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Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Lee Smithey Explores the Use of Repression—and How It Can Backfire

posted Nov 27, 2018, 6:09 AM by Lee Smithey   [ updated Nov 27, 2018, 6:11 AM ]

Swarthmore College featured a story about The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements.







By Kate Campbell
November 13th, 2018



Lee Smithey, associate professor of peace & conflict studies and sociology, is a co-editor and contributor to a new book, The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements (Syracuse University Press, 2018), that offers an in-depth exploration of the use of repression in political arenas and its unintended effect of sometimes fanning the flames of nonviolent resistance. 

Professor Lee A. Smithey
“The concept of backfire, or the paradox of repression, is widely understood to be fundamental to strategic nonviolent action, but it has not been fully investigated. It was work that needed to be done,” says Smithey, who in addition to writing and teaching about nonviolent resistance has also participated in peaceful protests. “Power is not only about repression but also about building public support.”

The book, edited by Smithey and Lester Kurtz, a George Mason University sociology professor, is meant as a tool for scholars and activists to understand how repression works, as well as to study significant incidents when nonviolent activists took measures to help make repression a defining moment. For example: “When authorities are seen as attacking or disrespecting widely shared symbols, they may mobilize people in defense of shared collective identities,” write Smithey and Kurtz.

The editors first wrote about the topic in 1999, but organizing for the new book began in 2009—bringing together diverse, global contributors to study how repression can energize nonviolent movements and how nonviolent activists have worked to manage repression in their favor. It includes the grassroots efforts of nonviolent resistance such as Women of Zimbabwe Arise, who bravely joined forces as “mothers of the nation” to stand against dictator Robert Mugabe. 

As they planned the book, Smithey and Kurtz organized a two-day writing retreat for the contributors to help build an integrated approach to the project. “It was intellectually exciting,” Smithey says. “We were committed early on to making this book a collaboration between academics and practitioners.” 

One practice the book’s authors explore is called repression management—enacted by withstanding or avoiding repression or by creating scenarios in which repression against nonviolent activists would more likely elicit a sense of public outrage (and ultimately support).

One example, Smithey says, is the now-iconic photo of Ieshia Evans, who stood stoically in a flowing dress and faced a line of law enforcement officers in riot gear as she protested the shooting death of Alton Sterling. The photo, taken in downtown Baton Rouge, La., on July 9, 2016, quickly became a cultural touchstone.

The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements also examines the psychological costs for agents of repression, elites’ attempts to avoid triggering the paradox of repression, repression of online activism, and the work of overcoming fear.

“Repression is an attempt to demobilize nonviolent movements by sowing fear," Smithey says, "but activists can work together to overcome fear and continue to mobilize.”

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict hosted a webinar by Smithey and Kurtz on Nov. 15. Smithey will also offer an Alumni Council webinar on the book on Nov. 28. 

May the Excessive Force Be With You: How Activists Can Manage Repression to Win

posted Nov 26, 2018, 4:42 AM by Lee Smithey

The editors, Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz, have written a post for the Minds of the Movement blog at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.  Smithey and Kurtz focus on the potential for nonviolent activists to strategically manage repression, and they review the pepper spraying incident at the University of California at Davis to illustrate the concept. 


Watch: Smithey and Kurtz webinar on the Paradox of Repression

posted Nov 24, 2018, 8:25 AM by Lee Smithey


Webinar hosted by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

Watch Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz talk about the Paradox of Repression book in webinar hosted by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Read more.

Watch: Lester Kurtz on the Paradox of Repression at the United States Institute of Peace

posted Nov 24, 2018, 8:10 AM by Lee Smithey

Lester Kurtz at USIP

Adapting Tactics to Context video

Watch Lester Kurtz talk about the Paradox of Repression and Repression Management at the United States Institute of Peace 
Global Campus

Free webinar on the Paradox of Repression via ICNC Nov 15

posted Nov 1, 2018, 3:46 PM by Lee Smithey   [ updated Nov 1, 2018, 3:47 PM ]

The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements

Presented by Lester Kurtz and Lee Smithey
Thursday, November 15, 2018
12 pm to 1 pm (EST-US)

Register Here via the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

Webinar Summary

From Bull Connors’ dogs and fire hoses attacking U.S. civil rights demonstrators to the massacre at Amritsar in colonial India and the shooting of nonviolent demonstrators in Soviet Tblisi in 1990, the use of coercive force often backfires. Rather than undermining resistance, repression often fuels popular movements. When authorities respond to nonviolent people power with intimidation, coercion, and violence, they often undercut their own legitimacy, precipitating significant reforms or regime overthrow.

Activists in a wide range of movements have engaged in nonviolent tactics of “repression management” that can turn the potentially negative consequences of repression to their advantage. The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements book edited by our webinar presenters, brings together scholars and activists to address multiple dimensions of this phenomenon, which Gene Sharp called “political jiu jitsu,” including the potential for nonviolent strategy to raise the likelihood that repression will cost those who use it.

In this webinar, we will share some of the key strategic insights and challenges identified by the authors of the book. As editors of the book, Lee and Les hope to share cover some of the ground covered in greater detail in the book.

Limited-time discount on The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements

posted Oct 7, 2018, 6:37 AM by Lee Smithey

Syracuse University Press has offered a limited-time discount of 30% until October 31, 2018. See the attached flyer that contains a discount code. 

Listen to Lee Smithey on Nonviolence Radio

posted Sep 20, 2018, 8:08 AM by Lee Smithey   [ updated Sep 20, 2018, 8:11 AM ]

Listen in to Nonviolence Radio on KWMR Radio and hear Lee Smithey talk about The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements. 

activist confronting police

Lester Kurtz to speak at Thammasat University

posted Sep 20, 2018, 7:47 AM by Lee Smithey

Join Prof. Lester Kurtz at Thammasat University in Bangkok on 27 September, where he will speak (in English) about the Paradox of Repression. 

Thammasat flyer

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