Category Archives: Violent State Repression

Violent State Repression, Round 2

This month, we have a second round of contributions on violent state repression. Last month’s first round of essays brought up a variety of ideas and potential solutions to understanding violent state repression, and we have asked contributors to the second round to weave some reactions to points raised in the previous posts into their original insights on the topic. Contributors to the first round of essays for the social movement failure topic certainly offered a lot of great material for this kind of exchange. We hope you enjoy these new contributions on this important topic:

Round 2 Contributions:

Dana M. Moss, University of California, Irvine (essay)
Sharon Erickson Nepstad, University of New Mexico (essay)
Peter B. Owens, University of California, Irvine (essay)

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Beyond the Repression-Dissent Nexus: Putting Violence in Its Place

By Dana M. Moss

Studies of mobilization have long been preoccupied with understanding the effects of repression on protest. However, as Mark Lichbach remarks, the search for models—whether linear, U-shaped, S-shaped, or otherwise—leaves scholars “forever correlating the total aggregate level of one output (government repression) with the total aggregate level of the other output (opposition activity)” (1987: 288). Furthermore, conceptual and analytical inconsistencies persist; aggregated event counts and indicators denoting low, moderate, and high levels of repression vary based on what type of crackdowns “count” as severe and have been accounted for in the media or NGO reports (Davenport 2007).

Because the question “does repression increase or decrease protest?” has dominated the research agenda, I suggest that we revisit our orienting questions. For example, what kinds of repression do activists perceive as severe? Which governmental agents, entities, and affiliates do the repressing, and what does this mean for the short-term outcomes of movement-government standoffs? Which social movements are most at risk for violent repression?  And how does the character of a regime shape its propensity for violence?  In an effort to expand our conceptualization of the repression-dissent nexus in potentially fruitful and specific ways, I outline several suggestions below. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Boundary Framing, “Ethnic Violence,” and the Politics of Restraint

By Peter B. Owens

In this essay I would like to explore an idea that has been the focus of much of my own research on the collective dynamics of mass violence – that the ways in which collective boundaries are framed by influential state and non-state actors can have significant impacts on the contours of state and non-state repression. Almost 15 years ago, in the wake of massive collective violence in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Brubaker and Laitin (1998) made a plea for the disaggregation of the monolithic phenomena of “ethnic violence.” They influentially argued that viewing violence as inhering along ethnic lines often ignored the ways in which violence was purposively framed as such, clouding understanding of the heterogeneous causal processes at work within specific cases. Since then, numerous comparative studies have demonstrated the ways in which the framing of conflicts along collective boundaries—be they ethnic, racial, political, and/or religious—can have enormous impacts on the degree of violent repression used by both state and non-state actors (e.g. Gagnon 2004; Hagan and Rymond-Richmond 2009; Oberschall 2000; Owens Forthcoming 2014; Straus 2006; Su 2011). Continue reading

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Violent State Repression

Violent state repression has been a large focus of research for decades and is something that activists have encountered for centuries. Recently scholars’ and activists’ understanding of repression has been called into question with the occurrences of violent state repression in Ukraine, against student protests in Venezuela, and repeatedly in the Syrian conflict. For the next two month’s essay dialogues, we have asked contributors to reflect on some of these questions in light of contemporary cases: How does repression affect future protest? How do states decide to engage in violent repression? What responses are available to protestors? And, does the type of protestor or the cause matter for who is repressed? Contributors have also been encouraged to discuss the gaps in our understanding of the dynamics of political activism and state repression, and how ongoing events may fuel future research on this topic. We are grateful to our distinguished contributors:

Jack Goldstone, George Mason University (essay)
Hank Johnston, San Diego State University (essay)
Carol Skalnik Leff and Peter Chereson, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (essay)
Heidi Reynolds-Stenson and Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona (essay)

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“The Game’s Afoot”: Protest in Repressive States and Its Field of Play

by Hank Johnston

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Ukraine, political regimes were brought down by mass movements of political protest. In contrast, peaceful Syrian protests against the al-Assad regime took a different course and spiraled into violence and civil war. One need only recall the unsuccessful Iranian protests against the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the unrealized Chinese “jasmine revolution” in 2011 to ponder the contingencies of the repression-mobilization relationship. In the Iranian and Chinese cases, the state effectively quashed protests. In the Syrian case, state violence led to escalation that al-Assad’s piecemeal reforms were unable to stop. In the Ukrainian case, police violence against waning protests caused public outrage and reinvigorated mobilization. Continue reading

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Repression Works – when it works (and not, when not)

by Jack Goldstone

Much recent research has highlighted the success of non-violent protest. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s data analysis had demonstrated that disciplined, non-violent protests succeed more often than violent ones, even in the face of repressive actions by regimes.

And yet recent events in Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine give one pause. While Tunisia offers the example of a relatively peaceful protest campaign that overturned a dictatorship, in Libya civil war seemed necessary to overturn a regime about to massacre peaceful protestors in Benghazi. In Egypt, the peaceful protestors who brought down the Mubarak regime were soon marginalized, with the Muslim Brotherhood now outlawed and suffering mass executions at the hands of a counter-revolutionary military regime. In Syria, the dictatorship responded to peaceful protests with brutalizing attacks and seems likely to have crushed the protests if they had not recruited defecting soldiers and become militarized (although to be sure, we do not know what would have happened if the protestors had stuck to non-violence). Finally, in Bahrain, the most massive peaceful protests seen in the region, as a percentage of the population participating, were crushed by the military. By contrast, in Ukraine, it was only after peaceful protestors were galvanized by more violent “ultranationalists” who attacked police and burned buildings that the ruler fled (although again we cannot be sure what would have followed if this turn to violence had not occurred). Continue reading

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