Peace Science Digest

Limiting State Violence and Activist Violence in Nonviolent Resistance Struggles

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Bramsen, I. (2019). Avoiding violence: Eleven ways activists can confine violence in civil resistance campaigns. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 36, 329-344.

Talking Points 

  • Limiting both state violence and activist violence in the context of a civil resistance struggle is important to movement success.
  • To limit state violence against a civil resistance movement, nonviolent activists should: 1) disrupt violent action through unexpected behaviors, 2) construct dilemma situations that make the use of violence appear silly or weak, 3) avoid direct confrontation with security forces, 4) invite civilian peacekeepers or other prominent foreigners, and 5) demonstrate respect for the opponent group and its traditions.
  • To limit activist violence within a civil resistance movement, which can also help limit state violence against it, nonviolent activists should: 1) delegitimize violence, 2) be deliberate about the objects made available to activists during actions, 3) manage activists’ emotions that could lead to violence, 4) provide nonviolent alternatives for resistance, 5) help activists develop nonviolent practice through nonviolence trainings, and 6) enhance movement cohesion.


It’s a familiar story: A nonviolent movement emerges, vigorously resisting an unjust government who then attempts to portray movement activists as “terrorists” and responds with violent repression. Then, although this repression backfires, due to the clear contrast between the state’s violence and the movement’s nonviolence, and the movement gains momentum, some activists begin to argue that nonviolence has not “worked” and only violence will effectively protect the movement and/or bring about its goals. With the emergence of armed resistance, the state doubles down on its own violent response, secure now in its public assertions that it is merely “defending” the country from violent rebels or “terrorists.” As the country descends into civil war—with both the state and the movement pointing to the other side’s violence to justify their need to violently “defend” themselves—casualties mount, and the movement moves further from achieving its original goals.

What can be done to prevent this story from repeating itself—and, more specifically, to limit both state violence and movement violence in a pre- dominantly nonviolent struggle? While the author of this research focuses on how activists can limit violence in a civil resistance struggle as opposed to how they can “win,” the two objectives are clearly related—though perhaps in contradictory ways. In particular, state violence against a non-violent movement can either increase or decrease the movement’s chances of success, depending on whether it backfires, bringing more sympathy and support to the movement, or instead “discourage[s] or radicalize[s]” the movement over the long term, causing activists to either give up or arm themselves. Accordingly, the question of whether to try to limit state violence remains a “strategic decision” for activists to make in specific contexts, even if the author contends that limiting state violence is ultimately better for a nonviolent movement’s success. With regards to activist violence, the picture is much clearer: according to Chenoweth and Stephan’s groundbreaking research, nonviolent movements are more likely than violent movements to succeed, to result in sustainable, democratic outcomes, and to survive repression, therefore limiting activist violence—or, maintaining nonviolent discipline—is unequivocally better for a movement’s success.

With these findings in mind, the author examines data gathered from 52 interviews with Bahraini, Tunisian, and Syrian “activists, journalists, and politicians” in 2015-2016, as well as interviews with civil resistance experts. Five approaches for limiting state violence emerge. Nonviolent activists can:

  1. Disrupt violent action by “challeng[ing] [its] ‘script’” through confusing, unexpected, and/or humorous actions to which security forces do not know how to respond.
  2. Construct dilemma situations where using violence would make governmental forces look “silly or powerless.”
  3. Avoid direct confrontation with security forces, especially in those cases where directly influencing security force behavior is difficult, by choosing methods of resistance that are more dispersed or make it otherwise hard to target activists, such as stay-home strikes or “lightening” protests.
  4. Invite unarmed civilian peacekeepers or other prominent foreigners to be present at demonstrations to deter violence or otherwise influence security force behavior, especially if these peacekeepers come from countries with close ties to the government.
  5. Demonstrate respect for an opponent group and their traditions by acting in symbolically potent ways that can gain that group’s sympathy but also make it harder for security forces to use violence.

To limit activist violence, which itself is a method for limiting state violence, the author finds that movement leaders can:

  1. Delegitimize violence through various mechanisms like nonviolence pledges and speeches and/or leaflets declaring the movement’s non-violent principles.
  2. Be deliberate about material resources made available to activists during actions, as these objects—whether flowers or bottles—will partly determine what kind of behavior is possible vis-à-vis security forces when interactions escalate.
  3. Conscientiously manage activists’ emotions like fear and anger that
    can quickly turn to violence, especially immediately after traumatic events like state violence, whether this means taking time and creating space to grieve or holding an action that is deliberately silent.
  4. Provide activists with tangible nonviolent alternatives for resistance.
  5. Help activists develop nonviolent practice by prioritizing nonviolence trainings that can build an embodied habit of nonviolent responses to specific—often violent—situations.
  6. Enhance the nonviolent movement’s cohesion and develop its organizational structure by encouraging mass actions, creating common symbols, building on already-existing institutions, and so on, as fragmented movements will be more likely to have violent factions.

By employing these tactics for limiting both state violence and activist violence in predominantly nonviolent resistance movements, activists can not only protect compatriots but also increase the chances that their movements will succeed, enabling them to bring about a more just socio-political order.

Informing Practice 

More than eight years since the Arab Spring reached Syria, the Assad government is on the verge of militarily re-taking the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province. After abouteight years of civil war, over half a million people are dead, 11 million are displaced, and the Assad regime is firmly entrenched—a far cry from activists’ demands in early 2011. If there were ever a case to demonstrate that violence doesn’t “work,” from the perspective of either side, this is it. The government’s violence against nonviolent activists initiated a cycle that escalated into civil war, and though this violent strategy may have nearly brought the government military victory, this victory is over a country in ruins with an aggrieved population afraid to speak freely, eight out of ten of whom live in poverty. The turn to violence on the part of the resistance—a decision made by some several months into the uprising that violence was needed to protect the nonviolent movement from the state’s violent repression—grew into a many-pronged armed insurgency and ultimately contributed to the escalation to civil war, which massively increased civilian casualties and in the end has not achieved the objectives of the resistance. From even a purely pragmatic perspective, it is worth noting that nonviolence is often abandoned after a few months of “not working,” whereas violence is given years and years to “work”—and often with disastrous consequences, both for human lives and for the desired objectives.

This research is extremely valuable in that it provides activists with tools to prevent a similar escalatory spiral from transpiring in other contexts, thereby giving a nonviolent movement its best chances of success. While the author’s recommendations for limiting and countering state violence are useful for thinking through specific movement tacticsvis-à-vis security forces, her recommendations for limiting activist violence are perhaps even more fundamental to a movement’s organizing. Prior to decisions about specific tactics that will make it more difficult for the state to use violence, a movement needs to put significant thought into how it is going to establish and promulgate its identity,principles, and organizational structure in a way that best supports the maintenance of nonviolent discipline.

As the author notes, nonviolent discipline is itself a strong factor in limiting state violence, as a government—and particularly the security forces carrying out its orders— find(s) it much easier to use violent repression if it can credibly claim to do so in self-defense to protect the country and its citizens from “armed rebels” or “terrorists.” (Though it is important to add that governments still do often carry out violent repression even against completely nonviolent movements.) Therefore, movement leaders should consider cultivating an ethos where nonviolence is an essential—and publicized—part of the movement’s identity and an embodied practice that becomes second nature for activists, even under the most repressive conditions. Doing so may be a considerable challenge, however, given how closely both “resistance” and “protection” are tied to violence in common-sense thinking. Movement leaders must therefore honor activists’ need to respond vigorously to acts of state violence as a matter of self-respect and out of concern for security, while also ensuring that such impulses are channeled into tangible and effective nonviolent alternatives. While it is crucial that they inform activists about recent research demonstrating the overwhelmingly better prospects of nonviolent resistance for both movement success and protection, movement leaders also should not depend solely on rational arguments to convince activists of the requirement for nonviolence. They should also understand—and identify actions that fulfill—the emotional needs of their fellow activists, who may not be influenced by appeals to reason alone. For instance, actions like throwing paint balloons (instead of, say, stones) at security forces in Bahrain, the author notes, provide immediate satisfaction to activists who can see for themselves—and make known to others—the impact of their resistance, through their village’s color marked on a police vehicle. This is of course just one example, but the larger point is that more thought needs to be devoted to developing tactics that will meet activists’ need for real agency against impossibly cruel circumstances, while also challenging false assumptions about the greater effectiveness of violence. Doing so can ultimately mean the prevention of civil war and a better chance at achieving the goals of the nonviolent movement.

Continued Reading 

Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. (2014, July/August). Drop your weapons. Foreign Affairs 

Yee, V. (2019, August 20). What ‘victory’ looks like: A journey through shattered Syria. The New York Times 

Wallace, M. S. (2018). Standing “bare hands” against the Syrian regime: The turn to armed resistance and the question of civilian protection. Critical Studies on Security, 6(2), 237-258. 

Bartkowski, M., Kahf, M(2013, September 23). The Syrian resistance: A tale of two struggles.” Open Democracy.  

Perkoski, E., & Chenoweth, E. (2018, April). Nonviolent resistance and prevention of mass killings during popular uprisings. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. 

Peace Science Digest. (2017, June). Special issue: Nonviolent resistance. Retrieved September 24, 2019, from 


International Center on Nonviolent Conflict:  

Keywords: nonviolent/civil resistance, nonviolence, nonviolent discipline, state violence, activist violence, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 4 of the Peace Science Digest.