Since the murder of George Floyd, protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism have shaken the United States, with shockwaves reverberating around the world. Demonstrators have come out in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and over 1,600 towns and cities across the country, representing the broadest protests in U.S. history. Elsewhere, there have been global solidarity protests for Black Lives Matter and demonstrations calling for an end to racism in Tunis, Pretoria, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, and dozens of other cities around the world. The Black-led popular uprising has led to a national reckoning on the issue of systemic racism and police brutality against Black people in the United States.

SNAP Guide graphic

When it comes to ushering in societal change, the size and diversity of participation in the movement, and the ability to sustain protests over time, are critical. We are beginning to see the impact of mass protests already.

Minneapolis has committed to creating a community alternative to policing, U.S. lawmakers are reviewing legislation targeting police misconduct, major sports leagues have walked back racist policies and practices, and public opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement has shifted dramatically. The African Union has stood in solidarity with the movement, with Chairperson Moussa Faki speaking out against the “discriminatory practices against black citizens of the United States of America.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a global fight against racism and discrimination and the global body’s Human Rights Security Council agreed to host a debate on systemic racism and police brutality following a request from African countries. Meanwhile, corporations, businesses, and international development organizations have publicly committed to addressing racism within their own institutional policies and practices.

Nonviolent Action Made this Conversation Happen 

Still, there is much more that is needed to end the longstanding racial oppression and exploitation that Black people have resisted and fought back against since the days of slavery. But we are re-learning in this moment the ways nonviolent struggle can bring about positive change.

First, the protests we have seen over the past few weeks were not simply spontaneous acts of outrage, they were built on decades of Black-led organizing. The Movement for Black Lives, created in 2013 following the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, has been organizing at the local and community level for years. Its 2016 “Vision for Black Lives” policy platform provided the strategic groundwork for the movement. This platform lays a foundation for a more democratic, equal, and just society, helping to reimagine what communities can look like when marginalized groups form and help shape the laws, institutions, and policies that govern them.  

While street protests and demonstrations tend to attract the most media attention, most of the critical work to build movements happens quietly, behind the scenes, in the form of building coalitions, developing strategies, and resolving internal conflicts. Successful movements cannot rely solely on creative nonviolent action tactics, but must also effectively apply dialogue and negotiation skills with allies and opponents.

This leadership development and infrastructure building—the lifeblood of movements—also helps them respond to and shape key moments of mobilization. In Minneapolis, local movement leaders and organizers came together to form a network of community protection in the face of violence and attacks by police and opportunists. In the months leading up to current protests, the proliferation of mutual aid networks created across the United States and globally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed how community organizing and solidarity function in times of need.  

Second, while there was a significant amount of media attention paid to instances of protester violence and looting, the vast majority of protests were nonviolent and most of the violence came from police. Deflecting attention away from state-sanctioned violence, especially the kind that has targeted Black communities for centuries, happens all too often. Numerous reports show how officers used disproportionate and brutal force against peaceful protesters during the recent protests. Police have responded very differently in the presence of groups of heavily armed white protesters. Even the use of the term “peaceful” when describing these types of protests can be problematic, as it can convey images of calm and tranquility. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the very purpose of nonviolent direct action is to dramatize a situation of injustice, disrupt the status quo, and force meaningful dialogue and negotiation.

Third, movements can open up the possibility of thinking big, thinking boldly, and confronting the underlying causes of systemic violence and racism rather than the symptoms. The fact that in a very short period of time movements in cities across the country are putting forward proposals to reimagine policing and advance community alternatives is a remarkable feat of movement activism. In the same way that outside analysts rarely predict popular uprisings against dictatorships—such as what occurred in Tunisia, the Gambia, and Sudan—organized action can make the radical become mainstream. From these movements we can learn that large-scale societal changes take months, if not years, to be institutionalized. Major nonviolent campaigns have taken, on average, three years to run their course. Movements must face powerful opponents who will actively attempt to repress them, among many other challenges. Nevertheless, the larger movements are, the less likely they are to fail, and the current movement against police brutality and systemic racism continues to grow.

The anti-racism movement in the United States, punctuated by a pandemic that has laid bare the inequalities and injustices faced by Black and other marginalized peoples across the world, has created an opportunity to rethink the flawed ideologies, systems, and institutions that undergird our national and international order and reimagine one that puts justice and equity for all people at the center.

Related Publications

New Evidence: How Religion Aids Peaceful Change

New Evidence: How Religion Aids Peaceful Change

Thursday, September 30, 2021

By: Miranda Rivers; Jason Klocek, Ph.D.; Sandra Tombe

The pullback in 2021 of international military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa’s Sahel region not only shows the limits of such foreign interventions. It forces policymakers to more urgently examine other ways to support the sustainable social changes that can stabilize violence-stricken nations. New USIP research sharpens an insight about one powerful method to achieve such changes—nonviolent, citizens’ movements that improve governance and justice. Effectively, the research shows, religion helps more often than we may think. Of more than 180 nonviolent campaigns for major political change since World War II, a majority have involved religion in some way.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Religion; Nonviolent Action

Precarity and Power: Reflections on Women and Youth in Nonviolent Action

Precarity and Power: Reflections on Women and Youth in Nonviolent Action

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

By: Jonathan Pinckney, Ph.D.; Miranda Rivers

Examples abound of women and youth on the front lines of recent nonviolent action campaigns—from Alaa Salah leading demonstrators in Sudan in 2019 to the thousands of young people marching against the coup in Myanmar in early 2021. Yet significant social, cultural, and economic barriers can prevent both women and youth from participating in nonviolent action. This report, based in part on firsthand reports from activists in seven diverse countries, sheds light on these barriers and makes concrete recommendations for maximizing the impact of women and youth in nonviolent action.

Type: Peaceworks

Nonviolent Action

Comment—et quand—le pouvoir populaire peut faire avancer la paix dans un contexte de guerre civile

Comment—et quand—le pouvoir populaire peut faire avancer la paix dans un contexte de guerre civile

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Luke Abbs; Marina G. Petrova

Malgré une brève accalmie due aux restrictions liées à la COVID-19, ces dernières années ont été témoins de l'une des plus grandes vagues de résistance non-violente mondiale de l'histoire récente, 2019 étant largement surnommée “l'année de la protestation.” Ces mouvements – du Myanmar à la Colombie en passant par l'Inde – sont largement axés sur la lutte contre l'autoritarisme ou la réparation des injustices sociales. Moins annoncé et discuté est le rôle de l'action non-violente dans les contextes de guerres civiles et des processus de paix. La non-violence stratégique peut également favoriser la paix dans ces contextes, mais le timing et les tactiques sont la clé du succès.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Nonviolent Action

¿Cómo y cuándo puede el poder popular promover la paz durante guerras civiles?

¿Cómo y cuándo puede el poder popular promover la paz durante guerras civiles?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Luke Abbs; Marina G. Petrova

A pesar de una breve pausa debida a las restricciones de la COVID-19, en los últimos años hemos visto una de las mayores olas de resistencia no violenta a nivel mundial y 2019 fue catalogado como "el año de la protesta". Estos movimientos – desde Myanmar hasta Colombia y la India – se centran en gran medida en la lucha contra el autoritarismo o en subsanar injusticias sociales. Menos difundido y discutido es el papel de la acción no violenta en medio de las guerras civiles y los procesos de paz. La no violencia estratégica puede fomentar la paz también en estos contextos, pero el momento y la táctica son la clave del éxito.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Nonviolent Action

View All Publications