The Montgomery Bus Boycott Master Class

I just finished reading Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s memoir of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, which is typically thought of as the first major campaign of the civil rights movement. It’s an oversight in my education that I hadn’t read it before – particularly for someone who studies nonviolent resistance. As when, several years ago, I read David Garrow’s masterful history of the civil rights movement Bearing the Cross, I was struck by the many tactical and strategic lessons for nonviolent action that can be picked up from the civil rights movement, and how deftly leaders like MLK and strategists like Bayard Rustin or James Lawson handled the challenges that many movements face. A few things that stood out to me:

Trying to define a movement as “spontaneous” or “planned” is not useful. The popular narrative about the Montgomery bus boycott tends to paint it as spontaneous; a direct reaction to Rosa Parks’ arrest. Similarly, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat tends to be described, including by President Obama, as a spontaneous act in the moment. Others emphasize Parks’ past training in nonviolent action, the NAACP’s desire to have a test case to launch a legal challenge to Montgomery’s segregation laws, and prior organizing efforts to tell a story about how movements don’t happen spontaneously but instead are the result of long years of planning and organizing and careful framing in the moment. Neither story really captures the events as King describes them. Rosa Parks wasn’t an NAACP plant, and the reactions to her arrest were genuine and spontaneous. But the boycott was built on prior organizing, and relied on a civil society infrastructure (mostly around Black churches) to move it forward. So it’s not really accurate to describe it as either spontaneous or planned – there were elements of both, obscuring either one of which significantly limits our understanding of how events unfolded.

Dialogue, Negotiation, and Mediation skills are crucial. In all honesty, I didn’t think much about negotiation as part of nonviolent resistance until coming to work for USIP, where the connection between the two is a central part of our work. But in reading this detailed account of a single nonviolent action campaign, you can’t escape how important skillful negotiation tied with pressure from nonviolent action was. The tricks used to undermine meaningful inclusion that my colleague Esra Cuhadar has written about were on full display – attempts to peel off particular leaders through offering private incentives, foot-dragging, and picking and choosing who you negotiate with and then claiming to have reached an agreement with those non-representative parties. The old trick of “call off the protests and then we’ll talk” was also tried, and fortunately rejected by the MLK and the other leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

The Centrality of Dignity. Too much of the discourse on civil resistance (my own work included) has focused on the rational instrumental benefits of nonviolent action as a way of motivating people to participate. But, as experimental evidence shows, hearing about the ways that nonviolent action is better able to lead to success is unlikely to be a powerful motivator on its own. MLK describes a strong rational case for why the boycott made strategic sense. He and the other leaders were certainly thinking about the strategic element in the tactics they selected and how they went about it. But much more important in how MLK talks about the motives and impact of the boycott was an opportunity to express agency, and to regain a sense of dignity. As he writes in the last chapter of the book:

Once plagued with a tragic sense of inferiority resulting from the crippling effects of slavery and segregation, the Negro has now been driven to re-evaluate himself. He is beginning to feel that he is somebody…

This growing self-respect has inspired the Negro with a new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first-class citizenship becomes a reality. This is the true meaning of the Montgomery story.

Stride Toward Freedom, p. 183

The motivation to participate in the boycott was much less about a rational calculus then it was about how participation gave this sense of “being somebody.” If we downplay these psychological benefits that come from participation in nonviolent action we’re likely to completely miss the mark on why people actually do something that’s so costly to them. If there’s a cost-benefit calculation, it’s a cost-benefit calculation that has much more to do with the subjective costs that come from “living the lie” and the sense of personal worth and dignity that comes from “living in truth.”

The Arc of the Moral Universe doesn’t bend itself. One of MLK’s most famous quotes is “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” which often gets interpreted as a bit of a Pollyannaish “everything will work out in the end” assumption. It’s a phrase that MLK used frequently, including in Stride Toward Freedom, but where the context makes clear that the meaning of the quote is very different from the optimism of an inevitable move toward justice that it’s painted as. It’s not a blind optimism but a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” that makes a conscious choice to hold onto something even when it may not make sense in the moment to do so. And it should certainly not be interpreted as meaning that we can sit back and wait for things to get better, as they inevitably will. As MLK says in the last chapter of the book:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction.

Stride Toward Freedom, p. 191

Faith in the moral arc of the universe is intended to be a balm and source of confidence during the struggle, not a justification to sit the struggle out. If it’s going to be faith, it has to be real faith, not cheap faith. It has to be faith in the streets, not faith in an armchair.

New Publication on Nonviolent Action and Peace Processes

Just had an article published in Conciliation Resources most-recent issue of Accord. The issue focuses on “Pioneering peace pathways: Making connections to end violent conflict” and they asked me to write about the various roles that nonviolent action movements can play in shaping peace processes. In my piece I highlight three particular ways that nonviolent movements can shape the ground for peace processes: through mitigating violence, pressuring armed actors to resolve conflict, and sometimes coordinating with one armed actor to shift the balance of power in a conflict.

I wrote the original draft of the piece over a year ago, before I was in my current role at USIP, and so while it certainly draws on some of the themes in USIP’s work (and I mention our SNAP Curriculum), it doesn’t draw on as much of USIP’s work as I would bring up if I were writing the piece again now. Nevertheless, it was a really interesting opportunity to think through the links between nonviolent action and peacebuilding, something that has become very central to my work since then.

You can find the complete issue of Accord for free download here. My article is on pages 21-29.

Interview on “Democracy Paradox” Podcast

I had a really great time talking about nonviolent resistance and transitions to democracy with Justin Kempf on his podcast “Democracy Paradox.” We cover a lot of the core arguments from my book From Dissent to Democracy, including the importance of high levels of civic mobilization and the shift from revolutionary, maximalist goals and tactics to new institutional avenues for politics in leading to democratization in transitions initiated through civil resistance.

You can check out the full episode here.

Mali’s Coup: Harbinger of Hope or Uncertainty

With Anushka Bose

Originally Posted on USIP Analysis and Commentary. See original post here.

Last year was one of the most dramatic years of nonviolent action in recent memory, with millions taking to the streets to push for greater economic equality, democratic representation, and social justice. Some of the most dramatic uprisings took place in Africa, where longstanding repressive political regimes were forced from power in Sudan and Algeria, and protests over fuel prices in Zimbabwe led to a government crackdown. The recent almost entirely bloodless coup in Mali, in which soldiers abducted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and forced him to resign capped a similar uprising, but is complicated by the role of the military in the president’s ouster and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since June, opposition protesters have been demonstrating to demand Keita’s resignation. When the military became the instrument of satisfying the protesters’ wishes for Keita’s ouster, many celebrated the move. Demonstrators partied in the streets of Bamako, and the M5-RFP opposition coalition, which had organized the protests, cautiously welcomed the coup as the “completion” of its popular struggle.

The coup is not the first change in government brought about through a popular uprising combined with a military coup, nor even the first example of this in Mali. Mali’s transition to democracy in 1991 took place in similar circumstances. And of the more than 80 political transitions brought about in part by mass uprisings since the end of World War II, 11 had their breakthrough moment through a military coup, including the 2011 revolution in Egypt and the 1974 “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal.

What can these historical examples tell us about the coup in Mali? And has COVID-19 affected the typical dynamics of uprising, coups, and political transition? Will things be radically different in a coup taking place under the shadow of a pandemic?

Coups and Nonviolent Action

Military and other security force defections have been an important aspect of many primarily nonviolent uprisings. Nonviolent resistance campaigns are 46 times more likely to succeed when there are widespread security force defections. One of the key advantages of nonviolent action over violent resistance is its ability to motivate such loyalty shifts from a political regime’s pillars of support. Security forces’ refusal to violently crack down on peaceful protesters was key to uprisings that initiated successful democratic transitions in many places, including East Germany, Serbia, and Tunisia.

Yet not all defections are alike. When the military moves beyond avoiding violent repression to directly assume control of the state through a coup, their actions tend to hinder democratic change. Coup plotters frequently claim a popular mandate due to unrest on the streets, as the plotters in Mali have done. Popular discontent and distrust in government, particular when manifested in widespread public dissent, helps coup plotters to coordinate their efforts by providing a common set of grievances that different military factions can all rally around, and can give them greater public legitimacy. This in turn means that coup attempts have a stronger probability of success if the coup takes place during a period of public outrage and distrust toward the government, especially if protests take place.

Yet once in power, a unified military is much more likely to dominate transitional political institutions, protecting its own privileges at the expense of others and undermining democratic progress. For instance, in 2011 the Egyptian military used its privileged position after overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak to eliminate its factional rivals in the regime and consolidate its control over the Egypt’s politics and economy, culminating in a full-fledged return to authoritarianism following a second coup in 2013.  Similarly, the 2017 military coup in Zimbabwe that ended the 37-year regime of Robert Mugabe did not lead to significant democratic reforms, as a new military-backed regime consolidated around long-time Mugabe regime insider and former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Continued civic engagement during political transitions is one key factor in making a peaceful democratic transition more likely. Thus, maintaining domestic mobilization to prevent the military from ensconcing itself in power and ensuring a transition to civilian rule in Mali will be crucial in the coming weeks and months. Nonviolent action has been a powerful tool against military coups, even when coup leaders have ostensibly seized power for civically motivated goals. One recent example of this comes from Sudan last year, where activists continued to demonstrate after the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir by the military until the creation of a joint civilian-military transitional council. In Thailand in 1991, a student-civil society coalition successfully mobilized on the streets to counter attempts by a coup-initiated regime to change the country’s constitution to entrench itself, leading to a negotiated solution and new elections.

Both those inside and outside of Mali are well-aware of the dangers of a coup-initiated transition. The West African regional body ECOWAS immediately imposed sanctions in response to the coup and has only agreed to ease the sanctions as the Malian military complies with its demands for a return to civilian rule. The M5-RFP opposition coalition, the driving force behind the protests, has also moved away from its initial optimism over the coup. The coalition has demanded that the military hand over power to a civilian-led political authority, and organized protests against the military’s handling of recent transitional negotiations. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, an influential figure in Mali’s civil society, is also skeptical about the military’s hold on the nation and urged the junta to expedite the transition to civilian rule.

The COVID Link

One significant difference between the coup in Mali and past coups is the presence of the COVID-19 global health crisis. How has the pandemic affected the political conflict in Mali and what will be its likely impact going forward?

Protesters over the last several months have been motivated by growing dissatisfaction over disputed elections, poverty, corruption, and growing jihadist violence. While these all predate the pandemic, COVID-19 exacerbated many of these challenges. Fears of infection due to inconsistent public safety measures compounded with fears of jihadist violence led to precipitously low turnout in March’s local elections (roughly 7.5%), undermining their legitimacy. The Constitutional Court’s decision to throw out 31 results from parliamentary elections in April to benefit Keita’s party was the final straw in aggravating the public to take their grievances to the streets.

The government’s pandemic response also proved to be a particularly potent illustration of longstanding grievances over corruption and lack of transparency. While the government claimed to have relatively few cases in the early days of the pandemic, there was widespread suspicion that the numbers were being kept artificially low to avoid postponing the elections.

The protests themselves do not appear to have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. The potential risk of infection did not deter tens of thousands of Malians from joining demonstrations in the streets of Bamako. Nor do the demonstrations appear to have led to a spike in COVID-19 cases. The number of confirmed new COVID-19 cases in Mali peaked around the same time as the beginning of the protests in June, and have been steadily declining since then. This fits with early research suggesting that large public demonstrations do not appear, on average, to lead to more COVID-19 infections.

The pandemic’s key impact has been to exacerbate existing frustrations with the government—corruption and failures to deliver services or provide security—rather than transforming forms of political engagement. But these underlying points of fragility will continue to impact governance throughout the transition, reinforcing the crucial importance of developing good governance, security sector reform, and democratic principles.

What Now?

In the days ahead, the transitional authorities, political opposition, and international actors in Mali face a growing set of challenges, from determining transitional governance arrangements to providing security to counter a growing jihadist threat to preventing a resurgence of COVID-19. These challenges have no easy or straightforward solutions, and we know from past cases that a military seizure of power only makes their resolution more challenging. Yet amid this turmoil it is important to remember the sentiments that started this upheaval: public demands to create meaningful and representative democratic change. With strong and creative civilian domestic leadership and international assistance, we can hope that Malians will receive some of that change they have worked so hard to achieve.

What’s Next for the Peaceful Uprising in Belarus?

With Anushka Bose

Originally Posted on USIP Analysis and Commentary. See original post here.

Recent weeks have seen a massive outpouring of peaceful public protest in Belarus after an election widely believed to be fraudulent. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand that longtime authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka step down and another democratic election be held.

The demonstrations are the largest in the country’s history. Their size and scope have led some to speculate that Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, may be on his last legs. Others point to the regime’s long-standing resilience in the face of opposition challenges and close political and economic dependence on Russia as factors suggesting that Lukashenka’s regime may weather this test and continue in power.

Regional dynamics and Belarus’ recent history suggest a democratic transition still faces challenges. Eastern Europe has seen significant democratic backsliding in recent years, a trend that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And international observers for years have documented serious deficiencies in elections under Lukashenko. His regime has weathered similar protests in the past, including sizable ones in 2006.

But research on nonviolent resistance suggests that this time there may be reasons for optimism. While experience elsewhere does not guarantee success in Belarus, the opposition’s tactics and approaches may provide it some strategic advantages in the coming weeks.

Fuel From Fraud

The motivating grievance for the current protests is Lukashenka’s claim of a landslide victory (over 80% of the vote) in the August 9 presidential election, which was quickly condemned as fraudulent by much of the international community, including Germany and the European Union. Such one-sided electoral victories are by no means unusual in Belarus. Lukashenka has consistently claimed to have won elections with similarly implausible margins. But his latest claim of victory was unusually audacious.

Abnormally blatant election fraud, even in countries where such fraud is routine, has been shown to be a powerful mobilizing force for nonviolent protest. Election fraud provides a clear focal point to unify many different grievances against the regime into a single movement. This dynamic helped fuel movements that successfully initiated political transitions in Serbia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This unity of purpose, in turn, can help generate the numbers of participants in protests necessary to bring to bear pressure for change.

Women Joining the Fight

One of the most striking features of the protests in Belarus is the prominent participation and courageous leadership of women. Opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Veranika Tsepkalo, and Maria Kalesnikava spearheaded the campaign against Lukashenka in the lead-up to the election after male opposition leaders were arrested or barred from running. Tsikhanouskaya in particular, stepping in for her jailed husband, has become a powerful rallying symbol for the protest movement in the aftermath of the election, even as she fled the country in response to threats from the government toward her and her family.

Women are on the frontlines of the protests as well, dressed in white, waving the white and red flag of the 1918 Belarusian Republic, and carrying flowers. The regime has responded with gender-based violence, for instance, through targeting women activists with threats of sexual assault. Yet this violence appears to have sparked even greater backlash against the regime, further fueling the protest movement.

Women’s participation and leadership are crucial factors for success in nonviolent resistance campaigns. Research on the participation of women in nonviolent resistance has found that campaigns with high levels of women’s frontline participation are less likely to break down into violence, more likely to lead to loyalty shifts among security forces, and ultimately more apt to succeed in achieving their goals. Movements with women’s prominent involvement are also more likely to lead to long-term sustainable peace.

Prominent examples, such as the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines, where a female opposition leader, Corazon Aquino, spearheaded a movement that ousted long-time dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and nuns on the frontlines of protests holding up images of the Virgin Mary successfully faced down tanks, Such nonviolent resistance prevented a brutal crackdown on the movement and spoke to the power of women’s participation in nonviolent resistance to lead to change.

Defection and the State

One key difference between the current movement in Belarus and past protests against the Lukashenka regime is the increasing chorus of opposition coming from the core of Lukashenka’s political base. Workers at state-owned factories—a critical pillar of support for Lukashenka—have gone on strike, publicly booed him and shouted at Lukashenka to step down.

While security forces as a whole appear to be remaining loyal thus far, there are increasing reports of defections to the opposition. Images of a police officer handing flowers to protesters have spread widely, as have videos of former members of the military throwing away their uniforms in disgust at the violent crackdown on the protests. A police officer’s resignation post on Instagram received 400,000 “likes.”

One of the key avenues for the success of nonviolent resistance movements elsewhere has been through shifting loyalty and sparking defections among the regime’s key supporters. Security force defections in particular make nonviolent campaigns 46 times more likely to succeed than campaigns where defections do not occur.

The individual defections in Belarus thus far are an encouraging sign for the prospects for the opposition movement. They may help spark broader loyalty shifts by signaling to current regime supporters that dissent is more widespread than they initially assumed. Such a development could prompt a defection cascade. But it is too early to determine whether these more widespread defections will occur. Strikes at some of Belarus’s plants are beginning to sputter and the security apparatus remains closely tied to the regime.

Now What?

Predicting the outcome of any movement is risky. The success rate of nonviolent resistance movements has been declining in recent years. The decentralized, leaderless nature of the protests, facilitated in Belarus by digital apps such as the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, has made them more difficult to repress. But decentralized, digitally based movements frequently struggle to evolve from disrupting the status quo to achieving real political changes.

Russia also remains a significant factor. The Kremlin has long been deeply opposed to political transitions and instability in its neighborhood. Yet its willingness to tolerate change has been directly tied to the perceived Western orientation of the protest movement. The Russian government condemned the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and engaged in a military intervention in Eastern Ukraine in response to it, in part because the Ukrainian protests were motivated by a desire for greater Western integration, among other things. In contrast, Russia remained neutral in the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution, in which the opposition was clear from the beginning that their goals were purely domestic and that they sought to maintain their country’s close relationship with Russia.

Thus far, the Kremlin has not intervened forcefully in Belarus, but it remains to be seen what action they will ultimately take. The Belarus opposition is widely believed to be more anti-Lukashenka than anti-Russia, and opposition leaders have been careful to describe their struggle in purely domestic terms. Yet the Kremlin is unlikely to tolerate a democratic, Western-oriented Belarus on its borders.

After meeting with Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania on August 24, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the United States had no indication of any planned Russian military intervention in Belarus, and urged Minsk to accept mediation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. After a meeting with Biegun in Moscow the next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed Lukashenka’s warnings of foreign intervention and claimed that forces in Poland and Lithuania are trying to provoke violent clashes in Belarus.

Despite these factors, the resilience of the protests to repression, the near-total nonviolent discipline of the protesters, and the strategic focus on the long-term speak to the movement’s potential to bring about change. While there are no guarantees of success, there is cause for hope. At a minimum, Belarusians have gained a new-found sense of dignity and belief in the power of nonviolent collective action.