The Proven Power of Non-Violent Resistance

The tragic events on Memorial Day in Minneapolis have ignited long-festering feelings of anger, frustration, and marginalization across the nation. Protests were inevitable. But senseless acts of criminality have stolen the headlines and undermined the purpose of the protests. And worse yet, they undermine the opportunity to achieve real and lasting change. Nevertheless, substantive change is still very much possible. And a helpful blueprint exists.

A decade ago, a doctoral researcher, Erica Chenoweth, studied more than a 100 years’ worth of data to validate her hypothesis that social and political change is most likely to happen through violent campaigns. But wouldn’t you know… she discovered the exact opposite. What she found after analyzing hundreds of incidents was that meaningful political and social change is more likely to happen when methods of “nonviolent civil resistance” are carried out in a consistent and sustained way. In her book, Why Civil Resistance Works, she laid out four conditions that must be created in order for change to take root. And it serves as guiding principles for the political organizers and protesters to sow the seeds of real change.

Large and Diverse Participation: Protesters often share similar socio-demographic characteristics, making their grievances less relatable to the broader population. Increased diversity of the protesters is a signal that the movement reflects the broader demographics of the nation and the conscience of the many. We know from research conducted at MIT on team diversity that more diverse teams consistently outperform homogeneous teams. And that same principle holds true for creating social change. The more diverse the participants, the greater the likelihood that the movement will succeed. Thus far, the current protest movement has had broad multicultural representation. To be successful in the long run, the voices of the protest movement must reflect all socio-demographic groups.

Attitude Shift Amongst the Power Brokers: Change at the grassroots is not enough. There also needs to be a mindset shift at the executive and leadership ranks where policy and practice is created and upheld. What stands in the way is that it is much easier for those in power to prop up the status quo than to challenge societal norms. After all, as human beings, we are cognitively biased to prefer what is known to something new and less known. It’s easy for those in power to pay lip service about doing the right things, but it can be complex and politically risky to actually do something about it. Some executives have begun to speak out. But to create change, organizers need to make it easy for those leaders to go beyond words and do the hard things that need to be accomplished for real change.

Beyond Protests: Protests are a part of American society and help shine a light on political issues and injustice. But change requires purpose. In 2011, the Occupy movement swept New York City, and many other cities around the country, in an egalitarian fervor. The protests made headlines. The vague frustration was about wealth and income inequality (the 99%). But no singular voice or purpose emerged. The occupy movement disappeared with the arrival of the winter winds and with little change to speak of. Lasting change can only be created when there is a clear strategy and thoughtful campaigns to bring that strategy to life. Taking to the streets is a way to generate awareness and interest. But that is not enough. An organized and purposeful campaign for change must replace all of the sound and fury.

The Peaceful High Ground: The moment the movement descends into violent disorder is the moment the movement is lost for most people. Citizens crave order and safety. When the average person sees burning cars, broken storefront windows and violent standoffs, their sympathy drains. And their survival and protection instincts kick into overdrive. Peaceful civil disobedience is not just the right thing to do, its also the most politically expedient thing to do. As soon as the movement sinks into chaos, it becomes easy to write off the participants as troublemakers and ignore their message. We have seen great examples of peaceful protests around the country and those are the stories that stand out and inspire change. When protesters turn to violence the message and the purpose is greatly diminished.

We live in complicated times. And nobody is surely thinking that change will happen overnight. But with a smart, purposeful, and peaceful approach, the seeds of change will be planted for this generation.

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