Photo caption: The spectrum of allies, a key strategic planning resource for activists and organizers of nonviolent movements and campaigns.

By: David Riveros Garcia, Class of 2016

Why people participate and how to effectively promote citizen engagement are questions that thrill me. In the session “Strategy and Tactics” we learned the primacy of participation for the success of non-violent civil resistance. It was fascinating to discover Chenoweth and Stephan’s finding that success is almost certain when there is observed participation of 3.5% of the population.  At first it might seem like a small, achievable threshold. But anyone who has led or supported a civil resistance movement is fully aware of the challenge this represents.

Thus, when we got to a point of the discussions when we covered the reasons why people obey unjust situations, I started to ponder on a couple things. Certainly, there are quite justifiable reasons for people to obey, namely, due to fear, self-interest, tradition, to cite a few. I will skip a discussion on why people disobey for practical purposes (Hint: We are studying non-violent conflict after all). So we are left with yet a third and very important group of people that we surprisingly didn’t discuss: the people who don’t seem to care. If we believe participation is key to victory, then we ought to bother diving into questions related to the participation of this latter group.

Pedagogical Resource: War Resisters’ International

Contrary to the image above representing the spectrum, we know the slices of the pie are not equal in size. It should be logical to assume the biggest group is in the middle, with both opposites sharing smaller pieces. These are the people we need to persuade and we are presented with the challenge of motivating them, aware that neutral people can lean towards becoming allies as easily as to becoming opponents. How do we create incentives to make them our allies?

First we need to understand why they don’t participate at all. Why do these people care little for obedience or disobedience?

Questions are usually informative in the sense they carry implicit situations or assumptions embedded. Obviously, mentioning obedience demands the existence of something or someone to be obeyed. So I started from there.

The creation, imposition, and maintenance of a structure in which something/someone must be obeyed requires an individual or group to take shape. Whoever these people are, legitimacy and representation must certainly play a role to provide the initial authority for whatever that must be obeyed. In fact, that is how they acquire power. So, representation and legitimacy are central elements for the people who either want to actively maintain (obey) or challenge (disobey) the rules of the status quo.

Similarly, I would argue, a case could be made that people might be apathetic and/or alienated from participation because they don’t find legitimacy and representation in the entire structure that demands obedience.  In other words, these people might be rejecting things beyond the rules; they might be rejecting the entirety of the structure. If this hypothetical is plausible, they could be rejecting the very way in which new rules are created or modified. They might not be interested in participation for the modification of the rules. Instead, they might be interested in the participation for the very creation of said rules. But then this process of creation must be different from the current representative-republican way of doing it (maybe for the same lack of representation and legitimacy of those who are in charge of doing it).

Could this help explain why so many people see futility in social actions like non-violent civil resistance? Well, I do not know and I can still simply wonder. But rejecting a structure whose rules, processes, and institutions we have never been invited to co-create or adapt to our common interests does make sense to me.

Could this be a possible explanation for why many people, particularly youth, are not interested in social or political participation, including civil resistance? Again, I am not sure.

However, in civil resistance we are challenged to innovate in ways that could increase participation from people outside our core supporters. This is necessary to create better strategies and effective tactics. Thus, we need to ask questions that will allow us to increase civic engagement.

A vision to drive us forward is a founding block for starting successful non-violent civil resistance. Furthermore, we know that participation is the key ingredient for success. Consequently, we need to ask ourselves deeper and harder questions about the nature of participation and the incentives to promote it. Unlike the representation of the Spectrum of Allies we saw today, the “neutral” slice is much bigger and is comprised of the people we need to win over. So, I reached the following question:

Could the promise of a participatory recreation/reshaping of the system challenged by non-violent civil resistance right after it has succeeded to change the status quo bring about more engagement from citizens?


“No one can give you what you want until you know what it is.”

 – Diane Nash


We won’t know how to get more successful movements if we don’t know how to increase participation. To me, the fact that the session helped me improve upon a question is already a step forward in that direction.

But I wholeheartedly believe sometimes better questions, not definite answers, are great achievements on their own. Let’s keep at it.