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Stories Behind the Numbers II: Quantifying the Power of Civil Resistance: The 3.5% Rule

Written by Sam Finnerty

On the evening of May 25th, 2020, a forty-six-year-old Black man named George Floyd suffocated to death on the corner of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, MN while being held down by four police officers. Floyd’s death – which occurred while being taken into custody for the use of a counterfeit bill – shocked millions around the world who bore witness through the video recording of a civilian bystander. In the two weeks that have followed, what began as a night of civil unrest in Minneapolis has quickly evolved into a global campaign demanding justice for Floyd’s death and an end to police brutality towards Black Americans. According to analyses by USA Today and NBC News through June 9th, protests have been held in over 1,280 towns and cities across all fifty US states and in forty countries around the world, representing every continent. This mass mobilization was described as “Reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s and 70’s”, by Tamara Herold, Director of the Crowd Management Research Council at UNLV. BLM Figure 1 The death of George Floyd and the demonstrations that have followed fit into a tragic cycle that has become periodic over the past several years. An unarmed black man is killed by a police officer or an armed civilian feeling entitled to act as law enforcement. Mass protests arise demanding change. Policy makers respond with condolences and promises of reform. The cycle continues. The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of these tragedies in 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin, and has operated under a decentralized model of non-violent civil disobedience to protest police brutality and demand systemic reform (Cohn and Quealy, 2020). However, even as this vicious cycle of violence has continued with the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille and many others, substantive policy change has yet to come. It is clear from the map above that George Floyd’s killing has spurred an unprecedented level of mobilization in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But will it be enough to bring about the systemic changes needed to put an end to this cycle? What level of collective action does it take for civil resistance movements to bring about this change?

These are questions that do not have a clear answer, but the Runway team decided to dedicate this week’s blog post to exploring what data exists regarding this topic and what insights it might give. In our research, we found a widely cited study called the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes project (NAVCO) which made powerful statistical observations regarding just how effective nonviolent resistance campaigns can be. For the remainder of this blog post, we will summarize the study’s findings and how it relates to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

Before 2006, the field of political science had always held the consensus belief that armed rebellions were the most effective measure in achieving maximalist goals, such as overthrowing a corrupt leader or major structural reform (Chenoweth, 2008). However, this assumption had never been challenged by a comprehensive empirical study, and in 2006 the renowned Harvard researcher Dr. Erica Chenoweth (though PhD student at the time) decided to do just that. Dr. Chenoweth and her colleagues initiated the NAVCO study, an ongoing multi-level data collection effort exploring the dynamics and efficacy of two vastly different approaches towards resistance and revolution. The results of their study flipped conventional wisdom regarding the efficacy of nonviolent resistance right on its head.
BLM Figure 2 The NAVCO 1.0 dataset collected aggregate-level campaign data on over 323 different violent and non-violent resistance campaigns around the globe between 1900 and 2006. The results, highlighted in Figure 4, demonstrated that nonviolent campaigns collectively have had double the success rate of violent campaigns (53% to 26%) in achieving its goals. They also found that the success rate for nonviolent campaigns has risen over time, while that of violent campaigns has dropped, as shown in Figure 5. BLM Figure 3 Numerous regression analyses of the data showed that the outcomes of the campaigns were mostly independent of country-specific features, indicating that the success of nonviolent resistance is a universal concept rather than an artifact of specific country types or demographics. The NAVCO project was the first comprehensive study to robustly support the notion that nonviolent civil resistance is not only the moral path to take, but also the most powerful one. So powerful in fact, that almost every resistance campaign was successful in achieving its political goals when they were able to draw the consistent participation of just 3.5% of its country’s population. For the United States, that 3.5% benchmark would be 11 million Americans. BLM Figure 4 The NAVCO 2.0 and 3.0 data sets take an even deeper dive into comparing resistance outcomes, taking variables like campaign length, repressive response levels and outcomes of individual campaign events - such as an exceptionally large protest - into consideration. The NAVCO 3.0 dataset found that over 91% of government concessions came in response to nonviolent actions, compared to 1.7% of concessions coming from actions wielding violence (Chenoweth, 2018). So, what is the explanation behind these powerful NAVCO numbers? Why have nonviolent resistance movements been so much more successful in achieving their goals throughout modern history? According to Chenoweth and her colleagues, the power is in the people. They argue that the strategic advantage of nonviolent campaigns is found in their inclusiveness and demographic diversity. The strength of a broad coalition committed to civil resistance with few barriers to participation outweighs the strength of an armed uprising, even in the face of repressive authoritarian regimes. In addition, when civil resistance is met with repression by the powers at be, it tends to further strengthen the movement by building solidarity with the protesters and creating greater dissent amongst regime supporters. These arguments are supported by the fact that on average, nonviolent resistance campaigns had four times the participation number of armed uprisings and were also the only campaigns to ever reach the 3.5% benchmark (Chenoweth, 2008).

What does this mean for the Black Lives Matter movement and the current day protests demanding systemic changes to the US Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Systems? At the very least, the NAVCO datasets support the notion that nonviolent civil resistance is the most powerful tool for bringing about lasting, transformative change. So far, this has been reflected in the two weeks following George Floyd’s death by the numerous actions taken by government and industry leaders, ranging from NASCAR banning Confederate flags at all future events to the proposals of major policing reforms in cities and states across the country (Stahl, 2020). BLM Figure 5 While media coverage and White House statements often depicted the protests as a violent and chaotic uprising, data collected by researchers from the Ipsos Marketing Firm and University of Chicago indicated that 80% of the George Floyd protests were in fact peaceful demonstrations. Dr. Chenoweth and her fellow researchers have also characterized the current protests as a predominately nonviolent movement, referring to the Floyd protests as “Overwhelmingly peaceful” and the “Broadest in US History” in a recent Washington Post Op-Ed (Chenoweth, 2020).

Altogether, the Black Lives Matter movement defines itself by its inclusiveness and its commitment to nonviolent civil disruption. For years, they have been using tactics ranging from using crowds to block traffic, to taking a knee during the national anthem at professional Football games (Cohn and Quealy, 2020). Dr. Chenoweth and her colleagues would likely agree that the strength of today’s Black Lives Matter movement stems from its nonviolent approach, diverse organizing network, and inclusivity. It is clear from opinion polls, social media trends and the growing diversity of protesters that the Black Lives Matter movement is building a stronger coalition in support of its mission. While it is difficult to know just what level of success this current campaign for racial equality may reach, the NAVCO researchers would likely agree with this conclusion:

If the Black Lives Matter movement can maintain its current model of nonviolent resistance and gain the unwavering commitment of 11 million Americans to their collective action efforts, the calls for the fundamental transformation of institutions to combat systemic racism may finally come to fruition.