Resistance in Denver: DU's Erica Chenoweth on Activism in the Trump Era

Erica Chenoweth is a professor and Associate Dean of Research at the Sié-Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy.
Erica Chenoweth is a professor and Associate Dean of Research at the Sié-Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy. Courtesy of Erica Chenoweth
Erica Chenoweth can tell you that the average nonviolent protest movement achieves its goal in just three years, three to four times shorter than violent campaigns. The University of Denver professor is also quick to cite her finding that nonviolent campaigns have double the rate of success of their bloody counterparts.

Denver's seen plenty of nonviolent protests this year. According to the Crowd Counting Consortium, a project Chenoweth co-directs, the 42 protests in Denver following the 100,000-person Women's March in January have been attended by an estimated 34,500 people. And the recent counter-protests against white supremacists in Charlottesville and Boston irrefutably underscored the importance and risks of political demonstration. Westword spoke with Chenoweth about what her research on political violence and peaceful resistance tells us about today's protesting and how Denver can engage in activism.

Westword: What’s one of your findings — or a new question — that’s been on your mind in the wake of Charlottesville?

Erica Chenoweth: The most important question that emerges for me is not just a question Charlottesville provoked. It’s one I’ve been thinking about a long time but Charlottesville also touches upon: How do opposition movements continually expand their participation and build sustained coalitions from an incredibly diverse set of oppositional groups that have different immediate and long-term goals but might share one or more of those goals in common? We have this incredibly diverse sector of social movements in the United States. Many have been organizing in their areas for decades or longer. They have overlapping concerns but not identical ones, or they have overlapping concerns but entirely different approaches to seeking redress for their grievances. So the key question in my mind is: How does a country full of incredibly skilled and, in many ways, effective movements build a true movement of movements? And how does that movement of movements last longer than a moment?

This is actually not a unique challenge to our country in this time. I think that this is basically the key question for people who are trying to form durable movements over time, movements that can really remain resilient through years-long struggle without collapsing under the weight of their own internal divisions. Civil resistance is basically a divide-and-rule strategy. The aim is to divide the opponent from its pillars of support. Likewise, movements are often vulnerable to divide-and-rule strategies from their opponents. How do they overcome and resist divisions that emerge from within themselves and also those the opponent tries to provoke?

And those can be divisions related to which methods are best to use. Is it appropriate to have Antifa serving as a community defense organization? Is it appropriate to have people calling for nonviolence as an exclusive technique of struggle? What are the different claims that everybody can agree to? Are we talking about a radical overhaul of the political, economic, social and cultural systems in the United States, or are we talking about impeachment? Are we talking about the removal of monuments from the Confederacy or to the Confederacy, or are we talking about the removal of a system of racialized oppression? Those are the key questions that in any kind of movement context, the coalitions would be actively negotiating and formulating their strategy around.

What can nonviolent activists do these days in the face of more-prone-to-violence groups like Black Bloc and Antifa so that nonviolent activism isn’t undermined?

If there’s violence coming from within the movement, it can be fairly difficult to control that. What movements need to know, and what Antifa and Black Bloc need to know, is that the government will make no distinction between them and peaceful protesters that are surrounding them. One of the issues with this type of activity is that it often provokes greater backlashes against everyone participating, even if they did personally not make a choice to be associated with that level of risk. There is kind of a moral hazard involved in that kind of activity.

But the best way to minimize the political attention such groups get is to just outnumber them by enormous proportions. One of the general impulses people have when they start seeing Antifa or Black Bloc or whoever participating more commonly in these activities is to stay away. But what will make the movement sustainable in spite of these actors is actually for more people to show up. In fact, Antifa would not probably have to engage in defensive violence if hundreds of thousands showed up at these events in the first place.

Think about the contrast between what happened in Charlottesville and in Boston. The white supremacists had to cancel their rally early in Boston because there were 40,000 people who came to drown them out. That’s just another way of doing community self-defense, but it doesn’t carry the same political consequences or tradeoffs that go along with having a smaller group of vanguard community defenders — if you want to call Antifa that — who create all of these political and public-relations effects that are negative for the broader movements.

"We’re all involved in the system, and it’s time for us to look at it honestly and see where we can be part of the solution."

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Based on what you’ve said about the need to show up, I wanted to ask about Facebook activism. What’s your take on that?

There are lots of different views on this. In my own case, I subscribe to the view that Facebook can be a very powerful coordination and communication mechanism, especially in contexts where surveillance and infiltration are not as much of a concern. That said, "clicktivism," which is sitting at your computer and clicking "like" and signing petitions, is not a particularly disruptive form of resistance.

But I think that in general, it can be a powerful way to communicate and coordinate actions with large numbers of people in a short amount of time. For that reason, there has been a higher number of events people have been willing to organize themselves, without any association with broader movements, and that’s led them to obtain some experience with organizing that they otherwise might have been shyer about. It has led to more entrepreneurial forms of activism, but not necessarily the most disruptive kind.

So you encourage people to actually get out on the streets?

Or come up with disruptive techniques. People hitting the streets isn’t alway disruptive, either. A lot of times, people coming to the streets means a lot of people symbolically showing up to demonstrate their opposition to something. That can be quite different than, say, if every person in a major city stays home for a day, shutting down the economy of that city. That’s an incredibly powerful and even more disruptive technique. By "showing up," I just mean participating actively in whatever method of resistance is prevailing at the time as a way to create change.

click to enlarge An instance of local activism: Hundreds gathered at the State Capitol on Wednesday, July 19, to protest U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos while she was in town for a public speaking engagement. - BRANDON MARSHALL
An instance of local activism: Hundreds gathered at the State Capitol on Wednesday, July 19, to protest U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos while she was in town for a public speaking engagement.
Brandon Marshall
To get a little more Denver-specific, you have a guide to resistance in the Trump Era on your blog. I'm going to direct your own question at you as it pertains to the Denver community: Who in our immediate community needs support right now?

One of the groups of people that need our support are undocumented people who face imminent deportation. There is Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, Coloradans for Immigrant Rights and Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. All three of those groups coordinate to provide sanctuary and support.

If people belong to faith communities around this city, and those faith communities have not even mentioned the word "sanctuary" in our context right now, this would be a really good time for them to start that conversation. There are many different families in Colorado and the Denver area that, if they aren’t in sanctuary now, may soon need that option. And if people want to educate themselves about what sanctuary means and why it’s so associated with faith communities, I think that would be a really great place for them to start their process of learning.

There are a lot of people who have long needed the support of their neighbors and friends that people of privilege in our city have been ignoring. And it’s not because people who need support haven’t been shouting it loud enough. It’s because, you know what? It’s inconvenient to turn away from one’s privilege and actually take a look at how I, as a white person with class privilege, benefit from the systems we live and participate in where I should be actively trying to help dismantle those systems and follow the lead of people who for generations have been crying out with the injustices that they endure on a daily basis. People haven’t been willing to take that step forward for their own self-reflection and start to dig deep into that and understand the broader phenomenon of how our country has gotten here in the first place, what is the division about, and how am I participating in it, even if I voted for Clinton or somebody besides Trump. We’re all involved in the system, and it’s time for us to look at it honestly and see where we can be part of the solution.

Touching on your mention of white privilege, how does it and Denver’s lack of racial diversity factor into resistance? What do Denverites need to consider when protesting in this space?

White people — white liberals in particular — are often outraged at racial injustice but don't know fully how to engage in progressive action that actually contributes to the solution. One of the things that’s useful to consider is actually listening very deeply and carefully to black, indigenous and people of color to hear exactly what it is that they’re asking for or demanding right now, and really putting that ahead of whatever I think we should be doing.

One of the common tendencies is to develop a paternalistic approach, which is “I’m going to do this for these communities.” In fact, what these communities are often saying, if we read and listen deeply, is that they don’t want anybody to do anything for them. They want people to show up with them, and with them as a lead. There are many incredible expressions of this leadership that are going on in black, indigenous and communities of color, and it’s sort of time for white people to take a step back and encourage leadership in these communities and follow the lead and show up in total support and solidarity when asked. That’s quite a different position and posture than people are used to accepting, simply as a function of our privilege. We're used to being up front, being the center of attention and accepting praise when we do something that we think is expected of us. In this context, there's not going to be any praise. There’s not going to be any kudos. There’s not going to be any visibility — or anyway, there shouldn’t be. The visibility should all be given to Black Lives Matter, the people of color, many of whom are undocumented, who are themselves leading the sanctuary coalition and so forth. It’s their voices that we need to hear right now.

Westword will be conducting Q&As with activists from communities of color. We'll be sending them some of these questions but also welcome your suggestions. Leave a comment or use the contact-the-author email to submit something you'd like answered by leaders in the Denver activist community.

If you're looking to learn more or get engaged in racial-justice movements in Denver, Chenoweth recommends the "Getting Real: a Raw Conversation About Race" event on Thursday, August 31, at 7 p.m. at Shorter Community AME Church, Black Lives Matter 5280, the Movement for Black Lives, Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Kimberle Crenshaw’s "The Urgency of Intersectionality" TED talk, "An Interview With the Founders of Black Lives Matter" with Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, "Practical Ways White Allies Can Influence Their Communities," from Wear Your Voice magazine, and "For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies" in Soujourner.
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Lila Thulin recently graduated from Stanford University, where she earned a Human Biology degree with a minor in Creative Writing (she also learned to bike no-handed). She’s an aficionado of libraries, bagels and art in all forms; she covers the latter as a Westword intern.
Contact: Lila Thulin