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Political violence is surging, but there’s a playbook to counter it

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This article Political violence is surging, but there’s a playbook to counter it was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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Waging Nonviolence is once again teaming up with Choose Democracy to provide resources on how to stem the rising authoritarian tide. This is the second in a series of interviews with experienced organizers and movement thinkers on ways to defend and expand democracy.

Last month, the New York Times published a broad overview of rising political violence in the United States, noting that, “By almost all measures, the evidence of the trend is striking.” According to one poll, more than 80 percent of local officials said they had been threatened or harassed.

Such news is hardly surprising, given that Donald Trump has already refused to rule out violence should he lose in November. In one interview, he said, “It always depends on the fairness of the election.” 

Fortunately, history reveals many times and places where pro-democracy movements were able to overcome threats and assert decisive power through the use of strategic nonviolent struggle. One person well versed in these cases is Hardy Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C.

Merriman has been researching methods of nonviolent struggle for two decades, with particular interest in what works when dealing with the threat of dictatorship. Four years ago he published the widely-downloaded online manual “Hold the Line,” a guide that prepared Americans for the possibility of a Trump coup attempt. 

In this conversation, Merriman develops a big picture understanding of how to defeat a power grab, showing the importance of targeting the opponent’s base of support, finding common ground for unlikely alliances and making repression backfire.

What is the likelihood of violence being part of the mix if Trump were to return to the presidency?

We’re already amidst political violence. You can define it in different ways, but I include threats and intimidation as acts of political violence. I don’t just think actual physical political violence is the only way to look at this. There’s a whole range of behaviors online that function as political violence, including doxxing and swatting. If past is prologue, then they would increase under a new Trump administration.

Just to give a sense, the number of threats received by the U.S. Capitol Police in the last couple of years is about double what it was prior to 2016. So, we’re already living in a surge — and we’ve got a new, maybe stable, baseline that’s quite a bit higher than it should be. I don’t see how, if Trump is elected, it wouldn’t go up again.

Could you say more about the forms Trump-inspired violence might take?

Previous Coverage
  • We can safeguard democracy without giving in to fear and more policing

  • One of the things I’ve observed about political violence in the U.S. is that you don’t need a lot of physical political violence to make the threats seem credible. Threats can do a vast amount of damage. They’re actually very hard to prosecute and curtail — and when there are occasional acts of political violence that are physical, people fear the threats even more. So, I imagine threats would skyrocket. I imagine there being heightened physical political violence. But the point is: Even if the physical political violence only rises a bit, combined with the threats, that’s enough to do vast damage anyway.

    So far, what we’ve seen is that political violence tends to be targeted significantly at office holders, local officials at the municipal and county level, people in the state legislatures and election workers. Then you have heightened threats against women versus men, heightened threats of people of color versus white people and, generically speaking, anyone who’s made news. I would expect to see all of those lines continuing. We’ve already seen threats to people ranging from teachers to librarians to business owners to health care workers to bureaucrats to politicians, and then, of course, ordinary civilians. No one seems exempt these days. But it’s not equally distributed: It will be even harder for some folks than others, and that very much concerns me.

    What are some historical examples of political violence — or the threat of it — backfiring?

    The backfire framework can be applied very well to many of the campaigns in the civil rights movement, where there were certain keys that really helped amplify outrage and mobilization in response to violent repression. Since people know those cases fairly well, I’ll focus on a different one instead: the United Farmworkers in the 1960s.

    These were Mexican Americans and Filipino Americans, predominantly very poor, organizing in California, particularly trying to unionize grape vineyards. At one point, a sheriff in Southern California tried to outlaw the word “huelga,” which is strike in Spanish. Of course, he couldn’t do that, constitutionally, but he tried. Cesar Chavez and the other brilliant organizers who worked with him planned an action where they were going to violate that sheriff’s decree. They called the press and read a Jack London poem about the evils of strike breaking. Then they started yelling “huelga” and got arrested in front of the cameras.

    Meanwhile, Cesar Chavez [who wasn’t at the reading] went to University of California campuses and reported on the news of the arrests, to the students, practically as it happened. The students at that time were very concerned with free speech, among other things. Chavez told them, “This is a free speech issue, and it’s going on in California.” They got lots of donations and student volunteers. That action allowed them to bridge brilliantly from being seen as primarily a movement of poor Mexican and Filipino Americans to a movement bridging to Catholics, to students, to unions, to also a movement about free speech. It really increased their power and spread their reach dramatically.

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    That’s a great example. Do actions like that reduce the chance of violence being acted out?

    Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. And by offense, I don’t mean actually attacking people — I mean the ability to impose costs. The calculus of those who threaten and use violence is often pretty simple. Beyond the person or institution being threatened, the real audience is often everyone else, the onlookers. The people issuing threats get their strength from their ability to spread fear to everyone else.

    Part of what we have to do to ultimately deter that behavior is change the cost-benefit calculus for those folks — to say, “When you do that, increasingly, what’s going to happen is you’re not going to get the fear response from people. You’re going to actually get people actively mobilizing to stop your political objectives. When you threaten that business and try to shut it down because of whatever it did — maybe because it held a drag story hour — more patrons are going to shop there.”

    There’s actually an example like this from Italy, where there was a movement against the mafia called addiopizzo. Pizzo was the protection money paid to the mafia, and students started this addiopizzo movement, which means “goodbye pizzo.” At one point, members of the mafia threatened a bar that had agreed to stop paying pizzo. The students said, “Everyone needs to go to that bar.” Students from all over came and basically said, “Look, we’re going to show solidarity here. We’re not going to be afraid. We’re going to react in exactly the way you don’t want us to.”

    Over time, that deters violent behavior. It can take a few cycles for the calculus [of those who threaten] to shift, but I think you have to impose costs. You have to make it less profitable for them politically, economically and psychologically to do these things if you really want to deter over the long term.

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    In cases like that, how did people prepare themselves to handle a potentially violent response?

    Anticipating what the other side is probably going to do is actually helpful because the fear of the unknown is often paralyzing — and people succumb to confusion, and then demobilization. I so admire the scholar Brian Martin and others who have done research into what makes repression backfire. They point to the five steps perpetrators use to try to inhibit outrage:

    First, they cover it up, deny it ever happened and try to prevent knowledge of it from spreading.

    Second, they devalue the victim and try to reduce their social standing in the eyes of onlookers.

    Third, they reinterpret the abuse that happened by claiming it was necessary — that the police, who may have done something totally unlawful, were actually just trying to keep order or do their jobs. Or they were just a few bad apples.

    Fourth, if they have to, they’ll say they’re going to launch an internal investigation. They like internal investigations that are closed doors, because they give the appearance of justice and take time. People demobilize frequently when they see an institutional process is underway.

    Finally, they offer threats and rewards: threats against people talking out and rewards for people who stay silent.

    That’s the playbook. It’s used by authoritarians. It’s used by governments and businesses. It’s used at a micro personal level. It’s used at a macro level.

    How can organizers respond to these moves?

    The backfire framework tells us what we need to do to counter all that. There’s five R’s:

    1. Reveal what happened. Counter attempts to cover up.

    2. Redeem: value the victim, humanize the victim, don’t let them be othered and cast aside.

    3. Reframe and say “Actually, what’s going on is systemic, deeply abusive, corrosive and actually the tip of the iceberg. It’s indicative of a much deeper problem.

    4. Redirect: If there is an institutional process, you may participate in it, you may not, but you don’t depend on it. You continue to mobilize. You continue to use that institutional process as a mobilizing opportunity.

    5. Resist threats and bribes, and possibly turn them into new forms of backfire.

      What I like about Martin’s framework is that — in addition to telling us what we can do — he tells us what the other side is going to do. We can anticipate the ways they’re going to devalue. We can anticipate the ways they’re going to try to provoke because, when they provoke, they can devalue even more. They catch you in a bad moment, or they try to provoke violence, or they catch you saying something that’s inflammatory. We know the kind of reinterpretation they’re going to do. When you know that, you can prepare.

      In backfire campaigns, in particular, the group bonds need to be strong because solidarity is important. In that example of addiopizzo, if they hadn’t rallied around that restaurant, the campaign would have been over. That was the first battle there. They went on and did all kinds of other things, but if they didn’t win that first battle, that was it.

      So when we do backfire campaigns, we need to be really solid with each other. Some of us might feel better suited to frontline roles. Some of us might not. There are many different onramps to organizing and being a team. We can do all kinds of things about working with different people skills, capacities, time commitments and risk tolerance. But we do have to stand together when we commit to it, and I think that — plus training — can help people prepare.

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      But what about when repression efforts are driven by irrationality, as they often were during the civil rights movement, with white people attacking Black people at lunch counters?

      There’s multiple roles that are played in the political violence ecosystem. There are inciters who do all the polarization, all the toxic rhetoric and othering. They paint the other side as an existential threat and prime their base for political violence. But those who incite generally don’t perpetrate the physical violence. They’re too busy getting a following and actually being sort of entrepreneurial, trying to build their profile and following. This position of the inciter is really tricky because they generally don’t get taken to task for that role. So they can do a ton of damage, incite all kinds of bad things and then be like, “Well, it was those people who did it. I was just doing my show.”

      There might be some more irrationality when it comes to threatmakers. But they also have a rationale to them because, generally, they operate with relative impunity — if they know what they’re doing. The First Amendment protects so much of their speech. So the threatmakers actually do have quite a rationale.

      Then you have those who actually perpetrate the physical violence, who I do feel are often irrational. But the irrational aspect is partly triggered by those who are quite rational and very deliberately strategic with what they’re doing. Ultimately, the state also will usually try to prosecute those who do physical political violence. At least, we’d like to think they would. But it’s actually upstream where the costs also need to be imposed a lot more, and community involvement makes it much more possible.

      Could you think of an example of that? What would that look like?

      There are things you can try to do to those who incite. You can try to de-platform them. You can try to get advertisers to stop advertising. In other words, you can have some kind of economic impact on them. The other thing is isolating them. I’m thinking of the spectrum of allies, which consists of active opposition, passive opposition, neutrals, passive allies and active allies. If you can get their passive allies to start to become more neutral by exposing their political objective, you’re doing pretty well.

      Previous Coverage
    1. People dancing at the rave against the far-right in Görlitz in July. German anti-racists get creative with ‘Rave Against the Right’
    2. To give an example, there’s a case of a town in eastern Germany, where, as I recall, there were gatherings of hate groups, honoring Rudolf Hess, who was buried there. They would march and the town would protest them, and it didn’t have an impact. Then, at some point, the town said, “Okay, we’re going to turn your march into a walk-a-thon. We’re going to paint a start line, a finish line, and for every meter you march, we’re going to donate to causes in Germany that help pull people out of the toxic right-wing to undermine you.” This was more effective [than the counter-demonstrations] and whoever organized that march was rational enough to see it was really backfiring.

      It sounds like the focus of deterrence should be on Trump’s allies and finding material interests — or other kinds of interests — that would sway them to not back up their guy.

      One of the really interesting things I’ve learned is that Republican politicians and leaders are being threatened at an equal rate to Democrats. This is actually something that is a deep source of dissatisfaction for them. Except with them, the threats appear to be working. There have been people who have complained about the threats. For example, there are reports of members of Congress who privately and anonymously admitted that they voted not to impeach Trump because they were too afraid of the threats. You have accounts of that, and it makes sense because what the violent groups are trying to do is drive out moderates. If you’re moderate, you either have to get to the right, be quiet or get out. That’s the dynamic, and I think there’s a ton of dissatisfaction there.

      The other thing that’s interesting to me is that public opinion polls of Americans are totally bipartisan — people don’t like political violence. It’s not like the Democrats are a lot higher than the Republicans on this. Democratic, Republican, independent voters all abhor the idea of political violence at a fairly high level. One poll I looked at was averaging about 85 percent in total for all three groups against political violence. So there’s a huge mass of power here and we know largely how they feel, but they’re not being asked or offered ways to get involved.

      So, the question facing the country is: Are we going to let a very small minority of the population intimidate us because they don’t like elections, or the results or whatever it is? Are we going to let them functionally destroy democracy from the inside out? Because they can do an enormous amount of damage if enough people are just confused and think this is someone else’s problem to solve.

      This research you’ve mentioned is very helpful and supports your main point, which is: Don’t go after the perpetrator, take away their base.

      I think the bipartisanship comes because the damage is so evident. In the last four years in this country, we’re lost about 20 percent of the local election workers who really make our elections function. That’s a huge exodus. It’s hit a number of western states particularly hard. So it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat in Arizona, Nevada or elsewhere. Republican county clerks are getting harassed and threatened as well, and they’re saying, “This is intolerable.” It’s not a partisan issue anymore. It’s actually functional: Like can we even run elections if this is allowed to continue? And that creates the ability for bipartisanship and a certain breakthrough. It’s a huge opportunity.

      Any other examples from the U.S. of meeting violence in nonviolent ways?

      There’s a case in Whitefish, Montana, where — in 2017 — there was talk of hate groups leading a march. The town organized and, ultimately, the march never even happened. There was just an outpouring of creativity from the town. It wasn’t just about countering hate, it was about honoring love and honoring being welcomed. One of the organizing pillars in the town was actually a group called Love Lives Here.

      What was interesting about this case is that businesses got on board. When a town becomes known for having an intolerant element to it, it’s not good for business, especially if the business is tourism. So there were opportunities for businesses to get involved and to counter political violence in some interesting ways.

      In some countries, during struggles with dictators, the labor movement played a really important role. I’m curious about your view of labor in the U.S. when it comes to fighting a Trump dictatorship.

      I think they would play an incredibly important role. The role that most people associate laborers as having is obviously the ability to exert economic leverage as an organized force — and that, of course, matters enormously. Another value that they’d have, though, is their structure. In a backsliding democracy, as institutions get attacked, they become less reliable. If you’re trying to mobilize opposition to that, you need some structures. And if your structures aren’t going to come from within the state, they’re going to have to come from outside the state.

      If you have mass mobilization, but don’t have the ability to be structured and negotiate, labor unions provide that structure. When that opportunity comes, labor can take over and bring things over the finish line. That’s a role labor has played in other countries as well. They can show up in ways that a movement might not be able to, particularly around the idea of negotiating demands. I would see them as an incredibly important node, organizationally, as well as in terms of leverage, when it comes to stopping certain acts that are a violation of our Constitution.

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      If things look worse and worse, I’m imaging there will be groups working to organize a Plan B, should Biden not win the election. Most people, however, will still be working on the Plan A of getting Biden elected. Do you have suggestions for ways that Plan B organizers can reach out to Plan A organizers to get involved?

      We should be doing as much bridge building as possible. Even if we don’t descend into full democratic breakdown and become basically an electoral autocracy, we still need to get out of this really hellish cycle we’re in as a country, where, frankly, every two years feels existential. When the guardrails of our system are really transgressed, people can form a negative coalition and be like, “You can’t steal that election” or “You can’t do that.” But the underlying conditions driving the toxic polarization remain, and they require more than just a negative coalition that’s against election theft or against political violence. They’re going to need a positive coalition that says, “Here are some major conditions that must be changed through policy to get us out of this situation.”

      It depends on your analysis, but I would certainly think that socio-economic policies would be part of that. Really bad wealth inequality and really bad income distribution tend to exacerbate practically any social problem, including the toxic polarization we have. You’re going to need people building the coalitions to do that work to get us out of this mess. I’m not sure political leadership — unless there’s a ton of pressure — actually has the vision to do it right.

      There needs to be a big push of voters saying: “This is not optional. Yes, we need to protect elections in the meantime. But the way out of this is a policy set that actually creates a new kind of deal, a new sort of social contract.”

      We pulled that off in the 1930s. So that might be reassuring for the gloom and doom people to hear.

      While it might alienate some potential allies to have a strong policy set, it might get other folks to join up. It’s hard to motivate folks to protect a democracy that they don’t think protects or takes care of them. So there might be other issues we could speak to that are part and parcel of getting out of this backsliding — and might speak to many more people.

      Lastly, could you speak to your experience during the 2020 election cycle and your work with “Hold The Line?” Are there takeaways or lessons from that that might be helpful this time around?

      I learned so many things from doing “Hold The Line,” but one particular lesson was: Organize based on where the ball is going, not on where the ball is.

      When we started working on it in June of 2020, the conventional wisdom was: If people just turn out in the 2020 presidential election by significant numbers, there’s no way Trump will try to steal this election. People I respect — who I think are good analysts and I consider allies — were like, “You’re barking up the wrong tree. Don’t divert people from electioneering. And if you talk about how Trump might try to steal the election, you’re gonna make him seem more powerful than he is — and that might demobilize people.”

      I heard it all, I wrestled with it all, and I just disagreed with it all. I thought, “No, there’s going to be a big freakout about this, and I’m organizing for when that comes.” I wasn’t sitting there thinking “How can I be at the right place?” It just so happened that, in June of 2020, Trump did some really outrageous things: clearing Lafayette Square and calling up the National Guard. That for me was the trigger, but I also realized that it was the quiet before the volume would get turned up in September. So we cranked out “Hold The Line” and dropped it on Sept. 7, 2020.

      People told me it was too long and too complicated. “How will folks understand this?” And that was also wrong. People loved it. We had a promotion budget of zero, and it got downloaded over 75,000 times between Sept. 7 and November. We weren’t trying to earn media — media came to us. It was unreal. Things were just skyrocketing, and that’s because we organized for where things were going, not for where things were.

      There’s a profound hunger and worry in this country, and I think it leads to demobilization if people don’t get guidance. Confusion plus a sense of disempowerment is a bad combination. But you can turn that around if you actually write something and do something that speaks to folks and reminds them of their genuine power.

      If you can show them that the barriers to entry don’t actually have to be that high and you can start by getting the word out to your friends, you can do really great things. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and we did that. So it worked out, and it was very validating.

      This article Political violence is surging, but there’s a playbook to counter it was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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