How to stage effective protests in the 21st century

Discussions how to reform America frequently end on one set of rocks:  the ineffectiveness of mass protests in 21st century America.  In this post Joshua Keating explains the problem (“Do protests ever work?“, blog of Foreign Policy, 2 April 2009 ):

Collins names Gandhi’s march to the sea and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington as the ultimate effective demonstrations in this sense. They mobilized huge groups in support of a definable and achievable goal rather than opposing an amorphous concept like “capitalism.”

The fact that much of the street activism against the U.S. war in Iraq has been led by a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism is a good indication of why the antiwar movement has never really been a factor in debates over U.S. foreign policy. Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade the environment to capital punishment.

… Recent examples of effective protests would be the unbelievably effective demonstrations in Pakistan that led to the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudry or the pro-Thaksin demonstrators who have Thailand’s government on the brink of capitulation. Strangely, it also seems to be the case that demonstrations in partially free or inconsistently democratic societies tend to be the most effective.

Matthew Yglesias’ blog features many of the best comment threads I’ve seen on the Internet.  Frequently better than his posts.  Here are selected comments from his post about Keating’s article, in 5 sections.

  1. About goals
  2. About tactics
  3. Who is protesting?
  4. Why are people protesting?
  5. About Violence

(1)  About goals

Ian, #38:

  • Montgomery Bus Boycott: Racial segregation on its public transit system
  • Selma: Equal voting rights in Selma

MLK & co. had a big broad issue in mind, but narrowly targeted protests proved extremely effective.

Ragout, #53

In line with Matt’s point, let me note that King’s 1963 march was called “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It was organized around a list of demands; covering everything from desegregating schools to a higher minimum wage.

lfv, #5

… the things Ghandi and King fought for and won were things that honest, reasonable people overwhelming agree are right. Ending capitalism? Really? Or world trade? OK. Whatever you say.

(2)  About tactics

StevenAttewell, #45

(a) Old-school protests tended to be rather undemocratic in organization, that’s the idea of militancy. If you go back to the ‘63 March on Washington, you didn’t get to speak if the organizing committee didn’t like what you had to say, and you didn’t get to carry a sign if it wasn’t one of the signs approved by the organizers. Ultimately, what we need to jettison is the idea that protest marches are a vehicle for individual self-expression. They’re not; they’re a demonstration of collective power, and they require organization. (f that means some elements get excluded, too bad.

(b) Old-school protests tended to be very culturally square, before the advent of the counter-culture. Everyone wore their Sunday best because the idea was to present the march as representative of the respectable body public, not a bunch of yahoos who could be dismissed. So maybe we need to dress up for protests?

(c) Marches have to be understood as a tactical weapon, not an end to themselves. The old school civil rights marches had specific purposes – desegregate this facility, register these voters, pass this law, and in the larger sense, change public opinion, pressure public officials, and mobilize activists. That way, the protest is tied to a goal that can be achieved. But you do have to do other things – hence, you hold a protest, and then you mobilize the attendees to register to vote, to sign ballot initiatives, to knock on doors, etc. In this respect, the march is merely part of the movement instead of the march being the movement.

Henry B, #49

Another difference between the civil rights movement and today: look at that photo next to your post. They were all wearing suits. Contrast that to today’s protesters, who look like rabble and thus can be easily dismissed. This goes along with the point about non-violent resistance. Wearing suits, being gentlemen and ladies, is part of a strategy to make the wider public take you seriously. The essential component of that strategy is non-violent resistance, but wearing suits and singing hymns surely doesn’t hurt.

(3)  Who is protesting?

Dan Kervick, #15

… To get the powerful to take notice to any sort of mass movement, that movement needs to present a show of potential political force that is actually a threat to the power of those that are in charge, a threat that, if not addressed, has the capacity to turn a potential force into an actual force that can seriously damage the interests of those powerful elites, whether through violence or other forms of collective social action. The protesters have to appear as a political force that has the capacity to disrupt the social order: to stop very large numbers of people from working, or from paying their taxes, or from obeying the law.

Most of the protests we saw during the Iraq War conveyed just the opposite message. They gathered together scattered, motley gangs of the marginal. Everything about what the protesters did reeked of the message, “We are marginal and are very likely to stay that way. We even like being marginal.” Why would anybody fear them or feel that attention must be paid to them? Most of these protests are self-indulgent celebrations of alienation, not serious attempts to display the potential to seize power. …

wiley, #36

The civil rights marches were disciplined and informed by a commitment that is lacking in current marches. The civil rights movement was populist and organizers worked with people from all walks of life. They spent time with a lot of people who were different from themselves, in a lot of settings for years, before the marches started. It was a genuine grassroots movement that people were dedicated to. Today’s marches seem to be organized around identity politics and little bonding takes place around the issues. They are transient, because they are transient. However dedicated organizers may be, they aren’t so involved the masses. They’re focused on the media.

Fred, #46

When I saw the picture accompanying this post, I almost thought Matt was going to say that black people are what’s missing from today’s protests, which are almost entirely made up of upper middle class white kids.

(4)  Why are people protesting?

Mike Collins, #18

So, I’ve been on both sides of protests, and attending them left me with a bad taste in my mouth because they were … masturbatory. In PA, we used to have a lot of Mumia Abu-Jamal rallies, and at the ones I went to, Mumia was pretty much peripheral – people came to oppose racism, or war, or marijuana laws, or whatever else … I think the protest has become the preferred form in western democracies because it’s theatrical, and doesn’t involve any real commitment.

There are, after all, a bunch of other tools for change: boycotting, voter registration, sit-ins, strikes, pamphleteering, arguing legal cases, creating legal cases, and the successful examples listed above (Gandhi and King both being examples of this), used protests ALONG with a variety of other mechanisms during a long and often frustrating process of change.

I think what’s really happened is that protests in the western world, where the governments are well established democracies and have mechanisms for popular input into the system, have become a form of theatrical letting-out-of-air. They make the protestors feel good are noisy, but the system keeps moving because the system can shrug off that kind of criticism. The problem isn’t so much that the protests are neutered … as that the protestors have stopped using other mechanisms available for social change.

Led, #27

Exactly. It’s about self-indulgent pleasure from expressing virtue rather than a calculated, disciplined, strategic plan to achieve something concrete. I’m sure a lot of the people that engage in those types of protests mean well and care a lot, but they are ultimately just wanking.

(5)  About violence

soullite, #1

Show men a man who won his freedom through peace. I’ll show you 100 who won it through violence. The truth is, MLK and Ghandi had it easy. Both had large, semi-violent networks capable of playing ‘bad cop’ to their ‘good cop’. Without that, neither would have achieved anything.

MNPundit, #2

I wouldn’t say they had it easy, or that their movements would have been ineffectual without the undercurrent of violence by other movements, but you have a point. After all that story today where Obama told the CEOs that he was the only thing standing between them an the pitchforks (so it was time to make some concessions).  With the very real threat of violence by an angry mob (and the fact that the majority of the populace would probably not care much if the CEOs were beaten up) it would have been a very different meeting.

JohnMcC, #7

In ref to Mr Soullite (#1), I think it was a bitter, pro-imperial Winston Churchill who speculated that if the Axis had won WW 2, Ghandi would have never freed India from the Japanese Empire. An accurate observation I think. …

rapier, #12

… Suppressing public protest has become a fetish of law enforcement and really of the elites. Any planned protest will be filled with police informers who often become provocateurs to insure physical suppression is required. Laws are proliferating endlessly to control public gatherings. In East Lansing right now to head off another basketball riot, but which will serve handily for any groups in the future. These championship riots are erstwhile basis of these laws but make no mistake the police are fully aware of their utility in all circumstances. …

Greg, #25

… Gandhi’s protests are glorified because they allow the British to feel that they might have lost India, but at least they handed it over to good people. They also allow the Indians to delude themselves into thinking … that they won their own independence. You want to know which fucking protest did the most to bring independence to the European colonies? … Matt would rather live in the cloud cuckoo land where nonviolent civil disobedience won the day. But that doesn’t change the fact that the most effective protest against colonialism was Yamashita’s.

{From Wikipedia:  General Tomoyuki Yamashita (山下 奉文) was a general of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. He was most famous for conquering the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore, earning the nickname “The Tiger of Malaya”.}

Shmoe, #41

… But it should be remembered that nonviolence vs. armed resistance is generally not an either/or proposal. Both Gandhi and Dr.King had parallel, more violent movements both competing and in tacit, defacto conspiracies with them. This dynamic is important and overlooked, but documented. …

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about solutions, ways to reform America:

  1. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  2. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008
  3. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008  
  5. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  6. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  7. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  8. What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
  9. What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008

11 thoughts on “How to stage effective protests in the 21st century

  1. Pete

    Martin Luther King realized that while the more extreme elements of the Jim Crow opposition were willing and able to kill, terrorize and brutalize the Civil Rights marchers and members of his movement, the vast majority of Americans were not. He gambled and won on the basic decency of everyday people, betting that a majority of citizens would be sympathetic to the plight of black Americans, and moved to demand reform. Gandhi made much the same calculation with the British in India.

    As Boyd has shown us, weakness can indeed be powerful, but it is not all-powerful, all the time. Preconditions for its success exist. A simple thought experiment proves this to be so. Imagine Dr. King protesting as he did in Soviet Russia of the 1930s. Stalin would have crushed the protests, imprisoned and perhaps killed King, and that would have been that.

    The advent of television proved another critical dimension; the mandarins of the PRC tried to crush Teineman Square quickly – before knowledge of it got to the outside world, but those images of one man facing down a tank made it out in time. TV coverage was critical to the success of Dr. King’s movement. News reels and newspapers played similar role in Gandhi’s eventual triumph as well.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The extent of the “power of weakness” (the ability of insurgents to defeat stronger foreign occupiers) is debated. On one hand we have common sense, which says that a weak opponent will be crushed by a sufficiently strong and cold opponent. This is well expressed in Harry Turtledove’s short story “The Last Article” (1988): if the NAZI’s had won WWII, how successful would Gandhi have been against them?

    On the other side is Martin van Creveld. In Chapter 6 of his mega-brilliant “The Changing Face of War” suggests that even the NAZI’s would have found rising violent opposition in their occupied nations, which might have forced them out over time. I will not attempt to summarize this here; I strongly recommend reading the book.

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  2. Chet

    Pete — absolutely. Boyd suggested that we want to employ tactics that serve three purposes: pump up our own morale, degrade that of our opponents, and attract the uncommitted to our cause. This can be very powerful — when you can find ways to do it.

    It doesn’t always have to be the power of weakness, although under suitable conditions — lots of people agree that our cause is just, we demonstrate that we’re willing to die for it, we don’t do a lot of damage to potential allies or the uncommitted (or incommensurate damage to our opponents), and there’s a medium to transmit our actions to the wider world — we can collapse the willingness of populations to oppose us.

    At other times, daring, clever and effective military actions may achieve results — the Robin Hood effect. Successful insurgencies often have both weapons in their tool kit. The trick is that somebody has to sense when to use which tactic in order to achieve Boyd’s objectives.

    Your thought experiment is telling, and would have applied equally well to any place in Hitler’s empire. On the other hand, what could MLK (or a Jewish cognate) have done once Hitler or Stalin had consolidated his power?

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  3. Duncan Kinder

    Regarding the power of weakness, consider Drug cartels keep Catholic officials in fear

    According to the article:

    As legislators demanded an investigation and associates expressed concern for Gonzalez’s safety, church officials said they were taking steps to protect the senior cleric.

    Father Manuel Corral, a spokesman for the Mexican Bishops Conference, said Monday that priests in eight Mexican states have been threatened with harm or death, presumably by drug traffickers. Although the threats are anonymous, he said, most come via missives and third-party go-betweens when priests have attempted to turn members of their parishes away from the traffickers and use of drugs.

    “It’s always when the priests denounce violence, injustice and crime, or when we try to get our people to leave the narco-menudeo,” or drug street sales, Corral said in an interview.

    A small number of priests have had to be transferred from their churches because of threats, but most traffickers remain discreet.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for posting this. It’s easy to forget that Mexico’s response to the drug cartels might be broader than Army and police action.

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  4. slapout9

    A couple of points. One: The Montgomery bus boycott was aimed at an Economic target and this had a lot more to do with it’s success than people realize. Two: The groups were often trained on how to dress,act and respond. They were often guided by legal advice from well versed black attorneys. Three: They had music, yes music the protest songs constantly played on the air waves were very powerfull. how many protest songs have you heard about Iraq? Joan Baez in particular with the song 4 little girls about the Birmingham church bombings in which 4 little black girls were killed on their way to church had grave psychological impacts.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: All great points, re-enforcing the theme that successfully protests require both a substantial infrastructure and multi-dimensional (e.g., music, economics, public relations) planning. They just don’t happen by themselves. Not in America during the 1770’s, nor in America today.

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  5. stupid

    “Strangely, it also seems to be the case that demonstrations in partially free or inconsistently democratic societies tend to be the most effective.”

    This isn’t strange. Different political systems have different ways of showing that things are getting done. As the system gets ‘more free’, public sentiment is expressed through civil society groups, which do not need to ‘hit the streets’; see Obama’s election campaign (and that of many other politicians who built coalitions in strong democracies). As the system gets ‘less free’ violent demonstrations become more likely, and the response is the forcible outster of an unresponsive government via coup from a faction seeking to maintain (or restore) order, as happened in Madagascar recently.

    Protests fill the gap, and are effective in countries where votes are not necessarily reflective of mass political sentiment, and are a warning to leaders to ensure that the votes are fairly counted in the next election. When strong democratic institutions were put into place, the ‘movements’ Ghandi and MLK formed were no longer necessary or effective.

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  6. Guy

    A few quick jottings (so may contain errors):

    (a) There was a wide awareness amongst the Imperial elite that the UK could not remain in India, this was completely lacking amongst the Imperial rank and file. Gaining the support of the masses is essential but ultimately in a peaceful campaign it is the elites that need persuading. This is particularly true when your elites are fairly undivided and have a core set of beliefs all adhere to.

    (b) It took a large scale war to trigger independence at that particular time-point. This is particularly true for returning African soldiers who’d served w/ the 14th Army in Burma but holds true for many Indians themselves. Without the mass mobilisation (2 million plus Indian volunteers) many Indians would never have gained the training or experience necessary (mass mobilisation meant the inclusion of non-warrior castes and tribes in the Army).

    (c) It took Gandhi and co. years and years of planning, dissemination of ideology etc. Peaceful protests will almost never succeed without a large scale plan and time period.

    (d) It also took the neutering of their opponents in the war (Bose and the INA who by fighting for the Japanese lost support and were unable to influence India itself). Without that the message was diffused and confused.

    (e) For all the IS (Internal Security) experience of the British Empire it was lacking in the manpower, will, equipment and training necessary post-WW2. Most British units needed to be disbanded quickly and almost all were optimised for fighting an all-arms conventional campaign in Burma rather than urban pacification. The Special Forces necessary were also at that time unavailable being engaged in IS in places like Indonesia and Indochina.

    Gandhi’s success is at least partly owed to being in the right place at the right time. He was a ‘safe’ candidate to whom the country could be handed by a bankrupt UK on the verge of collapse (1: India cost more than it earned. 2: The UK was having to be bailed out in order to fight in Greece at this time, let alone India). It looked good, felt good, meant a UK withdrawal could be largely peaceful and equanimous. Gandhi didn’t ‘push’ so much as ‘catch’.

    In a side note certain historians have speculated that the American Revolution was preceded by a period of secret collusion and planning by the Rebels with the French. Hugh Bicheno’s ‘Rebels and Redcoats’ being the most accessible of these. Peaceful revolutions do not make themselves overnight.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this detailed and valuable comment! Note, however, that the Brits would have almost certainly lost India anyway. See Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s “Changing Face of War” (2006), speaking of attempt by foreigners to hold foreign lands:

    What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s explusion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

    Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to hold thier conquests.

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  7. Duncan Kinder

    In a side note certain historians have speculated that the American Revolution was preceded by a period of secret collusion and planning by the Rebels with the French.

    Read Beaumarchais and the American Revolution

    Best remember as the playwright who penned The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, upon which the two operas were based, Beaumarchais also was an adventurer who supplied the rebelling colonists with guns before Saratoga.

    Beaumarchais’ gun running activities were post Lexington and Concord, but evidence covert French support for the rebellion prior to its officially endorsing it.

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  8. mistah charley, ph.d.

    I see no one has yet mentioned perhaps the most consequential public protest in the U.S. in recent history, the notorious November 22, 2000 “Brooks Brothers Riot” that stopped the Dade County vote counting. There’s a brief Wikipedia article on it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s an interesting thought about its significance. Note that accounts of this incident differ, esp as to whether this was a recount or official de-count — of which there is a large history in the US. There is a Wikipedia entry, but this exactly the sort of issue for which Wikipedia is nearly useless (except as a partial source of links).

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  9. bc

    It’s important to distinguish between two cases. There are protests by the poor and powerless who basically are making a fairness argument to the middle class, (who will pay for said fairness), and some controlling elites. There are, in contradistinction, protests by a pissed off middle class (Tea parties probably qualify here). The big difference is that controlling elites do not fear the poor. They do worry about the middle class, because if these people perceive they might be rendered poor, they will fight like tigers to maintain status. A secure middle class may occasionally be generous to the poor for fairness sake, but a threatened middle class will rip the heads off the controlling elites before descending to poverty.

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  10. Greenwald explains "What's behind the scorn for the Wall Street protests?" Post author

    What’s behind the scorn for the Wall Street protests?“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 28 September 2011 — Opening (links not included):

    It’s unsurprising that establishment media outlets have been condescending, dismissive and scornful of the ongoing protests on Wall Street. Any entity that declares itself an adversary of prevailing institutional power is going to be viewed with hostility by establishment-serving institutions and their loyalists. That’s just the nature of protests that take place outside approved channels, an inevitable by-product of disruptive dissent: those who are most vested in safeguarding and legitimizing establishment prerogatives (which, by definition, includes establishment media outlets) are going to be hostile to those challenges. As the virtually universal disdain in these same circles for WikiLeaks (and, before that, for the Iraq War protests) demonstrated: the more effectively adversarial it is, the more establishment hostility it’s going to provoke.

    Nor is it surprising that much of the most vocal criticisms of the Wall Street protests has come from some self-identified progressives, who one might think would be instinctively sympathetic to the substantive message of the protesters. In an excellent analysis entitled “Why Establishment Media & the Power Elite Loathe Occupy Wall Street,” Kevin Gosztola chronicles how much of the most scornful criticisms have come from Democratic partisans who — like the politicians to whom they devote their fealty — feign populist opposition to Wall Street for political gain. …

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