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Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Resistance through Violence or Peace


The issue of Social Protest and Democracy plays a central role in Political Science. This specific topic is a backbone of contemporary politics, as political and socio-economic aspects of the life of every nation revolve around the idea of the establishment of a democratic form of governance. Democracy, for the majority of people, is an end goal where prosperity and peace are guaranteed. Although the effectiveness and core idea of democracy in contemporary politics is open to critical analyses, willingness to achieve prosperity and peace remains the priority for everyone. Therefore, it becomes necessary to challenge those who abuse their power and take advantage of being the heads of the decision-making process. One of the most crucial set of continuous actions that serves as a mechanism of scrutiny for the legislators is resistance implemented through social protests. The following 101 series will attempt to identify if social protests are, indeed, a key towards the establishment of prosperity. The series will analyze the concept of social protest, its core meaning and significance, different forms and motives that shape social movements and the special link between democracy and social insurgence. These articles will critically assess the role of social protests and their true purposefulness in the contemporary world.

This 101 series is divided into seven articles including:

4. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Resistance through violence or peace

5. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Social Protests in the age of social media

6. Social Protest and Democracy 101:The impediments to a successful social resistance

7. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Is Social Protest an answer?

Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Resistance Through Violence or Peace

Brief Conceptualization

Preliminary to making an attempt to thoroughly examine this particular paper’s topic, which is based on the analysis of social movements from the practical point of view, it is necessary to briefly undertake the holistic approach first in summarizing the central topics within the study of social protest.

Social protests remain one of the most recognized methods of raising a voice in order to facilitate substantial reform within and beyond the particular nation-state or to impede the implementing of change with the purpose of preserving the status quo. Social movements occur as a result of collectivized, organized and strongly determined mindsets that strongly believe that through the methods of mobilization, individuals can reach an ultimate goal of bringing a substantial impact to society. In their collaborative work on social movements, James DeFronzo, an emeritus faculty of sociology at the University of Connecticut who has written well-known books on the topic of social movements, and Jungyun Gill, associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College, underlined that social mobilization has evolved into one of the most crucial collective forces for creating a change in a country’s history (DeFronzo & Gill, 2019). It is crucial to note that the role of social protests in society does not strictly revolve around producing a progressive change, although it is a prevailing motive behind the uprisings. Aditi Bhonagiri (2016), a qualified social science researcher at the Institute of Development Studies and a digital communications specialist, in the article “Social Movements,” underlined that apart from change-driven purposes, social movements involve a variety of aims as an their end goals, such as regressive mobilizations that are primarily driven towards returning a society to its pre-changed status, or countermovements that are demonstrated through the protests, such as anti-abortion uprisings, which are determined to challenge progressive movements’ proposals for reforms and policy changes. Nonetheless, social protests’ role in shaping history is immense as the emergence of individuals’ collective behaviour indicates the necessity of rethinking and reevaluating the socio-political and economic status in the country.

Figure 1: The Pandemic Strikes: Responding to Colombia’s Mass Protests (n.a., 2021)

The main factor that shapes social movements and ignites individuals for the purpose of building and developing a mass collective mobilization is thorough examinations and studies in the areas of political science and sociology. The fundamental cause of collective reactionary behaviour is multiplex, and social scientists identify a “number of explanations for why they develop” (DeFronzo & Gill, 2019, p. 32). One of the most well-known theories that attempts to explain the emergence of social movements is the theory of relative and absolute deprivation. This latter theory explains that people’s inability to access fundamental resources, such as shelter or nutrition, is the leading cause of an individual’s dissatisfaction with the existing environment and a first step towards constructing a collectivized movement, whereas the former theory refers to people’s expectations not being met in terms of the socio-political structure of the society (DeFronzo & Gill, 2019). Other academics studying social movements developed various explanations for the emergence of these mobilizations, including political opportunity. David S. Meyer (2004), a fellow in the department of sociology at the University of California, in the article “Protest and Political Opportunities” underlined that the political opportunity theory revolves around the idea that the choice of protests is not spontaneous when it comes to their goals, tactics and strategies. Rather, he continues, it is the existence of a certain political environment or context that “sets the grievances around which activists mobilize” (Meyer, 2004, p. 128).

The study of social protests, apart from the extensive literature on the development and emergence of the uprisings, identifies the main targets that the protesters are determined to reach. It is undoubtedly true that the nature of social movements highly varies. Social protest, in itself, is a complicated phenomenon and it would be a mistaken methodological approach to attempt to place all the social uprisings in the same pot. Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs (2015), in the article "The Complexities of Global Protests," published in the non-partisan international think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, underlined that social movements tend to resemble one another in certain ways; however, when it comes to a deep analysis of protests in a global context, the nature of protests dramatically varies as they have a difference in “motivations, political implications…” (p. 3). Aditi Bhonagiri (2016) further elaborated on the issue of goals and targets in the article by highlighting that social movements substantially vary in their goals and respond to “unique political opportunities” (p. 7). Social movements, indeed, are diverse in their nature, and as history has witnessed, social demonstrations carry different motives. In addition, individuals’ collective behaviour is not static; rather, it is dynamic as a result of the multiplicity of goals that can be in constant change depending on the cohort of protesters, the socio-political circumstances, resources, and other significant factors.

Figure 2: Demonstrators march outside the US Capitol during the Poor People’s Campaign rally at the National Mall in Washington on Saturday, June 23, 2018 (Jose Luis Magana, 2018)

However, with the complex structure of social movements, such as various theories of their emergence and development, or different motives and purposes behind individuals’ mobilization, one of the most crucial aspects to thoroughly examine when it comes to an analysis of social movements from the practical side is how the demands are presented. To be more precise, it becomes important to examine how the social movements, regardless of the motives, are implemented by the protesters, whether through peaceful or violent means. This paper will attempt to deeply analyze the practical implications of social movements and understand the benefits and disadvantages of both peaceful and violent protests. The paper will draw on certain case studies and attempt to identify whether one method is more beneficial than the other.

One of the leading causes of socio-political and economic transformations within a society occurs as a result of individuals’ growing sense of resentment and denial of certain laws and regulations proposed by the power-holders, or peoples’ desire to bring about a change that has a positive impact on the society. In order to express long-term developed grievances, individuals find themselves in a position of showing distrust towards certain socio-political and economic conditions by emerging into a protesting cohort. The theoretical understanding of the struggles caused by the existing environment within the society transforms into a practical usage, where the deprived individuals find themselves on the streets, squares, and rooftops. The peaceful method of social mobilization is implemented for various reasons. Prior to the full emergence of the protests, individuals possess various tactical methods at their disposal. Then arises the question which method of expression the protesters choose to pursue. It is mainly divided into two main points: mobilization based on peaceful or violent implementation.

Figure 3: The Power of Strategic Non-violent Action in Arab Revolutions (MEI@75, 2011)

Peace or Violence

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms clearly outlines that one of the fundamental rights of individuals within Canadian society is their ability of “peaceful assembly; and freedom of association” which is protected by the government of Canada under Section 2 (p. 2). In addition, for instance, the House Of Commons report (2015) suggests that upon the observation of the constitution of the UK, it is clearly outlined and ratified by the UK government that it is the obligation of the state to ensure a safe and free environment where the individuals possess the rights of freedom of thought, conscience, and assembly, including the right to peaceable dissent. These examples are significant as they demonstrate not simply people’s possession of the freedom and the right to mobilize that is granted and protected by the state; rather, these constitutional amendments underline the importance and endorsement of peaceful protests that involve no use of violent force that can cause harm to other groups of people or the function of the state leadership.

The essence of peaceful protest is a non-violent set of collective actions of individuals who are determined to represent themselves as a challenge to the socio-political and economic institutions of governance or a certain cohort of people with opposing sets of beliefs and values. In comparison to the social mobilizations that operate based on enforcing violent actions and disruptive methods, non-violent mobilizations can be distinguished into two major groups. The first way of understanding the peaceful method of protesting revolves around the simple set of actions performed by the people, such as boycotting, legal demonstrations or “collecting signatures on petitions…illegal but peaceful occupations of buildings” (DeFronzo & Gill, p. 38). The strategic actions of the protesters that involve no armed confrontation are considered to be a peaceful movement. Erica Chenoweth, professor at the University of Denver and Peace Research Institute Oslo, along with Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, former professor at the University of Maryland and Peace Research Institute Oslo, in the article “Understanding nonviolent resistance: An introduction” (2013) underlined that civilian challenges through non-violent means employ “irregular political tactics outside of defined channels” (p. 271). They argue that social movements that do not involve tactics where weaponry is required are the most successful methods of facilitating change. Relying upon various examples of protests on a global scope, unarmed civil mobilizations routinely address conflict; hence, there is a need in contemporary studies of social movements to demystify the violent approach and examine the alternative methods (Chenoweth & Cunningham, 2013). In addition, peaceful movements do not simply refer to the physical actions of going onto the streets and holding a banner with a strong and appealing slogan. Rather, non-violent protest also involves an institutional context. Chenoweth and Cunningham (2013) argued that it is a crucial factor to distinguish “nonviolent struggle from different forms of non-violent institutional action” (p. 273). The institutional actions are most often seen in democratic countries where the people express their rejection not through the means of mass mobilization but through involvement in an already existing political system. The struggle within the existing political system is manifested through voting processes and the emergence of political parties and representatives. These notions are witnessed in the so-called democratic states of the West.

Figure 4: Bill chokes the right to protest (Church Times, 2023)

It is a matter of great importance to note that the people’s struggle within the existing political system is in itself an impediment towards people’s freedom of expression through the means of mass movements. The contemporary socio-political system of governance is, especially in the Western hemisphere, represented through the electoral-representative mode of democracy which presumably allows individuals to address their grievances through the voting process, hence the non-violent struggle is conceptualized as a fight within the political sphere. However, the representative system is highly arguable, and certain perspectives argue that the electoral-representative system is lacking due to minimal “accountability or responsiveness of representatives” (Alkan, 2021, p. 441). The endorsement of non-violent forms of protests is under debate due to the lack of genuine intentions of the power-holders because the main expectation revolves around the fact that individuals’ grievances should be demonstrated through the voting and elections; however, as Yavuz Selim Alkan (2021) noted in his article “Representative Democracy and the Concept of Representation: Do They Have A Legitimizing or Checking Function?” there is an established argument that this particular mode of governance has issues regarding “accountability and interest realization” (p. 445). In order to avoid concessions to those making demands and a possibility of overthrow and change of regime, government officials support the struggle within the political decision-making spectrum. Hence, peaceful protests outside of channels of political participation are highly undermined by the holders of power. As a result, the idea of the necessity of violent protest emerges inevitably.

The protesters that understand the inefficiency of the non-violent struggle because of the impediments set out by the political mode of governance, transform their methods of challenge towards facilitating disruption outside of the political system in order to get the concession or highly undermine the regime. The method of disruption is mainly used to bring meaningful change by attacking the power holders and other government elites as well as the “existing institutionalized practices” (Fishman & Everson, 2016, p. 3). The collective behavior of the population based on the disruption and violent set of actions plays a central role in the studies of social movements. One of the main justifications for the emergence of violent movements revolves around the fact that creating a state of disruption where the individuals through the means of violent force, regardless of the level, are capable of challenging the existing political practices. Within social protest discourse, the idea of disruption is very well acknowledged as various scholars underline the importance of it. The term disruption has been widely recognized by many academics, and one of them is Robert M.Fishman, a fellow at the University Carlos III de Madrid, who along with a fellow from the University of Southern Maine, argued in the academic paper “Mechanisms of Social Movement Success: Conversation, Displacement and Disruption” that the idea of disruption is one of the primary mechanisms that enable the demanders to “win major concessions from the holders of power” (p.2). The reason why disruptive politics in regard to collective reactionary behavior is necessary revolves around the fact that disruption involving some level of violence is the only possible means of protest in the hands of people, located on the lowest level of the hierarchical structure, that can have a substantial impact on the public policy. The working-class people, for instance, lack the resources and the means to highly influence the public policy institutions, hence creating a state of disruption is not just simply the quickest method of reaching the target but also requires less resource usage. This theory was proposed by Piven & Cloward, well-know American sociologists and political activists, who highlighted that the disruptive method of protesting that also carries the notion of violence is the only resource “available to low-income groups” (Schram, 2003, p. 716). Throughout the history, many countries have witnessed major shifts in socio-political and economic governance that were reached through the violent actions leading to the state of disruption and removal of significant political and economic figures.

Figure 5: Large crowds have taken to the streets in Paris and other French cities in the first mass demonstrations since President Emmanuel Macron forced through a higher retirement age without a vote (n.a., 2023)

A movement that involves a certain degree of violence can bring substantial recognition and awareness to the issue. It allows the domestic abusers of power and the international community to recognize the significance of the protests and the seriousness and strong determination of the demanders. In an interview with The New Yorker, a professor of politics at Princeton, Omar Wasow (2020), underlined that even though the protests that involve violence are difficult to maintain and can backfire, the violent mobilization that is directed towards creating a disruption becomes highly effective once the demanders get the media coverage. The relationship between media and protest is crucial, especially in the contemporary period. The social movements that cause a certain level of disorder have a high probability of being noticed not only within the border but in the global scope.

It is also crucial to underline that the line between peaceful and violent protests is thin as a non-violent mobilization can eventually turn into a violent one creating a massive disruption within the country. This phenomenon primarily occurs for various reasons, such as the inefficiency of the peaceful movement that eventually ignites people to apply different strategies, or one of the most common reasons for transforming from non-violent to violent results once the demanders are met by the law enforcement group who is using tear gas, brutal force and other methods to confront the protestors. James DeFronzo and Jungyun Gill (2019), in the book chapter “The Sociology of Social Protests,” provided an example of an anti-apartheid movement during the 20th century led by Nelson Mandela where, as a result of police brutality enforced on the protesters, the mobilizers shifted their strategy that involved “bombings of economic and military targets and mobile, small unit warfare” (p. 38).

Figure 6: Protesters gather in front of a courthouse in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the 1956 treason trial of anti-apartheid activists, among them Nelson Mandela (Via Getty, n.a)

In contrast, peaceful social movements are legally ratified and protected by the international community, specifically under the United Nations regulations and international law. From the legality perceptive, for instance, according to International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights passed under article 21 of the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations, the right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right of every person within each state regardless of person’s status in the country which should be recognized and protected by the domestic ruling administration as well as the international community. Article 21 of the Human Rights Covenant plays a crucial role as it allows the demanders to freely express their desired proposals by not fearing repressive elements of the power holders as they are accountable under international law. The Covenant, however, throughout the document mentions the importance of peaceful protests as the term peace is interchangeably used with the term non-violent underlining that individuals, who decide to use protest as a method of expression of oneself and conveying a position on a particular case, are acknowledged and secured by the international law as long as participants avoid implementing violence. The violent set of actions, in the description of the UN Covenant, entails any physical force that may “result in injury or death, or serious property damage” (UN Covenant, 2020). Hence, social movements, that involve no violence in them and are organized and strategized as peaceful collective reactionary movements, entail two major elements: protection from the domestic repressions that may be used against the demanders and recognition from the international community. In regard to protection, individuals, by pursuing their set of goals and objectives through peaceful methods, anticipate a safe environment from any opposing forces that may cause disturbance to the protest. The demanders fully rely on the fact that any repressive methods enforced by the government are illegal as it is a violation of the international law amendments. The 28th point in the UN Covenant on Human Rights (2020) underlines that it is the responsibility of domestic law to ensure a safe and free environment for the protesters where the public or police officials are limited in their power to use “all necessary force to disperse assemblies” (2020). International law’s existence regarding the right of social movements serves as a psychological boost to the protestors as they understand that they are legally protected by the law that applies to everyone as long as their protest carries no harmful tactics. Furthermore, there is an argument in the circle of academia that peacefully delivered movements are more efficient and practical than the ones that are based on violence or acts of disruption because of the recognition from the international community. Christopher A. Miller (2006), in his book “Strategic NonViolent Struggle A Training Manual”, provided an example from the 1980s of anti-apartheid movements, which began as peace mobilization including consumer and student boycotts that led the demanders to gain tangible international support. The fact that people are following the rules and regulations of the international laws and amendments, allows and obligates the international community and organization to provide the necessary support. Violent protests, in comparison to peaceful, are often perceived as radical, disruptive, illegal and non-justifiable. However, it highly varies as there are cases where violence is the only way of counterattacking the abusers. This opinion is arguable and leads to the question of who decides where the violence is necessary and upon what bases do the international organizations conclude?

On the other hand, the relationship between peaceful protests and international law is highly debatable. The existence of International laws regarding the right and freedom of peaceful protests does not necessarily mean that it guarantees individuals a safe and free environment for protesting. Although according to the UN and its international amendments, the countries are obliged to refrain from deploying police forces to repress the protestors; however, in reality, it is not the case. Jais Adam-Troian, Elif Celebi and Yara Mahfud (2020), in the article “Police use of force during street protests: A pressing public mental health concern,” provided various examples where the domestic political actors use the power of police forces to demise the peaceful demanders. For instance, he provided an example of Hong Kong protests that took place in 2019 and France Yellow Vests demonstrations of 2018 that were repressed by the police officers who used teargas, physical abuse and rubber pellet weaponry. Although the response of the UN towards the domestic administration is critical, in practice it is different.

Figure 7: The law and the right to peaceful protest (n.a)
Health and Protests

One of the highly neglected topics within the study of social mobilizations is the dramatic impact of the uprisings on individuals’ psychological, mental and physical states. Ni et al. (2020), fellow researchers in the field of psychiatry from the University of Hong Kong, John Hopkins University and other well-known academic institutions, in the well-researched and detail-oriented article "Mental health during and after protests, riots and revolutions: A systematic review" underlined that the consequences of the health state as a result of collectivized defiance remains poorly examined compare to other large-scale population events, such as terrorist attacks or man-made cataclysms. Hence, it becomes highly necessary to thoroughly analyze how social mobilizations, especially the ones that involve acts of violence, negatively affect the health of a person. Various forms of collective actions, such as protests, riots, demonstrations and revolutions implemented through the means of a high level of physical disturbance tend to lead to harmful consequences, regardless of whether a person was directly participating in the events or was a distant observer. As the analyses within the social protests study demonstrate, the detrimental effect of exposure to social movements tend to vary; however, the quantitative and qualitative research demonstrates that mental traumas, such as depression are resulted from collective actions involving violence (Ni et al., 2020). In contrast, non-violent protests also bring about mental traumas to the population yet the level of exposure is lower. As a conclusion of systematic, qualitative and quantitative methods of examination, Michael Ni et al. (2020) highlighted that the psychological traumas derived from social protests mainly involve depressive sequelae, anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It is crucial to note that the detrimental impact of social mobilization can be seen in people who did not partake in the demonstrations. For instance, as a result of systematic, qualitative and quantitative methods of examination, Ni et al. (2020) outlined that the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of 2011 resulted in the prevalence of depressive and stressful states among children which rose to 62%. The same correlation is witnessed in the rate of PTSD cases with violent social movements that involve looting or arson.

Despite the obvious physical injuries as an outcome of non-peaceful uprisings, the role of psychological trauma has become crucial. It is important to acknowledge the differences between the injuries and traumas caused by the process of the protests where the participants use violence as a method of mobilization and the implementation of police forces that use brutal actions to confront the challenges. In the case of the implementation of special forces that are enforced to counter-oppose the protestors, the causes of physical and mental injuries suffered by the individuals are consequently high. Jais Adam-Troian, Elif Celebi and Yara Mahfud (2020), fellows in the departments of Psychology and International Studies at Istanbul Bilgi University argued that the police use of force constitutes the "risk factor for public mental health" (p.1). The brutality of the enforced special forces including police by the power-holders is a major cause of the development of mental and physical issues. According to a recent study on demonstrators that was conducted relying on the Yellow Vest protests, as a consequence of police brutality, protesters were victims of the police forces using physical abuse, and rubber pellet ammunitions (Adam-Troian et al., 2020). It is not to argue if the actions from the state’s side by the enforcement of police with the mission of repressing the protest is virtuous, necessary or justifiable. Rather, it is simply to demonstrate the consequences of violence used in the social movements whether presented by the rioters or the government. On the hand, it is also significant to note that even though social movements that are delivered through violence can primarily cause psychological disturbances among the population, collective reactionary behavior can also facilitate the improvement of the mental state. Yi et al. (2020) underlined that social movements are also associated with the reduction of depression and suicide as protest is a way of expressing grievances.

Figure 8: A demonstrator runs by a fire during a yellow vest protest Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 in Paris (Francois Mori, 2019)


Social movements are highly complicated phenomena. Apart from theoretical conceptualization of the term and identifying the primary factors that shape the social mobilizations, it is significant to analyze the individuals’ collective behavior from the practical perspective. The history has witnessed various social movements in different timelines and with diverse motives and purposes. However, one of the most non-negligible angles of analyses of the social protests remains the applicability or the method of implementation. The study has identified various reasons behind the development of the social movements that include grievances, deprivations, political opportunities and many others and according to the cause, individuals organize into a group and established set of targets. The method of implementation plays a central role in advancing the protest, hence it becomes important to determine the strategy of the actions, which is either through the peaceful or violent means. Both of the methods, as demonstrated in the paper, possess advantages and disadvantages, hence it suggests that the study of social movement requires further empirical examination of peaceful and violent protests based upon qualitative and quantitate analyses.

Bibliographical References

Adam-Troian, J., Celebi, E., & Mahfud, Y. (2020).Police use of force during street protests: A pressing public mental health concern. EClinicalMedicine, 26, 1-2.

Alkan, Y.S. (2021). Representative Democracy and the Concept of Representation: Do They Have A Legitimizing or Checking Function?, Stratejik ve Sosyal Araştırmalar Dergisi, 5(3), 441- 453. Retrieved from

Bhonagiri, A. (2016). Social movements. GSDRC Topic Guides, 1-23. Retrieved from

Canadian Heritage (Updated - 2017). The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 1-8. Retrieved from

Carothers, T. & Youngs, R. (2015). THE COMPLEXITIES OF GLOBAL PROTESTS. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 1-44. Retrieved from

Chenoweth, E., & Cunningham, K. G. (2013). Understanding nonviolent resistance An introduction. Journal of Peace Research, 50(3), 271-276.

Chotiner, I. (2020). How Violent Protests Change Politics. Examining the protests after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Omar Wasow says, gives us clues about the efficacy of violent vs. nonviolent protests. Retrieved from

DeFronzo, J., & Gill, J. (2019). Social Problems and Social Movements. The Sociology of Social Movements. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 26-48.

Fishman, R. M. (2016). Mechanisms of Social Movement Success: Conversation, Displacement and Disruption. Revista Internacional De Sociología, 74(4), 1-10.

House of Commons. (2015). THE UK CONSTITUTION A summary, with options for reform. POLITICAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM COMMITTEE, 1-20. Retrieved from

Miller, C. (2006). STRATEGIC NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE: A TRAINING MANUAL. Switzerland: University for Peace. Retrieved from

Ni Y. M., Kim Y., McDowell I., Wong S., Qui H., Wong, I.O., Galea S., & Leung G. (2020). Mental health during and after protests, riots and revolutions: A systematic review. 54(3), 232 - 243. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2020). General comment No. 37 (2020) on the right of peaceful assembly (article 21). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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Kanan Babazade

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