Avoiding violence: Eleven ways activists can confine violence in civil resistance campaigns

Published date01 June 2019
AuthorIsabel Bramsen
Date01 June 2019
Avoiding violence: Eleven ways activists can confine
violence in civil resistance campaigns
Isabel Bramsen
Department of Political Science, Centre for
Resolution of International Conflicts
(CRIC), Kobenhavns Universitet,
Copenhagen, Denmark
Isabel Bramsen, Department of Political
Science, Centre for Resolution of
International Conflicts (CRIC), Kobenhavns
Universitet, Copenhagen, Denmark.
Email: ib@cric.ku.dk
Nonviolent resistance is a powerful tool but can also turn
into civil war when repressed. Based on interviews with
activists from Bahrain, Tunisia, and Syria and experts on
nonviolent resistance, this article investigates how activists
can reduce violence in demonstrations. Five approaches to
countering regime violence are proposed: (a) disrupting vio-
lent action, (b) constructing dilemma situations, (c) avoiding
direct confrontation, (d) inviting civilian peacekeepers, and
(d) respecting the opponents traditions, as well as six ways
of reducing activist violence: (a) delegitimizing violence,
(b) managing material availability, (c) managing emotions,
(d) providing alternatives, (e) changing practices of violence,
and (f) enhancing cohesion.
One look at pictures or recordings of the situation on the ground in Syria today should be enough to
convince just about anyone of the importance of preventing violence in the early stages of conflict
escalation. Nonviolence is a powerful tool with which to challenge an unjust system and change the
status quo (Sharp, 1973; Sharp, 2013; Sharp & Paulson, 2005) and is potentially a critical instrument
of conflict resolution, especially in asymmetric conflicts (Dudouet, 2008; Sørensen & Johansen,
2016). But when nonviolent resistance is repressed, it can also lead to a devastating civil war that
destroys lives and dreams, including those that led to the revolution in the first place. It is therefore
crucial to investigate what, if anything, can be done early on in nonviolent revolutions to counter
both regime and revolutionary violence. If nonviolence is to be effectiveeven in highly authoritar-
ian and repressive regimeswe must develop options for countering regime violence and reducing
protest violence. The escalation phase of a conflict is perhaps the most promising phase for reducing
conflict-related human suffering (Bramsen, Boye, & Vindeløv, 2016). All things being equal, it is
significantly more difficult to find solutions and avoid further violence when blood has been spilt
Received: 22 December 2018 Revised and accepted: 8 March 2019
DOI: 10.1002/crq.21254
© 2019 Association for Conflict Resolution and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 2019;36:329344. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/crq 329
and relations have been broken. The moment for early intervention in Syria clearly passed long ago,
but other nonviolent revolutions will come; here, any insights about countering violence might be of
value for nonviolent activists and third parties.
In this article, I begin to build a toolbox for activists who intend to reduce violence in nonviolent
resistance. To my knowledge, no such toolbox exists with a specific focus on reducing violence. Dif-
ferent toolboxes or lists of possible nonviolent actions exist, but they are generally directed toward
how to best challenge an oppressor, not specifically on how to avoid violence. For example, Sharp
(1973) proposes 198 methods of nonviolent resistance grouped into categories of protest and persua-
sion, noncooperation, and intervention. Likewise, Sørensen and Johansen (2016) propose five ways
in which activists can escalate a conflict. However, these are different ways of challenging an oppres-
sive regime and not specifically related to violence prevention. Sharp addresses how activists should
counter repression, arguing that the most effective response to violent repression is to demonstrate
that it does not produce submission, but instead increases resistance(Sharp & Paulson, 2005,
p. 487). Making repression backfire is not the aim of this article, however, but it is rather to find
ways of reducing or avoiding violent repression directly, as well as a violent counterresponse.
The article draws upon my research in the early months of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, Tunisia,
and Syria, at the same time including other research and activist strategies developed in other revolu-
tions, when relevant. Moreover, I have conducted three expert interviews with scholars and practi-
tioners of nonviolent resistance (Erica Chenoweth, Maria Stephan, and Stellan Vinthagen). It may
seem paradoxical that I take good ideas for how to counter regime violence and reduce protest vio-
lence from, among other things, cases where nonviolence has been unsuccessful thus far (Bahrain
and Syria). One Syrian activist even claimed that we exhausted every peaceful tactic there ever were
in the world, from flying balloons to shouting our lungs out(Interview 36) and stated that nonvio-
lent tactics alone therefore could not have overthrown the Syrian regime. But given that these
methods were applied together with increasingly militarized resistance, it is difficult to assess them
independent of the violent actions, that is, whether they would have been effective in challenging the
regime if the resistance did not have an armed flank. The focus of this article is not primarily on how
tactics can contribute to a group winning but rather how different actions can potentially reduce vio-
lent regime repression in a particular situation. Thus, I can use experiences from specific situations
where violence was avoided, as well as experiences of what to avoid if one wishes to limit protest
violence, from the Syrian case.
While I aim to explore activist options for reducing protest and regime violence, not how activists
succeed in general, the endeavor is not entirely detached from the overall goal of winning a nonvio-
lent conflict as both protest and regime violence lower the likelihood of success for nonviolent revo-
lutions (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011). Hence, also in the interest of increasing success of
nonviolence, there is good reason to consider how violence in demonstrations can be reduced.
The article proceeds as follows: having presented how avoiding violence in protests is addressed
in the literature, the article discusses the pros and cons of whether it is even preferable to avoid vio-
lence in resistance campaigns. I then proceed to discuss activist strategies for countering or reducing
regime violence. I suggest five approaches to countering regime violence: (a) disrupting violent
action, (b) constructing dilemma situations, (c) avoiding direct confrontation, (d) inviting civilian
peacekeepers, and (e) respecting the opponent's traditions. Limiting and countering regime violence
is closely linked to avoiding protest violence or keeping nonviolent disciplineas violence often
tends to breed more violence (Bramsen, 2017a) and risks turning the revolution into a ci vil war. The
strategy used by the advocates of nonviolence to prevent protesters from throwing stones or using
weapons rarely goes beyond prohibitions and the moral rejection of violence. Rather than mere

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT