Book review - The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements

Authored by Lester R Kurtz & Lee A Smithey and reviewed by Kristi Andrasik

24 Jan 2019, 11:47 a.m.
Kristi Andrasik

The Paradox of Repression book cover


The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements

Authored by Lester R Kurtz & Lee A Smithey and reviewed by Kristi Andrasik

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press2018; 337 pp.: 978-0815635642, US$34.95 (pbk)


The 1968 Kerner Report, commissioned by the US federal government, identified the rash of 1960s uprisings in American cities as a response to racism and systemic inequality, and ‘deplored [the tactic of] arming police officers with more deadly weapons to use in heavily populated urban neighborhoods’ (George, 2018: para. 13). It is from this context of widespread social unrest and the subsequent flow of public and philanthropic dollars into universities that urban studies began to emerge as a cross-disciplinary academic field (Bowen et al., 2010). Non-violence research can provide important insights for urban scholars who view the uprisings of the 1960s as ‘political acts of self-defense and racial liberation on a mass, public scale … [c]ommonly sparked by repressive and violent police actions’ (George, 2018: para. 4, quoting William S Pretzer). Therefore, urban scholars may be particularly attracted to The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements in the search for a deeper understanding of the dynamics which characterise the urban experience and birthed the field of urban studies itself.

The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements seeks to (1) shed light on how and when increased repression of a non-violent campaign may ultimately undermine the oppressor’s own agenda and/or bolster the effectiveness of the dissenting campaign, and (2) explore strategies employed by non-violent activists to ‘endur[e] and sometimes provok[e]’ repression (p. 13), in an effort ‘to enhance its potential to backfire and empower resistance’ (p. 19). The book does not offer readers a central theory nor a standardised definition of the paradox of repression or any of its terms – a decision deemed ‘wise’ by respected non-violence scholar Brian Martin – as it leaves ‘the conceptual terrain … more open for exploration’ (p. xix). Exploration does indeed prevail throughout the volume, punctuated by a helpful array of examples, some mentioned only briefly to illustrate a particular point (such as the Soweto Uprising and the Montgomery Bus Boycott invoked by Schultziner as examples of transformative events discussed in Chapter 3), while others are examined more comprehensively as a way to surface key points (such as Williams’s discussion of strategies to manage fear in her firsthand account of the women-led Zimbabwean uprising in Chapter 6).

As an edited volume, one might expect to open the cover of The Paradox of Repression to find a straightforward anthology of re-published articles connected by brief editorial comments. Instead, with each turn of the page, one will discover a tightly woven narrative prominently featuring the voices of co-editors Lester R Kurtz and Lee A Smithey – peace and conflict sociologists who also co-author four of the book’s 12 chapters. Even the chapters written by the other ten contributing authors display a self-awareness of the role of their own chapter in context with the rest of the book. Many of the authors reference each other’s chapters, allowing the reader to feel a bit like a guest at a non-violence research-themed dinner party, listening to the authors in conversation with one another. This interplay is particularly refreshing given the intentional author mix of scholars and practitioners.

Kurtz and Smithey’s carefully constructed book is undoubtedly poised to become a staple in the libraries of peace and non-violence scholars – particularly those interested in international approaches. Professors of peace studies, political science, sociology, and anthropology will likely find The Paradox of Repression to be a useful classroom text to expose graduate students to a range of voices (i.e.: academic and practitioner, women and men, global east and west) engaged in an interconnected exploration of the role of relational power, repression, strategy, resistance, and culture in non-violent movements. However, students and scholars of urban studies may not find this text to be quite as satisfying.

I was surprised by the book’s lack of attention to the US urban experience, given how deeply the paradox of repression is etched into the history of urban evolution. After all, what urban or peace studies scholar is not familiar with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in which he certainly references such paradox, even if not by name – for example: ‘I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the Birmingham police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes … if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment …’ (1963: 13). Although Kurtz and Smithey do not explicitly identify one actor as ‘the’ source of repression, many of the contributing authors seem to share a view of an undemocratic state regime as the primary context through which to study the paradox of repression – a context which largely precludes the US urban experience, particularly in modern times. Although limited, the volume does offer a few examples of repression by non-state actors, such as Lakey’s backfire example of a racist Alabama mob’s attack on a Freedom Rider bus (p. 272), or Beyer and Earl’s example of a private actor, the Church of Scientology, depleting the resources and blocking the efforts of information activists (p. 109). A greater exploration of these types of examples could offer significant contributions to the field of urban studies.

As scholars of all disciplines dig deeper into this book’s fundamental line of inquiry, I hope more will be uncovered about the expression (and perhaps, invocation) of the paradox of repression in modern urban contexts. Specifically, our understanding of urban issues would be advanced with research about the paradox of repression where: (1) the state is not the source of repression but is instead made witness to acts of repression (or oppression) spurred by a marginalised group’s attempts at non-violent action, and (2) the state uses legal means through the democratic system to repress a movement (perhaps falling somewhere in the realm of ‘soft repression’ on Smithey and Kurtz’s Continuum of Demobilization, p. 191). For example, when LGBTQ rights activists calmly endure painful and vitriolic defamation from other citizens during a local government meeting – might this invoke a form of the paradox of repression in which government officials witness first-hand the need for non-discrimination laws and are more compelled to enact such laws (Astolfi, 2018)? What can we learn from situations such as Louisiana’s recent attempts to repress pipeline protests through new legislation which deems oil pipeline construction sites ‘critical infrastructure’ and ‘makes trespassing near “critical infrastructure” a felony carrying several years in prison, rather than a misdemeanor’ (Kamenetz, 2018: para. 12)? This is not unlike other attempts to curb protests throughout the country, often aimed at constraining tactics common to urban activism such as blocking streets and gathering on sidewalks (Gabbatt, 2017).

Rather than facing a totalitarian state regime, US urban communities are situated in a democratic society where the role of oppressor has been decentralised and deeply embedded into multiple public and private institutions and systems. The ‘professionalisation’ of activism and community organising has fragmented people power, moving it off the shoulders of the many onto the job descriptions of the few (INCITE!, 2007). In this modern context we need information about the use of both standard and non-standard channels to advance equity, and how to prepare for, endure, and perhaps even leverage, repression from multiple actors. I am hopeful that publications such as The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements will set the stage for future collaborations between urban and peace studies to help build our collective knowledge and toolkits.


  Astolfi, C (2018) Cuyahoga County Council passes anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ community. 25 September. Available at: (accessed 26 September 2018). 
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  Bowen, WM, Dunn, RA, Kasdan, DO (2010) What is ‘Urban Studies’? Context, internal structure, and content. Journal of Urban Affairs 32(2): 199–227. 
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  Gabbatt, A (2017) Anti-protest bills would ‘attack right to speak out’ under Donald Trump. The Guardian, 8 May. Available at: (accessed 10 November 2018). 
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  INCITE! (ed.) (2007) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 
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  Kamenetz, A (2018) The Fight to Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline Continues – In the Bayous of Louisiana. The Nation, 6 September. Available at: (accessed 10 November 2018). 
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  King, ML (1963) Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Philadelphia, PA: American Friends Service Committee. 
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