Protest, strategy, and disruption

This is the first part of my follow-up to the last post. Since I promised in that post that I would have more to say, in the future, about strategy, tactics, and disruption, in a more general post that wasn’t about the I-93 action.

I’ve heard any number of times before, but especially over the last few days, that protests that inconvenience people are bad for the cause because they don’t win over “fence-sitters” or otherwise make previously-opposed people change their views. This argument assumes that the strategy of protest is about convincing your opposition, or at least about convincing the wavering middle.

This isn’t always incorrect – I’ve seen protests, typically as one prong of multi-pronged campaigns, where this was absolutely the goal. For instance, I was once a medic at a campaign against expanding a gas pipeline. There was a direct action prong going on to delay the pipeline, a legal prong to block it through the court system using the time gained by the direct action prong, an evidence-gathering prong to support the legal prong, and a public outreach prong. The last of these involved a series of friendly, accessible, totally legal rallies, in public spaces, to educate, convince, and recruit passers-by. It involved being eminently reasonable, showing no anger, armed with data and talking points and fliers. It was exactly the sort of protesting that apparently many people think all protesting should be. The obvious caveat though, is that it wasn’t all that was happening. It was one tactic in an overall strategy.

Most individual protests that I’ve experienced are NOT designed to win over the hearts and minds of fence-sitters and mild opposition. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t strategic, but that they play into campaign or movement strategy in a different way.

So, if that’s not the point of a given protest, what is? I’ve included a list of possibilities below. This list is not all-inclusive, it’s just what I could think of off the top of my head. Any given protest might be going for one or several of these, and which a protest is going for will depend on resources, stage of the movement, philosophy of the movement, and more.

– It might be meant to mobilize and energize the people who already agree with the cause but aren’t doing anything about it, to get them participating in some way (whether that’s protest or not).

– It might be a show of power through numbers (either numbers in one location, or distributed over several simultaneously. Look how many people care enough about this issue to come out and march in the street! Many of those people probably vote, and those that don’t might have influence over people that do – elected officials would do well to notice.

– It might be an opportunity to connect people from different parts of the movement who are working on similar things, so that they can work together in the future.

– It might be an attempt to actually delay or halt something, like the building of a pipeline or the operation of a coal mine – either to buy time for people who are working some non-protest end, or to cause the people involved to decide that this project isn’t worth it.

– It might be meant to illustrate how absurd and unjust a law is. “Look, a black person sat at the front of the bus, and black people and white people sitting together at lunch counters didn’t cause the world to end, so why are you wasting your time having or enforcing these nonsense laws when it just makes you look damn silly?”

– It might be meant to cause an overreaction that will make the authorities look terrible. This can be a dangerous strategy on multiple levels – people might not actually sympathize with you over the authorities, your own people might get really hurt in the overreaction – but it can also be very effective. Also at that link: It might be meant to saturate the jails or other justice system apparatus.

– Similarly, it might be meant to harm international perceptions of your society, so that your leaders are pressured to do something about your cause in order to preserve international relations.

– It might be an attempt to raise public awareness of your cause and get your views into the media.

– It might be an attempt to reenergize a flagging movement, give people something to do to prevent momentum loss, open up a new sub-issue for the movement to work on, or bring awareness of it to a new group of people (for instance, with a protest designed to get the attention of suburbanites and not merely city residents). Or, for that matter, to force a new group of people to take notice, because suddenly the issue and the protests around it affect them.

– It might be meant to create public, accessible space for a conversation about the issue at hand.

– It might be meant to change the way that the public talks about the issue at hand – to popularize new soundbites and frameworks, to shift the Overton Window.

– It might be a way to give more mainstream negotiators something to triangulate against. They get to point to protesters and present themselves as the moderate alternative rather than the fringe of the possible.

– And it might be about disruption. As Civil Rights Movement legend Bayard Rustin, a major architect of the movement’s creed of nonviolence, said, “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so the wheels don’t turn.”

Disruption is what I was building up to, since one of the big criticisms of the I-93 protest has been that it was so disruptive. Disruption shakes up systems that depend on the parts working smoothly. It breaks through indifference and apathy. Because it inconveniences people, and people tend to complain about that inconvenience (especially sustained or repeated inconvenience), it puts pressure on officials to do something to make the disruption stop, at which point they can either try to repress a movement away (taking all the risks that come with that sort of repression), or do something to address the movement’s concerns. Sociologist Frances Fox Pivens has spoken and written about how “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate,” and drives social change as officials panicked by the disruption turn attention to a movement’s cause in an effort to “try to restore order.” Most people have heard the chant “No justice, no peace.” Those who have paid attention to Ferguson protests and to Black Lives Matter protests around the country have likely heard the chant of “If we don’t get it / Shut it down!” It’s the same sentiment, expressed differently. These chants are about disruption.

Disruption, of course, can also be very risky, because the backlash that it provokes from the disrupted may damage the movement. The personal risks and sacrifices that people engaged in disruptive protest often take – the risks of violence, of jail, of being out in the heat or cold – can gain sympathy and help offset this backlash, though it is still, and always, a fine line. It is especially a fine line because disruption can have negative consequences for bystanders (a topic I plan to address in a near-future post). It is also a fine line because many people viscerally don’t like the idea of using such a blunt instrument to effect social change – I talk to many intelligent people who are put off by the idea of protest in general and disruptive protest in particular because it’s not winning through discourse, through rational debate. And yet, disruption has been a major strategy of effective protest in the US, one of the foundations of the one movement that protesters are constantly told to emulate by people outside their movements. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

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