5 Important Insights About Successful Protest Movements

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Photo: Gail Orenstein/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Long before Donald Trump’s shocking election, there had been what felt like an important revival of protest in America. Mostly that revival was sparked by the emergence of Black Lives Matter, which starting in 2013 quickly grew into a nationwide movement that, through various acts of protest, kept the subject of racial justice in law enforcement in the news while eliciting a somewhat predictable conservative backlash (“Bill O’Reilly: How Black Lives Matter is killing Americans”). Trump’s election, though, supercharged things. The day after his inauguration saw what was possibly the single largest day of protest in American history, with more than 4 million Americans taking to the streets for Women’s Marches. Similar “resistance” movements against his agenda are springing up around the country.

All this talk of protest, naturally, has brought with it questions about which sorts of tactics work and which don’t. How loud, how unruly, how in-your-face should protests be? Under what circumstances is it worth risking a backlash?

February was an interesting month for anyone curious about such questions — two new papers and a book dealing with these issues were released. Examining the three together, it’s actually very hard to come away with any clear, simple, one-size-fits-all conclusions about protesting, given how context-dependent a given protest is. But some important lessons do emerge:

Yes, disruptive protests can reduce mass support for a movement. For a working paper they recently published, the researchers Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Stanford University, respectively, and doctoral student Chloe Kovacheff, also of the University of Toronto, ran a series of Amazon Mechanical Turk studies in which they asked respondents to respond to various vignettes involving different types of protest. Specifically, the respondents were asked to rate how much they supported the behavior in question, how similar they felt to the activists, and how much they supported their broader cause. Sometimes, the protest was decidedly peaceful; other times, it was more disruptive or violent. Half the participants in one of the studies, for example, read a vignette in which Black Lives Matter protesters, among other things, chanted “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” and half read an otherwise identical vignette in which the chant was “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” The researchers also asked Turkers who self-identified as activists to estimate the effects of certain types of protest acts on outside observers — that is, folks who might either join the cause or form a backlash to it.

Feinberg and his colleagues write that their results show that “consistent evidence that the use of extreme protest tactics led observers to feel less social identification with the movement and, as a result, support the movement less,” but that activists tended not to realize this, instead “believ[ing] extreme protest tactics would be effective not only for raising awareness of, but also recruiting popular support for, their cause.”

Now, it’s worth noting that a lab setting strips some of the full complexity from this issue — real-life protests and people’s reactions to them occur amid a swirling array of contextual factors. Still, this research ties into past work about how best to build certain kinds of protest movements. On the other hand …

Sometimes mass support matters to protest movements a lot less than people think. L.A. Kauffman, a journalist who has spent decades covering activist movements, is the author of the recently published book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. Direct Action traces the history of a half-century of, well, direct action — a loose term she defines in the book’s introduction as “the fierce, showy tradition of disruptive protest employed by many of the era’s most distinctive and influential movements” — on issues ranging from the environment to globalization.

Kauffman said that while she thought Feinberg and his colleagues are onto something when it comes to the problem of disruptive protests leading to a sapping of public support, she also thought that to focus so narrowly on that one consequence is to miss the broader point. “Where I have a fundamentally different perspective is the authors of the paper posit that movements use these strong tactics to gain attention, and then the authors conflating gaining attention with gaining popular approval,” she explained. But activists often aren’t trying to gain popular approval, and often don’t care whether the broader public approves of their tactics.

Two examples that jump out from Direct Action are the Clamshell Alliance, an activist group that tried to prevent the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire in the late 19708s and 1980s, and ACT UP, a famous AIDS activist organization active in the 1980s and ’90s that had at its core a number of members who themselves had AIDS, many of whom would eventually die of the disease.

Both groups sometimes embraced radical, disruptive forms of protest. The Clamshell Alliance did everything it could to stop the company trying to build at Seabrook, including repeated attempts to occupy the site. While the nuclear plant was eventually built, the Alliance had a profound effect on the nuclear-power landscape in the U.S. and beyond. “The movement at Seabrook and the other anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s, their protests and occupations played a major part in contributing to the complete stalling of nuclear plant construction for decades,” she said. “Construction proceeded at Seabrook eventually, but by and large no nuclear power plants were built for a very long time in the United States after that wave of protest. And certainly the occupations at Seabrook, as they got larger and more disruptive, were widely criticized, over and over again. Over and over you’d find movements that were widely criticized and very unpopular at the time, but their protests eventually led to the objectives they were seeking.”

A similar thing happened with ACT UP, which became known for its furious, theatrical protest acts as it desperately tried to get the federal government to stop ignoring the AIDS crisis and to address the dire lack of access most AIDS patients had to decent drugs. “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.” Again, Kauffman believes this radical approach led to success: Eventually, ACT UP advocates had direct access to government officials, who simply couldn’t afford to ignore them any longer.

Now, there may be less disagreement between Kauffman and the Feinberg team than there appears at first glance. “I agree entirely with Kauffman that popular support for a cause is not the only strategic outcome activists pursue,” said Willer in an email. As he pointed out, his and his colleagues make this very point in the paper: “It is also important to note that our research focuses on the effects of social movement tactics on popular opinion, though persuading the larger public is not the only means for affecting change and is not necessarily the primary aim of all movements,” they write. “Rather activists may prioritize other goals such as winning funding, impacting powerful elites, psychologically empowering disadvantaged individuals, fostering commitment in existing supporters, and cathartic expression.” Plus, it’s obviously true that in the case of something like a state or federal election, winning mass support is one of the most important goals in a way it might not be for anti-nuclear or AIDS activism.

The backlash to violent protest may have changed the course of American history. For his own working paper on protest movements, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton University, carefully tracked both violent and nonviolent protests by African-American groups in the 1960s and attempted to measure their impact on white voters. His most important finding was that, as he explains in the abstract, “In presidential elections, proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic voteshare whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines and likely tipped the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.” In other words, all else being equal, whites who were exposed to nonviolent black protests were more likely to vote for the candidate who was more liberal on racial-justice issues than were those who were exposed to violent black protests (and yes, Masow controlled for a variety of potentially confounding factors in his analysis).

Masow explains in the paper that this is, to his knowledge, “the first article to establish a causal effect of protests on voting,” and that his findings support that idea that “subordinate groups” like African-Americans, “can help shape national agendas and frame demands” in important ways — but that when it comes to big, broad movements, backlash can lead to severe consequences.

For what it’s worth, while Masow’s empirical approach may be new, the idea that the riots and violence of the 1960s sparked a white backlash isn’t: Among political scientists, this is a widely accepted idea. It doesn’t mean, of course, that the violence in question wasn’t often sparked by meaningful, urgent grievances — it means that there was a potentially preventable cost to expressing those grievances in a violent manner.

But it’s not the 1960s or 1970s anymore, and opponents of a protest movement will likely portray it as violent regardless of whether or not it really is. Kauffman had a similar reaction to Masow’s paper that she did to Feinberg’s: She didn’t deny it had some useful insights, but wasn’t positive it offered applicable lessons to present-day protesters.

As she explained, Masow’s paper covered a period when there was an intense amount of political violence going on. “In 1971 people were planting bombs in the U.S. Capitol and setting them off, and government buildings all across the country,” she said. “Yes, if you look at that period when a number of groups were experimenting with ideas of armed struggles, whether actually taking up guns and doing kidnappings for ransom or were setting off bombs or experimenting with full-on street fighting at protests — yes, you may be able to establish that there are correlations between that and law-and-order policies.” There’s just no comparison, Kauffman argued, between any of that and what’s going on today. “It’s so different in character and in the scale of the use of those kinds of tactics, the intensity — there’s just nothing remotely like that happening.” Even on those occasions when unrest has turned violent recently, it’s just an entirely different ballpark, she said.

Plus, she argued, mass media makes it so easy to paint movements as violent even when they aren’t that it complicates this aspect of the discussion. “Of course one little burning of a paper flag and that can be magnified on TV and used as a justification to introduce new measures against protesters,” she said. “But I think if you actually look at what’s been happening given the millions of people who have been out in the streets since January 20th, there’s almost nothing that you can point to” as violent. BLM is an excellent example of this, of course — the movement has been overwhelmingly nonviolent, and yet O’Reilly was far from the only pundit to implicate it in violence against police officers. In fact, it’s fairly common, in some circles, for the group to be referred to as racist or terrorists.

Anyone who claims to have uncovered the best way to protest nonviolently probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Except for wacky corners of Twitter, there is more or less a consensus among the current generation of protesters that nonviolent action is best. Beyond that, though, there’s very little agreement; rather, there’s a perpetually noisy conversation going on about the best ways to protest.

Kauffman’s book shows that this has always been the norm among activists, who are constantly debating tactics, weighing what works best, and learning from their errors. “There are so many different kinds of protests — I think of them as tools in a toolbox,” she said. “When people are deciding whether to have a simple rally or to have a march or to have something that’s stronger where they’re going to disrupt traffic, usually the calculation is based on a lot of factors.” These factors range from whom the protesters are trying to pressure to how “pressurable” those people are to, yes, how important it is for the action in question to not alienate observers.

But the point is, there’s simply no easy answer to the question of which tactics work best: That’s why protesters have tried so many different things over the years, and that’s why they continue to embrace a diversity of tactics.

5 Important Insights About Successful Protest Movements