Civil Disobedience and Nonviolent Direct Action in the United States since 2001

This research sets out to address democratic deficits as well as the pacification of activism in the United States through a study of how the current legal, judicial and police constraints are shaping the way civil disobedience and non-violent direct action have been strategized, produced and performed by left-wing political groups in the United States since 2001.

For the past two decades, non-violent direct action, as well as more “conventional” forms of political activism (leafleting, rallies), have increasingly been construed as potential acts of domestic terrorism while the repressive repertoire of police forces has been combining militarized means of coercion with a logic of pacification by employing “strategic incapacitation” – a form of social control that seeks to maintain public order by adopting preventive measures and by targeting those deemed most likely to cause disruption; by resorting to surveillance, information sharing and control of public space; and by involving actors traditionally external to the field of policing.

Meanwhile, civil disobedience in the United States seems to have become if not legitimate, at least increasingly accepted as a democratic practice due to its sustained bond with the reform and social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. While history demonstrates that the notion has a strong capacity for adaptation, its level of institutionalization within the American repertoire of contention has become widely discussed amongst scholars and activists. Some of them believe that the practice, in its liberal acception, has become ineffectual. These debates are taking place at a time when the Trump administration has heightened the stakes for the US left, and when the issue of political violence has resurfaced in the American political arena to become a source of dissension – as the backlash to antifascist organizing can attest.

Therefore, this project focuses on the practical dilemmas and on the strategic choices left-wing political groups face when organizing non-violent direct actions and civil disobedience. It adopts an interdisciplinary approach that combines Political Sociology, History, and Critical Theory, and is informed by a fieldwork that spanned from October 2016 to June 2018 as well as semi-structured interviews with activists, community organizers, non-profit workers, cause lawyers and academics.