avatar
Thinking About Protest Tactics


What reasons might there be to choose one set of protest tactics over another?

For example, suppose a group of activists is meeting to organize a protest demanding that some policy recently instituted by city council be rescinded. One activist at the meeting proposes a confrontational and disruptive type of protest, such as trying to "shut down" a city council meeting. Another proposes a petition drive, supplemented by a rally with prominent speakers in a visible public location. A third activist proposes a series of meetings with sympathetic city councilors and a sustained publicity campaign. Assuming we can’t do all three, either because we have limited resources or because they actually conflict with each other, how do we choose which tactic to adopt?

For some people, these decisions are made almost as an automatic reflex: they support the tactics they always support, and view other tactics with disdain. Perhaps they think that the only way to have a real impact is by working with elected officials, or that "direct action" is the only thing that ever works, or that being "too confrontational" just alienates potential supporters, which is always bad, or whatever. But, arguably, being guided by these "knee-jerk" responses is not the best way for a group of activists to make such a decision. I would suggest that the most pertinent criterion for making such a decision is: "which of these tactics can best advance our aims?"

A tactic is a method for implementing a strategy. A strategy is a fairly long-range plan, designed to overcome whatever opposition stands in the way of achieving some goal. A strategy, in other words, is a plan for winning; and a tactic is a measure taken to carry out that plan.

So, the first thing to do is to gain clarity about one’s goals. What does "winning" mean, in this context? Do we want to defeat the policy we oppose, or just express our opposition to it? Are we trying to win support for an alternative policy, or just defeat the current one? Do we think a victory against the policy is possible, or do we think the best that we can hope to do is publicly register our disapproval of it?

Once we’re clear about what we are trying to accomplish, it becomes much easier to develop a strategy for realizing that goal. We have to think about who opposes the realization of our aim, how much importance they attach to defeating our efforts, and what resources they can bring to bear against us. And we need to think about who sides with us, or could be made to side with us, how committed they are to our agenda, and what political resources we can mobilize to advance our cause. Once we have thought through these considerations, we should be in a position to put together a strategic plan for enhancing and strengthening our political resources, neutralizing or overcoming the political resources of our adversaries, and taking the steps necessary to achieve our goals.

There’s a lot to say about developing a long-range, overall strategy for winning an activist campaign. But I want to focus on the issue of tactics (which, obviously, is closely related to the issue of strategy).

How do we pick and choose which tactics to deploy in our strategy?

The first thing to do is to consider the full array of effects that can be produced by protest tactics. Every tactic produces one or more effects or impacts. When choosing between tactics, we have to keep in mind the effects we need to produce in order to carry out our strategy.

I’m going to highlight six of the most prominent effects that protest actions can produce, but there are certainly others. Note that, depending on the circumstances, any given tactic can produce many different effects.

1. "Witnessing" effects. These effects are not really designed to have a major practical impact on what happens; rather, they are intended to assert a moral principle and highlight some wrong that might otherwise go undenounced. Witnessing effects are moral effects, rather than straightforwardly political-strategic ones. The sort of tactic that one might use to produce a witnessing effect might be a silent vigil, or possibly a hunger strike, or a refusal to pay taxes or serve in the military. In principle, it is usually not seen as important whether 5 people or 500 participate, because morality is not about numbers in this way. (In my experience, I have noticed that religiously motivated people tend to attach more importance to witnessing effects than do other activists.)

2. "Expressive" effects. When we protest to produce "expressive" effects, we are trying to "raise our voices" in order to vent our anger or to express our grief or indignation in a public way. A protest has expressive effects when it "makes our point" or gives us a chance to "speak up" and make our voices heard.

3. "Argumentative" effects. Whereas some protest tactics "make a point" by expressing rage or grief or indignation (expressive effects), others do something importantly different: they make arguments. When a protest has argumentative effects, it feeds arguments (by which I mean reasons for or against some policy or law) into the public debate. The key difference between "expressive" and "argumentative" protest effects is that argumentative protests are aimed at an audience that one hopes to convince or "win over." The L.A. Riots had expressive effects, insofar as they expressed feelings of rage and indignation, but they didn’t try to win anyone over with convincing arguments. Few if any participants were trying to make a case to a wider audience for some proposed social change. But some protest actions do aim to make such a case. The effects they aim to produce, then, are "argumentative" effects. Because they are aiming their arguments at a wider audience, sympathetic media coverage is often sought by those trying to produce these effects (whereas coverage may be unnecessary to produce expressive effects).

4. "Community-Building" effects. Some protests have the effect of forging bonds of solidarity or community between people who might otherwise have felt isolated, like "a voice in the wilderness." Community-building effects foster a sense of common purpose and encourage participants to feel like they are part of "something bigger," a movement with which they can identify. These effects require relatively substantial numbers; generally, the more people, the better.

5. "Demonstrative" effects. Some protests, especially protests organized by large institutions, like the Canadian Labour Congress or the Canadian Federation of Students, are designed to produced "demonstrative" effects. By this I mean, they are designed to show that some agenda has mass support, usually with a view to trying to motivate elected officials to respond to that sentiment. Often, the main reason to produce demonstrative effects is to equip lobbyists with credibility when they seek to pressure politicians. The tactic most often used to produce demonstrative effects is the mass demonstration, especially the "National Day of Action." A large-scale petition campaign (such as those pursued on the internet by "Avaaz") can also aim to produce these effects. A campaign designed to produce demonstrative effects can backfire, if the numbers are disappointing. More generally, advocates of demonstrative protest tactics may sometimes overestimate the responsiveness of politicians to public sentiment. (Most people believe that elite political decision-makers are more responsive to elite opinion than to mass public opinion, and there is ample evidence to support that assessment.)

6. "Disruptive" effects. Some protest actions are designed to maximally disrupt (or, more generally, to impose costs on) some institution or practice. One produces disruptive effects by getting in the way of something in one way or another. The classic example is the general strike, which aims to shut down the economy. But one can also produce disruptive effects on a smaller scale by staging a sit-in in a welfare office, or by sabotaging a construction site, or (on a different level) by boycotting a product or brand. The idea behind disruptive protest tactics is to raise the costs (financial or otherwise) associated with carrying out policies opposed by protesters, i.e., to create an incentive for policy makers to change the policy.

With these different effects in mind, and with clarity about the goals we are trying to achieve, we are in a good position to begin evaluating particular tactics.

Schematically, one can represent the kind of thinking needed as a three-step process:

First, we identify the effects that we need to produce in order to achieve victory in our struggle.

Do we need to get the support of City Councilors? Or is it enough that they are intimidated by our capacity to impose costs on them (such as by making them seem incompetent, or by making it impossible for them to carry out their plans)? Do we need to mobilize thousands of people? Or do we really just need a few highly motivated people willing to engage in risky behavior? Or do we instead need broad public sympathy more than we need active participants in our campaign? Do we think we need to create a sense that there is a movement for people to join, to motivate wider participation? Or is it enough that a small number of us can use creative and "media-savvy" tactics to get a hearing in the public sphere for some of the arguments we think are being ignored by politicians and the mainstream media? And so on. There are thousands of things that we can do through protest. The question is: what things do we absolutely have to do, if our strategy is to be successful?

Second, once we know what effects we need to produce, we can rank them in importance from most important to least important.

For instance, we might think that the most important objective we need to attain is making implementation of a new policy seem to authorities like it is more trouble than it is worth. But we may also want to gain mass support, in terms of sympathetic public opinion. Because these may sometimes be incompatible (as when a strike is the best way to be disruptive, but not a good way to gain public sympathy), we need to know which of these effects is more important, and why, so that we know which one is worth sacrificing, if we can’t do both at the same time.

Third, for each tactical decision we make (march? or rally? or both?; petition drive? or sit-in?; sabotage? or boycott?; etc.), we should be sure that we always shape our tactics in a way that is consistent with our actual priorities.

There is a natural tendency to want to be liked, but is being popular the best way to wage a successful struggle? Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no. If being disruptive turns public opinion against a group of activists, but ends up leading to victory (because, as they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease), then serious activists should be ready to adopt disruptive tactics, and just accept that they are going to be subjected to some criticism and hostility. The most effective activists (like Martin Luther King, Jr.) are vilified and harassed during their lifetimes, and only get elevated to saintly status once their activism is no longer threatening to the powerful. On the other hand, if we cannot achieve victory unless we build a broad alliance of supporters, we have to choose tactics consistent with that aim, even if we personally think a more militant approach would be ideal. Again, tactics have to be tailored to maximize our chance of producing the effects we need to produce in order to carry out a winning strategy. There is no substitute for a realistic and sober analysis of the forces we are up against, and the means at our disposal for defeating those forces.

(In the course of a longer-term campaign, these steps will have to be cycled through again and again, adjusting goals, tactics, and strategy in light of experience, and in light of changes in the balance of forces.)

In conclusion, let me just point out that this kind of strategic analysis can be very complicated. The simple formulas I’m proposing here are just guides to help people get started on this kind of thinking, if it is new to them. But the best way to develop an effective strategy, and to identify effective tactics, is to enter into an explicit discussion of the strategical and tactical dilemmas confronting us. That kind of discussion can sometimes seem like a waste of time, but it seldom is. What’s really a waste of time is embarking on an activist campaign without having put collective thought and discussion into formulating a strategy that has a realistic chance of winning.

Steve D’Arcy <radicalism [at] gmail.com>

(The author is a member of the London Project for a Participatory Society: <http://radicalblogs.org/lpps> ).

Leave a comment