What is civil resistance?

Civil resistance is a way for ordinary people to fight for their rights, freedom and justice without using violence. People engaged in civil resistance use diverse nonviolent tactics—such as strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations and other actions—to create social, political and economic change. Around the world, it has been called different names, including nonviolent struggle, direct action, people power, political defiance, and civic mobilization, but regardless of which term is used, the fundamental dynamics of civil resistance remain the same.

Civil resistance movements are powerful because they shift people’s loyalties and behavior patterns. When people in a society reduce their obedience and cooperation with an unjust system in targeted and strategic ways, that system becomes more costly to operate. When enough people choose to no longer consent and obey, the system can become unsustainable, and it then must change, transform, or collapse. Even when the opponents of civil resistance movements have been well-armed and well-funded, they have often not been able to withstand the sustained mass disobedience and civic disruption caused by strategic, widespread acts of nonviolent defiance.

Where has civil resistance been used successfully?

Civil resistance is increasingly recognized as one of the most powerful drivers of democratic change over the last century. It has also been used to advance a range of social, economic, and policy goals—including women's rights; rights of minority groups; labor rights; economic justice; environmental justice and sustainability; peace and public safety; protecting democracy; and anti-corruption initiatives.

Historically, civil resistance was pivotal in ending apartheid in South Africa; it was used to advance women's rights, civil rights and labor rights in the United States; it has brought down dictators in Chile, Serbia, the Philippines, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Sudan and other places; it was used to resist foreign occupation in Denmark and East Timor; it was instrumental in gaining Indian independence from Britain; it has overturned fraudulent elections in Ukraine and Georgia, ended Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and been used in numerous other lands to establish human rights, justice, and democratic self-rule.

Civil resistance movements don't always succeed, but compared to other methods of making political change, they have significantly higher probabilities of success than many people recognize. My work aims to discern lessons that can be applied to movements today, and to support research, understanding, education and practice in this field.

* The above text is partly based on writing I did for the booklet: Civil Resistance: A First Look.

Photo credit: Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Some image modifications made (close up).