The week of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, thousands of Americans used civil disobedience to disrupt events. An LGBTQ dance party raged outside of Mike Pence’s house. Iraq Veterans Against the War occupied John McCain’s office in opposition to Rex Tillerson’s nomination. On Inauguration Day, Black Lives Matter activists blockaded security checkpoints. Democracy Spring activists interrupted the swearing-in ceremony. Code Pink marched around the National Mall in a colorful pack. An elderly Asian American woman gave a middle-finger salute. The day after inauguration, millions of people participated in the Women’s March on Washington at its Sister Marches. Hundreds of thousands have remained active in pro-immigration protests and other rallies in the weeks since then.
At the same time, there’s been a reemergence of “black bloc” tactics: Protesters who incite property destruction and street fighting. The week of Trump’s victory, police in Portland, Oregon, fired rubber bullets against largely peaceful demonstrators after black bloc provocations. The more than 230 people arrested in D.C. over inauguration weekend—most of them associated with black bloc actions, which resulted in a burned limousine and vandalized storefronts—drew the coverage away from thousands of people using civil resistance. And at U.C.-Berkeley last week, 1,500 people peacefully demonstrated against a planned speech by right-wing Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, later to be joined by some 100 “masked agitators” who started a fire, hurled rocks, and attacked other protesters.
Defenders of black bloc tactics, which also include rioting and “Nazi-punching” argue that these actions are necessary and legitimate against powerful opponents. They believe such tactics help to protect nonviolent activists—particularly those from marginalized communities—from militarized police. Property damage, street fighting, and fires draw more media coverage, they argue, and participation in violence can deepen activists’ commitments and embolden nonviolent protesters to be more courageous. But they also believe that appeals for nonviolent action are for the privileged and the sell-outs. Of calls for peaceful protest, one defender of black bloc actions said “That kind of argument can devolve into ‘just sit on your hands and wait for it to pass.’ And it doesn’t.”
On balance, though, black bloc tactics often hurt the causes that these activists claim to be fighting for. While violent flanks have sometimes produced short-term tactical advantages, they often come with painful long-term costs for movements seeking change—and the communities they purport to represent. The historical evidence in support of this conclusion is worth considering as the Trump resistance builds.
Expert practitioners of violence know that to truly suppress dissent, they must win the larger political struggle for legitimacy. One does not compete for legitimacy at the ideological extremes, but rather, at the ideological center—an audience generally unpersuaded to take up violent tactics to follow masked vigilantes into an unknown utopian future. Leaders need a pretext to convince the center that a major crackdown of dissidents is required. Historically, states have easily exploited the appearance of violent flanks to re-assert their legitimacy and suppress larger nonviolent dissent.
Hence the crucial paradox of resistance: The more oppressive the adversary, the more the resistance must refuse to play his game. The strategic cost of violent flanks is that they shift the struggle onto a chessboard in which the regime has the clear advantage.
History provides ample proof of how fascists respond to violent flanks in the midst of broader civil resistance movements. The interwar period last century was characterized by pitched street battles between communists, progressives, and fascists, while liberals tried to maintain stability through electoral and judicial power. Although anti-fascist street groups in Germany surely celebrated their Nazi-punching tactical successes, the long-term political result was a fragmented left that collapsed on itself. Fascist groups made use of the chaos to appeal to nationalist impulses, soaring to power at the polls. In the meantime they vilified various scapegoats for the unrest—Jews, leftist oppositionists, media, intellectuals, homosexuals, gypsies, people with disabilities—singling them out for deportation, scientific experiments, internment, and, ultimately, extermination.
As the Nazis conquered Europe, they expressed an explicit preference for fighting resistance movements that used guerrilla rather than civil disobedience methods. British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart observed that “[the Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them—and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time.”
Studies show that once violent flanks appear, the size and diversity of participation in otherwise nonviolent mass movements declines—particularly among women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and marginalized or at-risk communities. This is important, because movements that maintain large-scale, diverse participation are better at eliciting sympathy from third-party observers and have the best track record of success. Regimes typically accuse oppositionists of being thugs, murderers, and traitors regardless of what they do. For instance, as Trump tweeted after the Berkeley incident, “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” But bystanders and would-be participants may view such statements as more credible when they see some oppositionists using violence. One study finds that regimes tend to expand their repression against all oppositionists after violent flanks arrive on the scene. Another recent study suggests that most Americans are largely fine with that, although there are important racial differences.
In fact, Americans—particularly whites and Hispanics—are generally quite hostile to public protest, although they are more tolerant of nonviolent protests than violent ones. Nonviolent action seems to disturb people without alienating them. For instance, Omar Wasow amassed a wealth of evidence showing how nonviolent tactics increased public attention to, and sympathy for, the Civil Rights movement. This support translated into voting behavior that empowered Democrats to adopt the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts. In contrast, violent protests distracted the public from civil rights and toward ending the unrest. This alienation of whites was consequential in Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 on a “law and order” platform, a decisive defeat for social justice causes.
Hence, violence from within movements can reduce prospects for strategic success. In French labor disputes, Emiliano Huet-Vaughn found, violence and property destruction tends to reduce the probability that labor groups extract concessions. And larger, cross-national studies show that nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to overthrow their own governments without violent flanks than with them. Even when movements succeed in spite of violent flanks, the political dynamics unleashed in the process are difficult to control. Historically, maximalist campaigns with violent flanks have been more likely to lead to civil war, even years after a conflict has ostensibly subsided. And countries in which violent flanks have played a prominent role in recent uprisings have been more likely to emerge from the conflict with authoritarian institutions.
Given that violent flanks tend to reduce participation, repel potential allies, increase widespread repression, and discourage defections from those in the various pillars of support, it is no surprise that regimes attempt to infiltrate social movements to encourage violent flanks to emerge. The FBI did this during the Civil Rights movement, and more recently, during Occupy. Repeated efforts to plant agents provocateurs who endorse violent flanks should send a clear signal: The authorities want movements to play the game the state knows best.
Defenders of violent flanks often characterize their approach as the only option other than peaceful protest or total submission. Yet, history is rife with examples of disruptive, confrontational civil disobedience campaigns that have harnessed the power of popular mobilization for social and political change. Successful campaigns have gone beyond marches, demonstrations, and protests, embracing many other nonviolent methods—including nonviolent occupations, human barricades, strikes, interruptions, and many other disruptive techniques—to achieve outcomes without the political downsides of violent flanks.
But before agreeing on tactics, in a larger strategic sense, the diverse coalition of actors involved in the Trump resistance must first agree on what alternative vision of society they wish to see. They must then ensure that their methods of resistance communicate that vision in a way that attracts rather than repels adherents, while building capacity to continually maintain resilience, project legitimacy to those in the center, and build power from below. Hence, the key strategic question is not which tactics are more immediately satisfying, or who has the right to decide whether violent flanks are the best course to take. Instead, it is upon whose battlefield the dissidents choose to meet their opponent. If any part of the resistance sacrifices its strength in numbers to play to the opponent’s expertise in violence, it won’t stand a fighting chance.