When it comes to protest tactics, what actually works?
Even before Trump got elected, movements to revive political protests in this country were beefy-juicy.
Black Lives Matter. Occupy Wall Street. The Dakota Access Pipeline. These are all causes people showed up in droves to support, arguably to a much greater extent than people have since social justice movements like civil rights, women's rights and worker's rights exploded in the '60s.
But, given there are so many things to protest nowadays, and so many ways to do it, an important question to ask ourselves as we're glittering-our banners and memorizing our chants is: what actually works here, anyway?
How loud, unruly and in-your-face should protests be? What kinds of issues are so important that they demand disruption? Or are milder, more peaceful protests really the way to go?
Lots of researchers are attempting to answer these questions. One triad, Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Stanford University, respectively, along with doctoral student Chloe Kovacheff, ran a series of Amazon Mechanical Turk studies in which they asked study participants to react to various vignettes of different types of protests. One type was a relatively sedate protest, with nothing more dramatic than sign-holding and chanting going on. Another was an anti-Trump protest that took place at a Trump election rally, and yet another was a Black Lives Matter protest. A final type demonstrated more extreme protest tactics, such as blocking people from traffic or assembly or even some cases, inciting violence.
Most people tend to assume that this last type — disruptive protests — are the most effective at getting attention from press and the public, and that they are, therefore, the most successful kind. After all, many protests that shook up the communities they took place in, and even occasionally turned dramatic or violent, are the kind that lead to actual change in the '60s; the kind people still talk about today as examples of the "power of the people."
However, that's not what the researchers found to be true of protests today.
Instead, they discovered that extreme protest tactics led people oppose the cause people were rallying behind. In one example, participants actually increased their support for Trump after seeing how anti-Trump protestors acted, a finding that's is consistent with many people's theory that exposure to an extreme protest event risks creating a public opinion backlash where people feel the opposite way protestors are trying to get them to. Tactics like blocking traffic, fighting, rioting and being generally disruptive can actually turn people away from your cause, even if they might have supported it otherwise. This effect is true for people across all political orientations.
Meanwhile, milder protest tactics tend to make the public align with the cause, as opposed to resist it.
Willer thinks this is because when people see a protest, they mentally assess whether they can see themselves identifying with the protestors. What's happening inside their heads seems to be "I agree with their cause, but the way they're doing this is not how I'd have done it."
It's really a matter of empathy; whether you feel like you could be there with protestors, doing what they're doing. Could you personally stop traffic? Could you riot? Or could you personally link arms with a bunch of people and chant "Black Lives Matter?" The answer is personal and entirely up to you, but most people seem to feel that they cannot see themselves engaging in extreme modes of protest that inconvenience onlookers or the general public.
All this suggests that protestors and protests have an inherent dilemma they must face. If extreme tactics don't work, how do they get attention for their cause? Extreme protests get media attention, but are less effective. Milder tactics are more well-received, but get less media attention. Because of this, protestors today often have to choose between visibility and effectiveness.
However, there is a way to have both.
Protests like the recent Women's March, which was peaceful, yet hugely visible on account of its size, are rare cases where mild tactics get the message out to a wide and generally receptive audience. The key here seems to be keeping things copacetic and level-headed, while at the same time making headlines due to participation. It's not easy to create something like that, but ... good things aren't easy to come by, unless they're like, burritos or something.
All that said though, there are many other scholars who believe that drama and extreme tactics in a protest are necessary.
L.A. Kauffman, a journalist who has spent decades covering activist movements and the author the book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism brought up several examples of how obnoxious, inconvenient protests can actually work. One group called ACT UP used such tactics to force politicians into addressing the AIDS crisis in the '90s.
“They were rude, they were obnoxious, they used language and imagery that was intended to shock and offend,” said Kauffman. “They used tactics that inconvenienced ordinary commuters, like when they blocked the Golden Gate Bridge. They occupied government offices, they threw the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn. None of their tactics were designed to appeal to some mythical undecided bystander and persuade them of the rightness of ACT UP’s cause — ACT UP was looking to put pressure on those who had the power to make decisions that affected specific policy changes that they wanted to see. They were looking to put decision-makers in a dilemma. They were not looking to gain popular approval.”
Kauffman is adamant that their radical approach is what made them successful: eventually, ACT UP advocates got what they wanted: direct access to government officials, who simply couldn’t afford to ignore them any longer.
So, when it comes to what works and what doesn't, perhaps the most important thing is not whether a protest is mild or extreme, but what the individual circumstances of the cause are. With the Women's March, a gentler approached based more on size than force seemed to fit the bill, but when it comes to more niche issues that are too often ignored by politicians, it's possible that a little bit of in-your-face-ness is just what the doctor ordered.