Updated: Jul 15, 2020
by Walter Winch
"Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation." - Ernest Renan, 19th century French philosopher
"The reality is you're not going to get and you don't need everybody to be on your side." -
John Barry, Queen's University, Belfast, Ireland
Twenty years ago, something like 70 percent of protests pushing for major political change were successful. This trend reversed in the mid-2000s, and success rates have now dropped to around 30 percent, according to The Interpreter, published in the NYT, Oct. 25, 2019. Do we know why success rates have plunged?
Some of the answers come from the work of Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard who studies civil resistance across the globe and has written numerous articles on the subject.
She published a book several years ago entitled, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” The Extinction Rebellion movement has credited Chenoweth's ideas for its success in focusing attention on climate change across the globe and the inattention given by most governments.Chenowith states that nonviolent campaigns are successful 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent for violent protests.
Within this framework she refers to the “3.5 Percent Rule.” When you have at least 3.5 percent of the entire population actually participating in a protest movement, you are more than likely going to be successful, according to Chenoweth. In the U.S. this would amount to some 11 million citizens in a country of more than 320 million people.
She offers a number of reasons why protests have seemingly stalled at the present time. Perhaps the most interesting factor is the omnipresent social media. We all know that large groups can be mobilized rapidly with cell phones and Facebook accounts. But putting large numbers on the street quickly with no underlying structure or deep commitment to a particular cause ultimately leads to little substantive change.
For Chenoweth, social media “really advantages” repression. Governments across the globe have learned how to co-opt media and push their own messages, as well as rally sympathizers without, and this is important: sending in the tanks and the traditional heavy handedness. The steady, slow drip of repression has replaced the overnight coup.
Anyone that remembers the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or anti-war protests, the women's movement, or the environmental movement knows that organizing and planning was essential along with building support at the grass roots.
It was—and still is—meeting in crowded living rooms and dismal halls, speaking to one another face to face. It was and still is confronting resistance again and again. It was and is about setting up local autonomous chapters to coordinate demonstrations. It was and is about one's willingness to go to jail. Mass incarceration has been used throughout history for social change.
Dr. Bing Jones, 67, was arrested the fourth time in London while participating in an Extinction Rebellion protest. “I will get arrested again and I'm willing to go to prison, because what are the alternatives?”
In Hong Kong some 2 million residents, more than 25 percent of a population of some 7 million people, are protesting daily. It began with a particular interest group or class of people but has now spread across all sectors of society as more residents can envision their own self-interest.
What may be different today is time. If what climate scientists now say about impending, irreversible change is true, we don't have another one or two generations in which to stumble along, making the “best” of things and trying not to inconvenience anyone.
Help by locating and gathering up your 3.5 percent of committed and knowledgeable activists.
If not now, when?
A note from IKC Leaders: You can help make local protests more successful:
(2) Commit to gathering people who are already in your life and sympathetic to progressive causes, but are not yet activists, by becoming an Action Captain. Even motivating one additional person to action will double your impact.