In May 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion, despite severe—but nonviolent—opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous groups. Ironically, Trudeau ran on a platform of prioritising environmentalism and safeguarding Indigenous rights.
The government’s blatant disregard for environmentalism and Aboriginals was merely yet another episode chronicling the inability of peaceful protests to significantly influence government policies.
Canadian history is steeped in environmental protests: the Clayoquot protests in 1993, the 2010 G20 Toronto summit protests, the oil sand protests in 2013, and the most recent climate action protests in 2019.
Similarly, the annual Indigenous Day of Action highlights Indigenous poverty, land claims, and school dropout and suicide rates. Additionally, protests such as the Justice for our Stolen Children Camp emphasise the systemic racism in child welfare, justice, and corrections systems.
Yet, these peaceful, nonviolent rallies are unable to inspire institutional change.
Canada was the first and only nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, which targeted a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990 levels by 2012. Moreover, a lack of environmentalism is an issue across party lines; Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand argues that “for decades, successive federal governments have failed” to meet GHG emission targets. In fact, a 2016 Conference Board of Canada report on environmental performance ranks Canada 14th among 16 “peer countries”, only ahead of the USA and Australia.
Likewise, Aboriginals comprise just 4.3% of Canada’s population but are disproportionately represented in poverty, school dropout rate, foster care, and prison statistics. For example, 25% of Aboriginals live in poverty; this figure rises to 40% among Aboriginal children, compared to 7% among non-Indigenous children.
Indigenous school dropout and suicide rates are three times higher than in non-Indigenous communities, and they make up 52.2% of the children in foster care. Aboriginal cyclical poverty is reinforced through the federal prison system and youth correctional centres, where they make up 26.4% and 46% of the inmate populations, respectively. In addition, initiatives like the Trans Mountain pipeline, and explorations into northern Canada, for new shipping routes, and resource extraction, encroach onto Indigenous land and threaten their self-sustaining way of life.
Thus, peaceful protests have historically been unable to force the Canadian government to tackle environmental degradation and systemic marginalisation of Indigenous communities.
The failure of these demonstrations poses the wider, global question of whether peaceful protests have the ability to inspire significant institutional and systemic change.
The largely peaceful Black Lives Matter movement was formed in 2013, protesting racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality against Black Americans within US legislative, judicial, executive, criminal justice, and societal frameworks. Yet, African-Americans, who constitute just 12.1% of the USA’s population, continue to form over 30% of the correctional population, are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts for the same offence, and are more likely to receive longer sentences. A criminal record reduces their likelihood of finding employment by nearly 50%, thereby furthering cyclical poverty.
In India, the 2011 Anna Hazare Movement—marked by non-violent civil resistance—proposed the Jan Lokpal Bill to target institutional inefficiencies, in anti-corruption measures, by forming a Lokpal, or the body of an ombudsman. However, despite being passed by the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha in 2013, and being enacted in 2014, a Lokpal has still not been formed, and India remains a hotbed of political corruption.
The Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which scores countries out of 100 on public sector corruption—with 0 being absolutely corrupt—gave India 40 points, making it the world’s 81st most politically corrupt country from the 180 countries analysed.
Similarly, the worldwide climate action protests this year, led in part by Greta Thunberg, only serve to highlight the long-standing global inaction on climate change.
How then can protestors achieve their purported goals and weaken deeply fortified and discriminatory state machinery?
Even India’s independence movement, which is often framed as driven solely by the peaceful protests led by one of the fathers of non-violent demonstrations—Mahatma Gandhi—was in fact buttressed by the more aggressive efforts of activists like Subhash Chandra Bose, Chandra Shekhar Azad, and Bhagat Singh.
The disestablishment of South Africa’s apartheid system in 1993 required Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) to forgo non-violent means of “labour strikes and public service boycotts” and instead adopt a policy of “low-level guerilla war” that targeted government and military establishments.
The spark that ignited the fire of the Arab Spring, the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, was propelled by concerns of high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, and a lack of freedom of speech. A hostile 28-day conflict, which left 338 dead, led to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled from 1987.
Spurred on by the Tunisian revolution, following four decades of rule, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a fractious civil war, in which he and his son were brutally murdered, in public extrajudicial executions in 2011.
And just last month, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign amidst fierce two-week-long anti-government protests that “descended into violence”, the goals of which demanded a “complete overhaul” of the government.
In fairness, non-violent campaigns have a success rate of 51%, compared to just 27% for violent campaigns. However, outcomes in the former are gradual and far less tangible. For this reason, alongside the fact that the success rate of peaceful protests has declined since 2000, peaceful protests often turn violent, once protestors realise the reluctance of the government to introduce change or offer concessions that aren’t piecemeal or consolatory. While violent protests have a lower success rate, they offer a greater possibility of quicker resolution and tangible structural change.
Therefore, without advocating for violence, keeping in mind that nonviolent demonstrations have been unable to achieve the same level of systemic and institutional change as violent movements, it is important to question whether peaceful protests are effective in achieving their goals.
Instilling change through voting is often idealistic, as seen in the example of Canada, where different political parties are merely different shades of the same colour. And, of course, not all societies are democratic. In such countries, even the illusion of creating change through voting isn’t present, thus necessitating more revolutionary tactics.
That being said, countries like Libya and Tunisia are now mired by political and social instability, while South Africa continues to battle systemic racism even 28 years after Apartheid was abolished.
Hence, does radical social transformation, political upheaval, and leadership decapitation truly lead to the achievement of violent protestors’ goals beyond symbolic victories or creating power vacuums?
Ultimately, does violence beget change, or does violence simply beget more violence?
The Sentencing Project. (2018). Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (pp. 1-13). Washington, D.C.
This article first appeared here.