Inside the Minds of Activists: Why Their Views of Repression Matter

By Sharon Erickson Nepstad

After decades of research on social movement repression, we know that states’ punitive actions do not always have the intended effect. Movements have survived harsh crackdowns and, under the right circumstances, they may even expand when regime brutality provokes outrage. There is a growing literature on the conditions that increase this type of “backfire” (see, for instance, Hess and Martin, 2006 and Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011). Yet these studies primarily focus on factors such as the extent of diversity within the movement, the presence of alternative media, the degree of global attention, and the strategic efforts of political leaders and resisters to spin the repressive event in their favor. While these studies have significantly advanced our knowledge, what is still lacking is an examination of protesters’ own attitudes toward repression. I propose that this can have an important influence on whether they persist in the face of potentially dangerous sanctions.

Within collective action research, the general assumption is that activists perceive repression as negative because it raises the cost of participation, thereby eroding movement strength as people drop out. In fact, within the nonviolent civil resistance literature—which tends to have a more applied/strategic orientation—scholars have recommended ways of avoiding or muting repression. This includes shifting from tactics of concentration (such as large-scale demonstrations) to tactics of dispersion (such as boycotts). It is much harder for the state to identify and punish someone who is boycotting than it is to arrest or attack a demonstrator. Thus this type of tactical shift enables resistance to continue while reducing the risks.

Yet in some movements, activists may actually perceive repression as positive. Mohandas Gandhi, for example, maintained that repression gave civil resisters an opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity and depth of their commitment. Through their willingness to suffer and not retaliate or back down, Gandhi’s satyagrahis conveyed to their opponents that intimidation was pointless because they were willing to die for the goal of Indian independence. This suffering, which Gandhi called tapasya, has the capacity to reach the conscience of one’s adversaries, causing them to feel shame at their ruthless behavior and to gain respect for activists’ commitment to their cause. It may also lead opponents to reconsider their stance as they realize that they could have a long, protracted struggle on their hands when they initially calculated that a crackdown would quickly eliminate resistance. Finally, Gandhi knew that British attacks on unarmed civilians, including children and the elderly, would evoke public sympathy for Indians and public outrage at the British colonial state. Any resulting public pressure could tip the balance of power in favor of the movement. For all these reasons, repression is seen as potentially useful for civil resisters if they can persist without retaliation.

Some religiously based movements have also interpreted repression in positive terms. For instance, in the Catholic Left Plowshares movement that damages weapons of mass destruction, repression is seen as evidence of Christian fidelity. Activists in this movement subscribe to a “theology of resistance,” which holds that Christ was political, challenging the exploitive Roman state that controlled first century Palestine. He was executed because of his opposition to oppressive state and economic structures. The early apostles were also repeatedly thrown in prison for preaching a Gospel that undermined state authority and control. Hence Plowshares activists see repression as an indicator that they are being faithful to Christ’s example: they are being punished by the state, just as he was. From this view, repression is a badge of honor, not something to avoid. In fact, this positive view of repression has kept many people involved in this movement for decades despite the very significant costs that they face.

Finally, activists may also interpret repression as a positive indication that state leaders feel their power slipping away and thus resort to harsh sanctions as a final desperate act to maintain control. Framing it this way, repression is a sign of movement strength and evidence that activists should continue resisting since they are undermining the state and getting closer to victory.

In short, to fully understand the mobilization-repression dynamics in contemporary conflicts such as Syria and the Ukraine, we must examine movement leaders’ framing efforts. Framing repression as a sign of strength or a critical strategic component in the struggle is likely to yield ongoing resistance. Of course, there are a variety of factors that shape whether such repression frames resonate with movement participants. For example, the Plowshares movement’s theology of resistance has worked better in the United States, where the government is more easily depicted as an evil state that parallels the Roman empire; the same framing in Sweden did not work, largely because Swedish activist are far more secular and the Swedish state is seen as less far less exploitive (Nepstad 2008). Similarly, framing repression as an indication that the movement is winning probably only works when there are other signs of regime fragility, such as elite defections or international condemnation. Nonetheless, activist views of repression are an important component of whether they are willing to continue taking risks and fighting for their cause. For that reason alone, we ought to be paying attention to what goes on inside activists’ minds.



Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hess, David, and Brian Martin. 2006. “Repression, Backfire, and the Theory of Transformative Events.” Mobilization 11(2): 249-67.

Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. 2008. Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Violent State Repression

One response to “Inside the Minds of Activists: Why Their Views of Repression Matter

  1. “Repression breeds resistance” is a popular slogan on the political left in the United States. Activists and SMO leaders on the Left in the United States think about repression in different ways, as Sharon Erickson Nepstad accurately observes. An understudied aspect of this is the anti-repression sector of the Left.
    There was—and is—a loose network of journalists, lawyers, paralegals, and private investigators who research political repression to help SMO leaders develop appropriate responses based on their goals. I am building a sort of map of this network online One of the most circulated documents coming from one of the founders of the Public Eye network, Sheila O’Donnell, is “Common Sense Security.” Wearing my activist hat I began working with the Public Eye network in the 1970s to help SMOs facing political repression
    I am currently on the board of the Defending Dissent Foundation (DDF), which started in the 1960s as the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee. DDF is building the online Civil Liberties Hall of Fame which will include entries on anti-repression activists DDF also supports the sites and

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