Reactive, cost-beneficial or undermining legitimacy: how disempowered protestors explain their part in violent clashes with the state

Yair Yassan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Among cases of violent clashes between states and citizens, that of disempowered minorities is particularly paradoxical. The use of violence can negatively undermine the protest’s public legitimacy, and violence is likely also to extract a personal price from those using it, especially from disempowered protestors. Yet, violent clashes occur. This article, based on sixty in-depth, semi-structured interviews with protest activists, twenty of them Israelis of Ethiopian descent, focuses on ex-post explanations of disempowered protestors for their part in violent clashes with the state. Three non-mutually exclusive explanations can be offered: First, violence may be described as reactive, take place in clashes with the police during demonstrations, and therefore not a matter of strategy. Second, violent clashes can be perceived retrospectively as cost-beneficial, even if they were not a planned strategy. The potential benefit of raising problems to social discourse, despite the high cost of violence, can explain that. Finally, violent clashes can indicate undermining distinct components of state legitimacy. A combined analysis of the current case study, and of findings from other struggle arenas worldwide, provides a broad picture that could be generalized: while disempowered protestors tend to undermine state legitimacy based on the components trust, procedural justice, distributive justice, and effectiveness, they usually would not tend to undermine legitimacy based on the components identification and legality. The case of the Israelis of Ethiopian descent may be the exception that proves the rule, regarding trust and ex-post explanations for violent clashes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)478-494
Number of pages17
JournalSocial Movement Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2021


  • Disempowered Minorities
  • Police
  • State Legitimacy
  • Trust
  • Violent Clashes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Sociology and Political Science


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