FSI09: Backfire, Legitimacy & Dividing Loyalties in Civil Resistance

The eight presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on the issue of security forces. One of the guiding questions for this presentation was: In what circumstances can nonviolent movements reduce the legitimacy of security forces in the eyes of the population?

Giving water and food to security forces is a tactic that often works to at least lower tensions and aggression. But one must be very careful about the assumptions made with regards to how security forces might react to various tactics.

Getting repeatedly arrested may provide some advantages, as was noted by colleagues in the Otpor movement. They would start getting know the police officers and wardens, and the building this interpersonal relationships that proved important as the resistance scaled up.

Backfire occurs when an attack creates more support for or attention to what/who is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator. This concept relates to Gene Sharp‘s “political jiu-jitsu“:

Political jiu-jitsu is one of the special processes by which nonviolent action deals with violent repression. By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent’s repression to be exposed in the worst possible light. This, in turn, may lead to shifts in opinion and then to shifts in power relationships favorable to the nonviolent group. These shifts result from withdrawal of support for the opponent and the grant of support to the nonviolent actionists.

What are the real preferences of the security forces? These will never be monolithic and fully in line with the regime, i.e., preferences will be differential.  What are the risks in expressing those preferences if you’re part of the security? Security forces don’t always obey:

  • Philippines, 1986
  • Serbia, 2000
  • Ukraine, 2004

When and how do security forces choose to disobey? Developing relationships (usually covert) with leadership and officers was a tactic used in Serbia. In Egypt, activists told police they understood that they had orders to follow and simply asked that they simply not hit them as hard. Developing relationships with ordinary soldiers/police during action is an area that requires further exploration.

Dividing the oppressor is another tactic. So is campaigning for the end of conscription. In apartheid South Africa, the South Africa Defense Force (SADF) was the last line in the defense of apartheid and the 1983 End the Conscription Campaign (ECC) struck at the heart of this powerful force.

“Conscripts were not our enemy… we should serve their interests, ‘pull’ them away from the SADF rather than antagonize or ‘push’ them.”

The ECC also used branding, logos, posters, T-shirts, music concerts, kite flying, etc. But was the ECC successful? There were no high-level defections and the campaign was banned in 1988. However, it continued in different form and the number of conscripts who refused to serve. They were being flown to fight in Angola and were increasingly resistant to do so.

One participant noted that the gulf between members of a nonviolent movement and security officers are often culture, linguistic, etc. The case of Tibet is an example. When there are similarities, emphasizing those is an appropriate tactic. But when there are only differences, can accentuating those differences help the nonviolent movement?

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “FSI09: Backfire, Legitimacy & Dividing Loyalties in Civil Resistance

  1. Pingback: How to Communicate Safely in Repressive Regimes | Afraha | Our Own Tiny Planet

  2. Pingback: Brokekid.net » Monkey Vs Robot – My Weekly Idealist post

  3. Pingback: Where I Disagree with Morozov vs Shirky on Digital Activism « iRevolution

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