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Clowns, Reverse Boycotts, and Involuntary Walkathons: How Communities Are Making Political Violence Backfire

Confronting the normalization of political violence and stopping it from undermining the practice of inclusive democracy in the United States requires tapping into the power of communities, to resist violence and make it backfire.

Grandparents for Truth

The new dystopian Hollywood film, Civil War, has raised the specter of devastating violent conflict once again engulfing America. While the film has been criticized by some for normalizing political violence, others have embraced it as a learning opportunity, and a way to highlight the necessity of working together to prevent the terrible outcomes envisaged in the film. Although the film doesn’t really address how the United States devolves into civil war, in fact research has documented how that happens, and the United States is seeing the signs now – including the mainstreaming of dehumanizing rhetoric, and politically motivated threats, harassment, and acts of physical violence that are inspiring fear and undermining the practice of democracy. 

Fortunately, in communities across the United States, ordinary people are already organizing and mobilizing to nonviolently confront a broad spectrum of political violence that ranges from incidents of police brutality, to attacks on election officials and school board members, to attempts by white nationalist groups to disrupt events celebrating diversity and social inclusion. These communities are turning the tables on perpetrators of political violence while building more resilient communities. Confronting the normalization of political violence and stopping it from undermining the practice of inclusive democracy in the United States requires tapping into the power of communities, with their diverse membership, to resist violence and make it backfire.

The United States, of course, has a long history of political violence, almost always linked to efforts to expand political power for some while denying it to others, typically Black and Brown Americans. The post-Reconstruction “Jim Crow”-era system of racial apartheid in the South, upheld by local authoritarian rule anchored at that time in the Democratic Party, was a blatant example of political violence used to advance racial authoritarianism. Each major attempt to advance multi-racial democracy in the United States, whether through Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, or the election of Barack Obama and the modern-day Movement for Black Lives coalition, has been met with violent authoritarian backlash. Other movements for social progress such as equal rights for women or LGBTQ rights have also faced violent backlash.

Today, researchers have documented that the preponderance of political violence, including threats, intimidation, and acts of physical violence, “used with a political motivation to achieve a political goal or assert political power over another group,” is committed by far-right groups, with a much smaller number of attacks by leftist groups. Unlike violent leftists, the far-right groups receive implicit or explicit backing from a Republican Party controlled by a racist and anti-democratic MAGA faction, one that attempted to violently overturn the 2020 election.

Even without a civil war or a January 6th-scale event, political violence is having a chilling effect on U.S. democracy. Targeted threats have become the most common way to terrorize individuals and make communities fearful. The dramatic escalation of threats targeting election officials, judges, politicians, and other public servants is prompting good people from across the political and ideological spectrum to step away from public service – or to double down on security measures. It is encouraging politicians and elected officials to self-censor or change their votes out of fear of reprisal, including some members of Congress who refused to vote to impeach Donald Trump because of this fear. The violence and threats are punishing those who face police and non-State violence while exercising the fundamental right to protest human rights abuses – and they are disproportionately Black and Brown Americans.

Historically, organized collective action has been the strongest bulwark against authoritarianism and the political violence that greases its wheels, as my own research and at least a dozen independent studies have concluded. When large numbers of people from diverse sectors and segments of society stubbornly say no to authoritarianism, and stop cooperating with those responsible for it, they can fundamentally alter the balance of power. In some cases, as we have seen in dozens of examples from around the world, movements that rely on marches, strikes, boycotts, walk-outs, and other forms of organized noncooperation can remove violent regimes altogether.

Today, organized action in communities across the United States, including digital spaces, is needed to raise the costs of political violence for perpetrators and their enablers. Threats – whether made through doxxing, swatting, or other menacing actions — like militia members showing up in civic spaces with guns — are cheap, and perpetrators rarely face any kind of accountability. Unless the calculus of those responsible for political violence changes, and unless they are forced to pay a social, political, financial, and legal price for their violent, anti-democratic behaviors, the threats, intimidation, and violence will continue to escalate.

Generating Backfire

In other words, political violence must be made to backfire. Australian scholar-activist Brian Martin describes backfire as the process by which acts of repression, including political violence, end up strengthening those attacked and their cause, while weakening the perpetrators. Backfire, which other scholars refer to as the “paradox of repression” does not happen every time nor does it happen automatically. Rather, it requires planning, preparation, timely and effective communication, and communities going on offense against those responsible for the repression.

Martin, who has documented cases from around the world when repression backfired (and when it did not), has highlighted the “5 Rs” of backfire. To trigger backfire, people must reveal the nature of the injustice and counter attempts to cover it up. Second, they must redeem or validate the targets of repression, challenging efforts to devalue, discredit, or dehumanize those targeted. Third, they need to reframe the narrative, emphasizing why the repression or violence violates core norms and values, while countering attempts to reinterpret events in a favorable light. Fourth, they must harness and redirect anger, pain and outrage while avoiding overreliance on official channels. Finally, they must resist attempts to intimidate, threaten, or co-opt those targeted or potential supporters.

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Illustrative examples from history and the recent past, both in the United States and around the world, highlight the role of preparation, effective communication, and creative nonviolent action in making political violence backfire. During the U.S. civil rights movement, police attacks on marchers in Selma backfired when the media revealed dogs and firehoses attacking demonstrably peaceful protestors, resulting in greater support for civil rights activists, who were already adept at framing their actions as part of a freedom struggle (as opposed to undermining law and order, as Alabama officials portrayed it).

The march from Selma to Montgomery, along with the earlier Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch-counter sit-ins, and the Freedom Rides, which were met with significant political violence from State and non-State actors, featured protagonists who were trained in strategic nonviolent action. The organizations providing that training included the Nashville student movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which were able to redirect pain and outrage towards organized action, which in turn was shepherded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other key groups.

These highly organized and confrontational campaigns were able to raise the social, political, financial, and legal costs on Southern governments and businesses responsible for Jim Crow, which set the conditions for dismantling racial apartheid in the South. In some states of the South, including Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina, armed self-defense, provided by groups like Deacons for Defense and Justice, was part of the popular resistance (though the consequences of mixing armed and unarmed resistance tactics continues to be a subject of scholarly debate).

New Approaches for Modern Times

The fracturing of the media ecosystem and the rapid spread of mis- and disinformation pose challenges to this type of high-profile backfire today. So, too, does structural racism and ingrained patterns of prejudice, which, as scholars including political scientist Christian Davenport have found, affect how people perceive violent and nonviolent protest behavior. A study conducted by Davenport, Rose McDermott, and Dave Armstrong found that when police are White and protestors are Black, Whites are less likely to blame police for abuse. While these factors pose significant challenges to the ability of certain groups, notably Black Americans, to trigger backfire, the widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, the most sustained in U.S. history, demonstrate the ability of the highly organized Movement for Black Lives to make police killings backfire.

Notwithstanding structural and informational challenges, communities have found creative work-arounds.

That includes efforts to challenge Moms for Liberty, an organization founded in 2021 in Florida, with chapters across the country, that advocates for book bans, opposes student inclusion activities, and supports rightwing school board candidates. The organization was identified in a 2023 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-government extremist group for actions including spreading disinformation, threatening librarians and school board members, and associating with members of the Proud Boys, another far-right extremist group. This did not prevent Florida Governor Ron DeSantis from appointing a prominent member of Moms for Liberty to a state Commission on Ethics in 2023.

When Moms for Liberty has faced organized opposition, including from groups such as Grandparents for Truth, their activities have backfired. Grandparents for Truth, a group of grandparents and their allies formed by the left-leaning People for the American Way, whose stated goal is to fight for the next generation’s freedom to learn, formed in 2023 to fight censorship, book bans, and attacks on education. When Moms for Liberty convened in Philadelphia last year for their annual convention, Grandparents for Truth rallied hundreds of grandparents, local activists, and elected officials outside the convention hall, reframing the activities of Moms for Liberty as the antithesis of liberty. Moms for Liberty has continued to lose support and influence across the country, with most of the candidates for local races it backed in places like Iowa and Ohio losing, in no small part due to grassroots mobilization by parents, grandparents, and educators.

In Enid, Oklahoma, when town members learned that the city had elected a candidate to the city council who had marched alongside neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017 and identified himself under a pseudonym as Oklahoma state coordinator for the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, they organized. They formed the Enid Social Justice Committee (ESJC) and engaged in months of activism, protest, and fierce advocacy at city council meetings that shone a spotlight on the council member’s views and past actions. When the council member, Judd Blevins, would not explain or apologize for these actions, the ESJC collected enough signatures for a recall petition. Cheryl Patterson, a longtime Republican and former teacher, stepped up to run against the incumbent, citing the need to restore the town’s reputation. On April 2, 2024, Patterson won the recall vote. After the victory, the chair of the ESJC offered this lesson to others: “You can do this because we did this. We didn’t even know what we were doing, and we did this. This is possible.”

In Whitefish, Montana, as white supremacist activities intensified, and an armed march was planned for Martin Luther King, Jr. day in 2017, a community group called “Love Lives Here” took a stand. As the date of the march approached, businesses that relied on tourism and had a strong interest in countering the perception of community intolerance, posted “Love Lives Here” stickers in their windows, along with images of menorahs. The campaign also had a digital strategy. When extremist online trolls attacked local restaurants and other businesses, the community responded by flooding the internet with positive reviews and patronizing the businesses – an example of what civil resistance scholars call a reverse boycott. A “Love Not Hate” rally one week before the planned neo-Nazi march brought out hundreds of people, including families and kids, and emphasized tolerance and a welcoming spirit. Tactics used during the “Love Not Hate” campaign included the formation of a “matzo ball soup brigade,” as well as people showing up in blue troll wigs to “troll the trolls” and a “queer insurrection unit.” The collective action, along with a denied march permit, helped ensure that the neo-Nazi marchers stayed away from the rally.

Humor and Creativity

Humor and creativity have been at the forefront of many backfire campaigns around the world.  In Wunsiedel, Germany, neo-Nazis annually marched to the grave of Rudolph Hess, a deputy of Adolph Hitler. In 2014, town organizers innovated with humor to outmaneuver the neo-Nazis. They launched a campaign called Rechts Gegen Rechts (“Rights against the Right”) and turned the annual march into a “walkathon,” so that for every meter neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros to an organization that helps people exit far-right groups. Near the finish line, a sign thanked the marchers for their contribution to the anti-Nazi cause, and rainbow confetti was showered on marchers at the finish line.

The campaign has spun off other creative actions, including Omas Gegen Rechts (Grannies Against the Right) in Germany and similar activities in Sweden. In the United States, tactics involving humor and particularly clowns have been used to challenge white supremacists across the country. In Olympia, Washington, in 2005 in response to far-right marchers calling for a race war, clowns mimicked their salutes, mocked them with goose steps, and turned attention away from their cause. In 2007, in Nashville, Tennessee, the group Anti-Racist Action organized clowns at a neo-Nazi rally. As the neo-Nazis yelled “White power!”, the clowns answered them by calling “White flour!” and threw flour in the air. As the neo-Nazis continued, the clowns shifted and responded “White flowers!,” which they handed out to passersby. In response, the neo-Nazis called off their rally hours before it was supposed to finish.

In response to rising hate speech and growing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, the Parasol Patrol was founded in Denver, Colorado, in 2019 to protect children and community members from harassment and threats from far-right protestors. Members of the Parasol Patrol, who are trained in de-escalation techniques, use pride umbrellas to peacefully walk in between protesters, hate groups, and children with their families. Its volunteers have sung Disney songs to drown out hate-filled protests. As Marine Corp veteran and Parasol Patrol co-founder Eli Barzan put it, “Instead of yelling or fighting, you’ll find the Parasol Patrol crew playing music, singing, and laughing.”

In a context of rising racial tensions and threats of election-related violence and intimidation, initiatives like the non-partisan Joy to the Polls have promoted safety and civic participation through music and the arts. Other election safety and security initiatives have responded to threats with collective action by trusted community members from across the political and ideological spectrum. Examples include the deployment of “poll chaplains” by groups like Faiths United to Save Democracy and the recruitment of veterans and military families as poll workers by campaigns like Vet the Vote, a project of We the Veterans and Military Families.

In some cases, legal and law enforcement strategies have accompanied community mobilization and media strategies, to great effect. After Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and their team made false claims of voter fraud against Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shay Moss, the women endured months of death threats and racist taunts. In 2021, with support from Protect Democracy’s Law for Truth project, Moss and Freeman filed suit against Giuliani for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. Legal proceedings were accompanied by a media campaign that successfully promoted the fact that Freeman and Moss were just doing their civic duty and reframed them as patriots, while redirecting blame at those who illegally attempted to overturn the 2020 election. In a sweeping ruling, the courts ruled in the women’s favor. Other legal groups, like the Movement Law Lab, have worked closely with activists and organizers to help them sustain their work in the face of rising criminalization and authoritarian behavior.

Similarly, law enforcement proved helpful in 2022, when 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front were arrested for conspiracy to riot at a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Their plans were thwarted when a concerned community member called the police to report 20 men in a U-Haul truck with masks, shields, and weapons. The FBI worked alongside local authorities to make the arrests. Even after the arrests in Coeur d’Alene, the North Idaho Pride Alliance declared Pride in the Park, which featured fun family activities and the strong support of businesses, a success. “That was by far the biggest Pride event that has ever taken place here in Coeur d’Alene,” the alliance’s outreach director told NPR. “We stood up — in our way — to the bullies. But we did it by bringing people together in love and kindness.” The Pride in the Park event in June 2024 was its biggest yet.

The Need for Wider Community Action

Although institutional mechanisms such as courts and law enforcement can be helpful, they cannot be relied upon, particularly in instances when they are controlled by individuals who are hostile to multi-racial democracy. Wider community action is needed to raise the costs of political violence while strengthening pro-democracy community norms and behaviors. Given the ubiquity of online threats, intimidation, and disinformation, digital strategies that target businesses and other corporate actors that are promoting or enabling political violence, such as those advanced by Sleeping Giants and Check My Ads, are critically important.

These examples of backfire highlight the importance of confronting hate and political violence with preparation, diverse participation, creative collective action, and nonviolent discipline. Stopping political violence takes going on offense and, where necessary, raising the heat through collective action. That is what made civil resistance campaigns so effective during the civil rights movement, the greatest pro-democracy movement in U.S. history.

Local circumstances will determine which tactics and communication strategies are most effective, including which trusted messengers to engage. Maximizing backfire requires organization, preparation, and the involvement of diverse stakeholders. Fortunately, the history of movements that have advanced social progress in this country and around the world, often in the face of significant political violence, offer a powerful and hopeful way forward.


Maria J. Stephan

Maria J. Stephan (@MariaJStephan) is Co-Lead and Chief Organizer for The Horizons Project. She formerly directed the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She is co-author of "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict," "Bolstering Democracy: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward," and "Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback?