Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Violence Is a Dangerous Route for Protesters

| Dec. 18, 2019

Activists’ voices have to be heard first on protest tactics.

In "Violence Is Sometimes the Answer," Kai Thaler argues that the use of violence by protesters is sometimes necessary, particularly in the face of aggressive regime violence, and critiques those "preaching nonviolent resistance" from the outside. These are familiar critiques.

We agree with a number of Thaler's points. First, he is right to question those on the outside who tell activists what to do or offer strategic or tactical advice. Local activists know their context best, and specific instructions from outside actors can place activists at great risk. People struggling under such conditions often say they learn the most from being in touch with other activists. But when activists approach scholars or practitioners for information or resources, it is crucial to make sure that a broad range of experience and evidence are publicly available and accessible. That was the purpose of a recent event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace that featured various scholarly and activist perspectives on how movements respond to repression.

Second, we appreciate how the article highlights the role of human agency in the struggle against authoritarianism and other forms of oppression. Civil resistance offers a way for marginalized and excluded groups to wage struggle using a wide range of direct-action tactics that can be used to disrupt injustices and challenge the status quo. It is more than simply an ideal or a normative preference. We also recognize that when activists seek out support or information, they decide for themselves whether the information is relevant to their context, or whether to discard it.

Third, we share his denunciation of repressive state violence targeting unarmed civilian dissenters. It is a regrettable reality that states often respond to those who challenge state power with violent repression, regardless of which methods of resistance they use. This state violence should never be normalized, nor should false moral equivalences or "both sides"–type narratives be tolerated. Outside actors should stand in solidarity with those fighting oppression and prioritize actions that protect fundamental human rights and mitigate violence targeting unarmed dissidents.

Yet we differ on other important points....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan.“Violence Is a Dangerous Route for Protesters.” Foreign Policy, December 18, 2019.

The Authors

Erica Chenoweth