I’ve organized quite a few protests over the last few years. Around issues of climate change, racial justice, gun control, immigration reform. And I’ve attended and provided support to a lot more. Over time, I noticed a pattern. Regardless of the cause, regardless of which organization is in charge, almost all of them followed this pattern:
- Something happens which provokes justifiable outrage among progressives.
- A person, often someone who is multiply-privileged like me, who is enthusiastic about social justice, decides to “do something”.
- That person then contacts all of their self-identified activist friends. Those who are not burnt out already pledge their support.
- As we plan the action, there is little to no contact with or participation from the impacted communities.
- The action which we plan is largely or entirely symbolic or expressive, i.e., a “protest.”
- The planning of the action is disconnected from any strategic analysis (i.e., how it will actually effect any kind of change in either the short or long term).
- When asked about the purpose of the protest, we will say something vague, like “raising awareness,” “uniting people,” “reaching communities,” etc.
- Often there is no identified audience or target for the protest.
- The timing of the protest is often rushed because the window of “newsworthiness” is narrow.
- We often choose locations with limited exposure to the public, like empty government buildings on weekends, deserted public parks, or streets which have been cleared by police in advance. Alternatively, we assemble on sidewalks or roadsides in the hope of getting approving honks from drivers going by at 30-60 mph.
- The form of the protest usually defaults to the signs-speakers-slogans (i.e., chants) formula.
- Sometimes we will defer to city officials and/or the police, who dictate the when, where, and how of the protest.
- The event is publicized mostly through social media, ensuring that it stays within the activist echo-chamber.
- When the day of the event comes, most of the people present are the organizers themselves and their extended circle of self-identified activists (who hope to attract the same people to their own protests).
- The protest results in a cathartic release of energy. We feel good after having expressed our outrage and feeling like we have “done something.”
- The success of the event is judged by the number of the people who show up and whether the press reported on it, not on how it might effect change in the short or long term.
- When the protest is over, everyone pats the organizers on the back. There is little to no critical analysis of the effectiveness of the protest.
- Any nagging doubts are quelled with the assurance that “doing something” is better than “doing nothing”.
- There is little to no follow-up with attendees after the event.
- Afterward, the organizers are exhausted, which adds to their long-term burnout.
- Nothing changes because (1) the structures of power which gave rise to the problem in the first place are intact and (2) no alternative/parallel structures have been created.
- Sometimes, the protest actually energizes and emboldens an opposition which previously had been dormant.
- If anyone is critical of this model of activism, they are quickly shut down by other activists and accused of being unsupportive or even disloyal.
To be clear, I’ve followed this pattern as much as anyone else. And I think there is a time and place for this model of activism or some variation of it. But it’s being overused, and on the whole, I don’t think it’s working. There have to be some alternatives. I don’t claim to have the answers. But I would really like to be a part of a conversation around this.
For more on this, see my “Open Letter to My Activist Friends”.
I’ve been very critical of progressive protests lately, but recently I saw an example of how protest can be used effectively, a local protest against a school policy affecting LGBT students. It was:
- Organized by the people affected (parents of children at the middle school, not self-identified activists);
- Located where the injustice occurred (at the middle school);
- Scheduled when decision-makers were present (a school board meeting);
- Followed by direct engagement with decision-makers (an impromptu meeting with school board); and
- Followed, in the days by followed, by the parents organizing to keep the pressure on the school board.
Protesting is a tool. It’s not a one-size fits all solution. This was a good use of it IMO.