Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

March 18, 2015

The Backlash Effect: How to Transform Violence into Justice

Nonviolent direct action induces annoyance, hatred, and violence by our opponents. Here are 3 keys to channeling the backlash into progress for social justice. 

by Wayne Hsiung

Nicholas is not an obvious “social justice warrior.” He’s a Star Wars geek with a minimal social media profile. He’s soft-spoken and refuses any sort of attention. At protests or parties, you’ll almost always find him hovering somewhere in the background -- usually with a camera. And when he joined the DxE Southwest Speaking Tour last fall, he was commonly mistaken, even by other DxE actvists, as “some random tech guy.” You might not know, then, that Nick is one of the most high-impact activists In DxE’s network.

And yet that is exactly what he is.

When this unassuming Star Wars geek was viciously assaulted by Omar Haddedou, a manager of the high-end, foie-gras-serving restaurant Le Vallauris. Mr. Haddedou was so enraged by the protest that he rampaged through the activists with a large wooden club, menacing a pregnant woman and children. Nick, Abraham, and many others jumped forward to defend the activists, but Nick’s face and camera took the brunt of the attack. The latter did not survive. But the remarkable thing is that, even as his face was being clubbed, Nick directly confronted the violence with camera in hand. He did not run. He did not strike back. He did not even curse. He calmly continued recording, while literally being beaten in the face, and even followed the man as he walked back into the building after the attack.

You can see in the video that the other protesters are stunned. They stare at Nick’s face, bruised by the assault, and wonder what to do next. But Nick simply says, “I’m ok,” and continues filming the demo. And the protest goes on.

In so many ways, Nick -- quiet, unassuming, geeky Nick -- perfectly distilled what DxE is all about: strength in nonviolence.

But the media uproar after the attack illustrates another important phenomenon in the history of social justice: the backlash effect. And understanding how this crucial effect works, and how we can deploy it, is vital to strategic use of nonviolence -- and the growth of our movement. But let’s step back for some historical context.


In 1954, in one of the most radical decisions in the Supreme Court’s history, Chief Justice Earl Warren held in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. What the public often remembers as a resounding victory for civil rights, however, was actually a barely-noticeable hiccup in an engine of racial oppression. Harvard historian Michael Klarman writes that the decision’s “direct impact on school desegregation was limited.” State governments in both the North and the South, it turns out, had no interest in actually upholding the ruling. The public was similarly dismissive, as the case had little to no impact on swaying popular opinion against the hateful system known as Jim Crow. Even communities of color seemed indifferent to Brown. Indeed, it was not until almost a decade later that the mass uprising we call the Civil Rights Movement finally succeeded in capturing the public imagination with Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington.

But then was Brown just a waste of time? In fact, historians now believe that Brown was a crucial point in the struggle for racial equality. But Brown is not seen as important because it did anything to directly alleviate racism, or build support for an anti-racist movement. Rather, Brown worked because it triggered a massive and violent reaction by the South -- a backlash. This backlash provoked and polarized the issue of racial discrimination, made the tiny handful of nonviolent activists appear as heroes, and forced fence-sitters across the country to finally take a stand on civil rights. And when so forced, the public eventually sided with the nonviolent protesters fighting for equality over the violent racists assaulting those same protesters with batons, fire hoses, and police dogs.

 Attention to economic inequality was repeatedly triggered by incidents of violence against protesters.
Attention to economic inequality was repeatedly triggered by incidents of violence against protesters.

The backlash effect of Brown, it turns out, is not a historical anomaly. Backlash has been vital to the growth of virtually every important movement for social justice. The violent reactions against Emmeline Pankhurt’s disruptions of Parliament and other important political institutions were crucial to the global movement for women’s suffrage. (Pankhurt’s bravery earned her a place as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most important people of the 20th century.) LGBTQ liberation was utterly stalled until police beatings during the Stonewall Riots finally put issue onto the table. (The number of gay groups nationwide increased from 50 to 2500 within two years of the riot.) And most recently, Occupy Wall Street’s sudden and massive growth was triggered almost entirely by brutal clashes with the police

It’s not surprising, then, that important moments in DxE’s growth have been triggered by clashes. Our first viral video, which inspired copycat actions in 6 cities, involved an over-the-top hostile response by the employees at a Sprouts grocery store. Our first notable press hit was triggered by a disruption of the film American Meat at Stanford that induced a violent and angry response by the audience (including one audience member shrieking, “You’re about to face some violence!”). And the #DisruptSpeciesism videos that exploded last fall were catalyzed by an initial speakout by Priya that contrasted her calm strength and confidence with the restaurant’s violent response.

The recent clash involving Nick, then, is simply the latest example of the power of the backlash effect to provoke attention and mobilize support. The resulting press coverage, which has been universally positive, has exposed hundreds of thousands of people to the debate over animal rights. We have received dozens of comments, emails, and messages from new activists asking how they can get involved with the #ItsNotFoodItsViolence campaign.

There are three important strategic points to make, however, if we are to channel the energy created by the backlash effect into progress.

First, nonviolence is key. Gandhi believed in refusing to back down in the face of violence (nonviolence, he said, is very different from cowardice), but he believed just as strongly in refusing to strike back. And a century of historical analysis and social scientific research supports Gandhi’s approach. Cornell’s Sidney Tarrow identifies nonviolent disruption as “the strongest weapon of social movements” because it provokes attention, broadens the circle of debate, and serves as inspiring evidence of determination. It allows movements with limited resources to leverage small initial support to create massive impacts. More recently, political scientist Erica Chenowith’s work on civil resistance, noted by the American Political Science Association as the most important research published in 2012, shows why nonviolent disruption has been so effective.  When disruption diminishes into so-called “contained” activism (i.e. working for reforms within the system), it loses its ability to provoke or inspire. When it devolves into violence, it loses public support, depresses activist participation, and gives both corporations and government the cover they need to violently suppress a movement before it can take hold. Nonviolent direct action is the sweet spot that fosters a movement’s strength and growth.  

The fact that Nick and the other activists did not strike back, then, was absolutely vital to maintaining not just the moral but the strategic high ground. We probably would not have been able to share the video with the press, after all, if Nick had fought back, as we would have to worry about Nick also facing criminal charges for assault.

 Nonviolence asks us to confront, not avoid, injustice and violence.
Nonviolence asks us to confront, not avoid, injustice and violence.

Second, true nonviolence requires us to confront, not avoid, injustice and violence. Many people confuse nonviolence with the mere avoidance of violence. But this is the opposite of what nonviolent direct action asks of us. Powerful movements from antislavery in the United States (William Lloyd Garrison burning the US Constitution in the face of a mob of Bostonians threatening to lynch him) to the pro-democracy movement in China (the Unknown Protester, who charged in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square) have encouraged activists to aggressively seek out and challenge, not avoid, violence. To confront violence with the power of protest. To place our own comfort, safety, and even lives at stake to protect those who cannot protect themselves. 

Nick did not run from the conflict. Far from it, you see him rushing up to defend his fellow activists when the initial tussle beings. And he continues to film and follow the violent man, even as he is being battered across the face. Other activists at the demo, notably Abraham Santamaria and Missy Freeland, similarly jumped forward to protect Nick when the violent man turns his ire on the camera. This is the sort of bravery, confidence, and strength we must find in ourselves if we are going to change a violent system.   

Third, the energy created by nonviolence and backlash must be channeled into community to create long-term change. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized that nonviolent direct action was the product not of individual fortitude but the “Beloved Community.” One of the founders of ACT UP (the groundbreaking LGBTQ advocacy and AIDS awareness network), whom I have had extensive personal discussions with, emphasized to me that the provocative demonstrations that drove progress on LGBTQ rights would not have been possible without a burgeoning community of gay community centers. The community offered activists legal, financial, and moral support as they took greater risks to confront prejudice and hate. And movement scholars across many disciplines have shown the crucial importance of social ties in motivating widespread participation in movements for change. Nonviolent direct action -- and, specifically, the backlash effect -- is the generator that creates energy, but community is the battery that stores that energy to perform the hard work of social change over the long term. 

Nick (along with his fellow organizers in the Inland Empire) has done an incredible job of building not just a movement for protest, but a community for activists to rest, reminisce, and recharge in the days after a difficult action. In fact, just one day after the attack, Nick and the other Inland Empire activists had a wonderful potluck that I had the pleasure to briefly Skype into. I could see the friendship and camaraderie that was spreading through the community. This is not only good for sustaining activism. It’s good for Nick, who needs our support to see that the struggles and obstacles he faces -- including, in this case, violence -- are worth it. 

 The community at DxE - Inland Empire.
The community at DxE - Inland Empire.

And our movement will surely face more obstacles and struggles. With powerful corporations, institutions, and traditions beginning to recognize the threat posed by the animal rights movement, tension is inevitable. But as King himself said, “e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” Facing this tension is a necessary element to our movement’s progress and growth. But we can find solace in the fact that modern movements for justice have not required the same sacrifices that were made by activists 200 years ago. It took a violent war that decimated an entire nation to end antebellum slavery, but the LGBTQ liberation movement and Occupy Wall Street surged forward with comparatively little loss of life. Perhaps our society has learned lessons from 200 years of struggle… most importantly, that progress requires agitation.

We should take on the challenge of nonviolence, then, with pride. Violent responses are a measure of the work that needs to be done -- a measure of the widespread apathy and even hostility toward the cause of animal rights. But they are also an opportunity for us to prove our moral strength. If we can maintain the moral/strategic high ground, confront rather than avoid violence, and tap into the power of community to fuel our movement’s inspiration and growth, we can transform brutal attacks like the Palm Springs incident into forces for justice.

And when we have an entire movement which has steeled itself, as Nick did, to take nonviolent direct action -- to bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive -- we will change the world.