nonviolent revolutions, Sharon Erickson Nepstad found that defections by security forces were an important strategic factor. Nonviolent resistance has an advantage in managing and framing repression because it can create dilemmas for repressors.

Rachel MacNair reminds us in chapter four, “The Psychology of Agents of Repression: The Paradox of Defection,” that aggression and fear are not physical properties that people hold in their hands, but are psychological experiences. Agents of repression do not merely follow orders; they are caught up in complex psychological dynamics and risk suffering what she calls perpetration induced traumatic stress.

In recent years, the nature of civil resistance has changed with the increased role of the internet and social media in political processes. Jessica Beyer and Jennifer Earl bring their extensive expertise in this emerging field to bear in chapter five, “Backfire Online: Studying Reactions to the Repression of Internet Activism.” It is crucial to understand the ways in which online activism and the activists behind it interact with the state and other entities interested in silencing them. Drawing on recent cases studies, Beyer and Earl systematically present various forms of online repression and show how it has backfired on elites. They explore the affinities between different types of internet activism and repressive tactics, identifying multiple levels of analysis of how backfire and deterrence can be differentiated according to the actors involved (individual versus group and public versus private).

A second major aspect of the book turns to repression management — that is, how nonviolent resisters, but also repressors, have attempted to shape the outcome of repression to their benefit. We begin with the firsthand experience of Jenni Williams, founder of the movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA. In chapter six, “Overcoming Fear to Overcome Repression,” Williams emphasizes the importance of establishing a movement culture that prioritizes nonviolence and encourages empowerment through shared leadership and the creative use of traditional cultural themes to withstand and blunt repression. When WOZA transformed the traditional role of motherhood to scold and challenge the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, the activists were met with a brutal repression of their movement. By accepting and even courting arrest, Williams argues, the activists took away the regime’s major weapon of repression, turning it instead into a source of empowerment for the movement and individual participants, increasing the costs of the regime’s efforts to thwart them. They mobilized a campaign of “tough love,” transforming a culture of fear into a culture of resistance and constructing a creative leadership structure that allowed them to be more flexible in their tactics than the rigid authoritarian police establishment bound by its limited repertoire.

Chapter seven, “Culture and Repression Management,” focuses on the symbolic aspects of repression and its backfire. We conceptualize nonviolent struggle as a dance between an establishment and its dissidents, a regime and its insurgents, as they contest the frames used to make meaning of repressive events. This chapter explores proactive efforts by nonviolent activists to choreograph actions in ways that help to ensure the backfire effect of repression by clearly establishing the aggression of the agents of repression. In chapter eight, “‘Smart’ Repression,” we address the growing efforts by elites to be more strategic about how they use repression, in order to mitigate the effects of its potentially backfiring. That chapter examines a relatively unexplored aspect of repression, the use of tactics that are deliberately crafted to demobilize movements while mitigating or eliminating a backfire effect.

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Dalia Ziada gives us a participant’s-eye-view of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 in chapter nine, “Egypt: Military Strategy and the 2011 Revolution,” although she is also familiar with the literature on strategic nonviolent action. What she found most remarkable was that the army in some instances chose not to use violence during the citizen uprising, and ended up collaborating with the activists to oust President Hosni Mubarak, although they returned to the usual armed forces modus operandi after seizing power from Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014. Ziada provides a firsthand account of the events of 2011 based on her own participation in the revolution and draws on her interviews with Egyptian and American military personnel.

In chapter 10, “Repression Engendering Creative Nonviolent Action in Thailand,” Chaiwat Satha-Anand explores activist creativity following repression in Thailand. He argues that repression, such as the violent actions in 2010 of the Thai government against protesters in the Red Shirts movement, created space for new movement leadership and the introduction of creative nonviolent resistance. He calls this dynamic “the cleansing effect of violent repression.” In this Thai case, Sombat Boonngamanong developed a series of highly symbolic and creative flash mob actions that drew on a history of nonviolent resistance in Thai society.

Finally, veteran activist, scholar and trainer George Lakey concludes the volume by providing insights from decades of practical experience and reflection in chapter 11, “Making Meaning of Pain and Fear: Enacting the Paradox of Repression.” According to Lakey, nonviolent activists create narratives that provide meaning for their risks, injuries, suffering and losses, helping them to transform pain and fear into opportunities for mobilization. These stories in turn have consequences for the tactics and strategies they choose and help to trigger the paradox of repression. Activists use these stories to prepare in advance for repressive events by training and shaping confrontations.

By weaving together these case studies, scholarly analysis and activists’ reflection, we aim to shed light on how the paradox of repression works in multiple contexts and how activists have managed repression to enhance its potential to backfire and empower resistance.

Repression as relational conflict

Nonviolent resistance is based in large part on the strategic harnessing of relational power. We focus on one subform in this volume: the strategic cultivation of the paradox of repression. Sometimes, when one party takes coercive action that violates basic norms, its ability to rally support and cooperation — its legitimacy — is undermined, threatening its capacity to meet its own goals. The contributors to this volume present cases in which authorities or elites used intimidation, coercion and sometimes violence in attempts to crush dissident movements. However, in each case, intimidation and physical force were seen to violate norms of proportionate response and helped to mobilize movement recruits. Elites’ efforts rebounded on them, undermining their legitimacy and diminishing their ability to govern as they wished.

Moreover, activists can rhetorically frame the actions of their opponents or can choreograph their own actions in ways that draw attention to repression by opponents. By adopting nonviolent tactics, activists can generate a striking contrast between their own actions and the “unfair” tactics of their opponents. The dissonance that gap creates can, in turn, provoke a moral outrage that increases the support and involvement of local and third parties. Such a contrast can also cause factions to develop among a movement’s opponents as some withdraw their cooperation and refuse to participate in further repression. When repression does occur against nonviolent civilians, it may serve as a deterrent to other regimes, as when Gorbachev took note of the negative consequences worldwide of the Tiananmen Square massacre and decided not to back communist states across Eastern Europe with force when they faced nonviolent uprisings a few months later.

Activists may also draw on local indigenous cultural resources to sensitize potential recruits and sympathetic publics to acts of repression. Legacies may be framed that perpetuate the paradox of repression long after the immediate crisis has passed. Dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1989 commemorated the death of a young student, Jan Palach, who self-immolated in response to the 1968 invasion of Prague by Warsaw Pact troops two decades earlier. Similarly, the legacy of the British Army’s killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972 continues to influence Northern Ireland politics today, more than 40 years after the event. Figuring out how to harness cultural resources requires indigenous creativity or what sociologist James Jasper has called “artfulness” in developing effective tactics. The ability of activists to design effective nonviolent collective action creatively that mitigates repression or induces it to backfire may develop out of rational strategizing, but it will often emerge instinctively from the habitus, the intimate, unspoken and inarticulable perception of relations that is uniquely local. This creativity is the source of agency, which complicates cost-benefit paradigms since it is elusive and difficult to measure, and yet can significantly enhance the power potential of groups who might otherwise be considered susceptible to repression.

In short, although the paradox of repression is a phenomenon that is widely glossed over in both policy and academic circles, it seems an obvious and ubiquitous fact in 21st century political culture and a key element in the history of successful nonviolent movements. We hope that this collection of studies will enhance understanding by reconceptualizing repression as an interaction between conflicting parties, by expanding our scope of the spheres in which repression occurs, by delving into the social, psychological and cultural dimensions of repression, by thinking more closely about the costs of repression among agents of repression, and by introducing repression management to explore ways in which strategic nonviolent activists become powerful agents within repressive contexts.

Purchase a copy of “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements” at Syracuse University Press.

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