The Case for Peaceful Protests: Why They Are The Most Effective

This essay was originally written for a “writing class” in school. I slightly modified it to this theme.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a rise in protests over the death of George Floyd. These protests started because of the frequent cases of police brutality against African Americans. 

Similar movements such as the movement to stop climate change look like they will never produce results. The number of protests continues to increase as more people, especially younger generations, get more involved. 

For most people, it is difficult to see the effects in the short-term that these peaceful movements are having, however, the long-term developments that these movements are causing are remarkable.

This movement is mostly led by younger generations such as Generation Z. This generation is composed of people born between 1995-present. This is the generation that has never known a world without smartphones, a world without the internet, and a world without TSA airport security and school shootings. 

This generation will be interesting as they will be responsible for solving the problems of the world such as climate change, inequality, and the rise of disruptive technologies. Young people are the most worried about the current state of the world and the ones who are taking action. 

Although this generation makes up about a third of the world’s population, they are far from the most influential. The people who have enough influence to make a real impact are usually older and often wealthy. This group seldom believes in similar movements or is divided.

Without the help of the most influential people in the world, nothing can be done. Therefore, change will be slow. Young people need to find and learn different ways to accelerate the growth and success of protests while staying calm and pacific. 

Staying peaceful is key.

Nonviolent resistance has been proven to be far more successful in creating long-term and meaningful change. 

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan collected data on all violent and nonviolent movements from 1900 to 2006. Chenoweth and Stephan studied and analyzed over 160 variables related to their success, number of participants, and more. 

They found that “Civil resistance campaigns often lead to longer-term reforms and changes that bring about democratization compared with violent campaigns, the nonviolent campaigns tend to empower moderates or reformers within the ruling elites who gradually initiated changes and liberalize the polity.”  Not only are peaceful campaigns more successful and effective, but they attract more people. 

If the very few powerful people in the world won’t support the cause, massive and overwhelming social movements can. In her research, Erica Chenoweth also found “that a surprisingly small proportion of the population guarantees a successful campaign: just 3.5 percent.” 3.5% might not sound like a lot, but that is several millions of people. In the U.S., Generation Z is about 84 million people. 3.5% of Gen Z would be about 3 million people in the U.S. alone. 

The enormous change this would cause would be long-lasting and efficient. 250,000 were the number of people who attended the March on Washington in 1963, and even more recently the 2017 Women’s March drew over 200,000 people. If only 3.5% of the United States population or 12 million people organized and did something consistently like mass noncooperation for a year or two, real change would be achieved. 

Not only the number of people who take part is important, but the message and goal of what the movement is trying to achieve. According to the researcher Soumyajit Mazumder, he found that the message should resonate with more people than just the core supporters. 

This is especially important for groups that seek to persuade either indifferent supporters or those who still have to make up their minds. 

Security forces are also significant in the movement’s success because they are often the agents of repression, and their actions influence how the movement might end up. If they repress protesters, the movement could become violent. 

If it becomes violent, security forces would win. Security elites are only one layer out of several elites that exist. There are other economic, political, business, media elites and they all support the status quo.

It is only when these elites are disrupted into noncooperation when protesters can be hopeful of change, and perhaps it could be the determining factor of the success of the movement. 

Future generations, especially Gen Z, will have an interesting future where many people will feel uncertain about the world and about the success of peaceful movements. Despair and even violence might even arise. 

Younger generations need to remember that if they want to have a long-lasting impact, nonviolence is key. Nonviolent movements tend to be more successful and effective. 

Moreover, they attract more people and a great number of people are needed to solve an issue like a racial issue. Nonviolence is an excellent way to attract people, especially the vast majority of people who are either unenthusiastic or those who have yet to make up their minds.

Being peaceful does not mean you are complacent or that you support the status quo. It means you resist and fight without doing harm. 

I’ll end with this quote:

When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.

John Lennon



Thanks to Adam and Hal for reading drafts of this essay.


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Tags: political science