The Keys To Successful Protests
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Politics and Activism

The Keys To Successful Protests

How The Advantages Boasted by Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters' Victory May Bolster Other Movements

The Keys To Successful Protests
Jason Miczek/REUTERS

Today’s political and social atmospheres are both highly contentious and highly controversial. We’re living in a time of revolution: against the government to which we are subject; against the institutions that regulate how we define ourselves; and against the social norms that dictate socioeconomic status. As a citizen, I am grateful to see firsthand the power that revolutions and social movements have on our governing bodies. As a human being, I am empowered by seeing history play out in live time, drawing people together whom have experienced common injustices.

On Sunday, December 4, our collective society got to witness the efforts of protesters come to fruition when the Army Corps of Engineers succumbed to months of public pressure, deciding to look for an alternate route for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP). Since April, when LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, an elder in the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, established a camp as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the pipeline in North Dakota, opponents to the project have flocked to the encampment in resistance. Their success was a pleasant surprise – an encouraging victory for the people – in the midst of numerous movements which have yet to achieve tangible, uncontested victories (think the anti-Trump and Black Lives Matter movements).

So, what sets the DAP protests apart from these other movements, the majority of which have experienced only mixed success, if any? I took to Google to investigate what exactly makes a protest successful.

A clear goal.

One of the greatest reasons for the DAP protesters’ success, and other movements’ shortcomings, has been the adherence to a clearly outlined goal. The DAP protesters’ was obvious: do not construct this pipeline, as it will infringe upon sacred sites and jeopardize Native Americans’ necessary water supplies. However, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has failed to produce a strict objective. In “Is Black Lives Matter Blowing It?” John Blake writes, “Four years after its founding, BLM is still a movement without a clear meaning for many Americans.” Some see it as a hate group; others see it as cutting-edge activism; and others see it as a contemporary reinterpretation of a mob. Johnetta Elzie, a leader in both the BLM movement and Campaign Zero, told Blake, “Most of the folks in the movement are young and we’re black, so [people] assume we’re uneducated and uninformed and we’re just angry and in the streets.” However, these presuppositions indicate an important question for social movements, Blake articulates: “What happens when your enemies and unexpected events do a better job of defining your movement than you do?” This conflict makes any movement vulnerable to invalidation by its adversaries, and even the general public.

Consequently, broadening a movement to undertake other forms of disenfranchisement threatens to demean the explicit purpose, or nature, of the movement. In another piece about BLM, “The Matter of Black Lives,” Jelani Cobb reveals that internal disputes amongst BLM leaders have raised questions about what the movement hopes to achieve. Cobb reports, “Although the movement initially addressed the killing of unarmed young black men, the women [of BLM] were equally committed to the rights of working people and to gender and sexual equality.” Alicia Garza, the woman whose infamous 2013 Facebook post sparked the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, expressed to Cobb that the most common misconception of BLM was a social-media dig calling BLM “a gay movement masquerading a black one.” Although just a misconception, and just a fallacy that the two identities are mutually exclusive, the claim indicates that the public’s understanding of the movement wanes when it seeks to address multiple social injustices.

It is no surprise, then, that participation in demonstrations increases when actions taken by movements bear a direct correlation to the end goal. In “To Boycott or Not: The Consequences of a Protest,” Wharton management professor Lawrence G. Hrebiniak explains that boycotts are more successful when there is a clear connect between the act of boycotting and some desired outcome. About the shortcomings of boycotts against petroleum company BP in response to the company’s widely deleterious 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Hrebiniak says, “It’s not clear that if we boycott [BP] it solves the leak in the Gulf.” Even if the goal is poignantly articulated, the actions against it must be relevant.

A central hierarchy.

There are a multitude of reasons for which a central hierarchy, with a carefully demarcated division of labor and both various standing committees and disciplined groups issued tasks and held accountable for such by a specific authority, bears a direct correlation to the success of a movement or protest. A hierarchical organization is often responsible for the production of and adherence to a clear goal (as aforementioned).

In an Economist article, “The March of Protest,” a historical timeline of the American protest is given. About the differences between nineteenth century and modern protests, “Protests are no longer organized by unions or other lobbies, as they once were.” Some are initiated by small groups of purposeful people, however, “inevitably, the absence of organization also blurs the agenda.” When a movement lacks a clear chain-of-command, every participant is mobilized with the power to craft the movement to his or her intent. Since BLM boasts hundreds of thousands of participants, it may be all-too-easily mistranslated as pursuing infinitely many different goals, thereby negating its singular or original mission.

Blake gives a good reason for a BLM’s creation as a “leaderful” organization; he – again – quotes BLM leader Elzie, “We’ve always made it clear that we are one of many. There’s not one person who can be a leader of the movement. We’re all leaders.” This is particularly beneficial to a movement, since, “Movements built around charismatic leaders evaporate when that leader is assassinated or discredited.” For instance, following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the civil rights movement never quite recovered. Likewise, since Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination by Nation of Islam members, few can name the organization of which he was in charge (the Organization of Afro-American Unity). However, a decentralized form of leadership can hurt when responding to a crisis. Since BLM has 37 chapters nationwide – and one in Toronto – all with varying mission statements, the media lacks direction when seeking a statement in response to a consequential looting, riot, or shooting. Unfortunately, the culpability falls upon all BLM participants: Elzie says, “When something tragic happens, we’re all blamed because there’s no central leadership. We all take a hit.” Unfortunately, this blanket blame negates the movement’s collective mission, diminishing its chance for success.

Moreover, Blake continues, BLM’s lack of a singular leader means that it also lacks a singular voice to offer powerful rhetoric to the public. He writes, “The movement is filled with passionate and eloquent speakers, but can anyone name a great speech or even a memorable sound-bite by a BLM member?” Granted, there’s Jesse Williams’ captivating speech at June’s BET Awards, or the image of Ieshia Evans facing off against a phalanx of riot police that went viral. These examples, however, are insufficient when compared against MLK’s great dialogues in both his “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Furthermore, because of the inundation of social media (to be addressed in an upcoming passage), all too many participants have access to social media platforms to broadcast their dissimilar objectives.

BLM’s decentralized organization also impairs its, as such would hinder any movement’s, ability to think strategically as it squares off against social norms. In “Small Change,” Malcolm Gladwell gives the most articulate argument for this repercussion. Networks like those facilitated by social media activism (commonly referred to as clicktivism) are built around weak ties, which lack the precision and discipline necessary for “high-risk activism,” or movements that directly challenge the status quo. In fact, networks are the opposite, both in structure and character, of hierarchies. Gladwell writes, “Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals.” Such is the reason that movements bearing decentralized leadership structures lack clear goals, and, thereby, tangible successes. He continues, “They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error.” Take Wikipedia, for example; because the online encyclopedia is constantly subject to evolving edits and revisions, it offers no concrete explanations. A central hierarchy is thereby essential to an effective order which an accomplished movement necessitates.

A diverse pool of participants.

It is worth noting that the DAP protests, which have experienced a greater success rate than many other contemporary, American movements, boasted a significant variety of participants. In “Protesters Claim Major Victory With Army Corps In Battle Over Dakota Access Pipeline,” sources for CBS noted ongoing interactions between tribal elders and Veterans Stand for Standing Rock. The latter’s GoFundMe page had raised upwards of $1 of its $1.2 million goal for funds directed towards food, transportations, and supplies for DAP protesters. In Sierra Crane-Murdoch’s “Standing Rock: A New Moment For Native-American Rights,” she listed many of the tribes that filtered into the encampment to signify their support with the Standing Rock Sioux, including Aztec dancers from Minneapolis and members of California’s Round Valley Indian Tribe, New Mexico’s Jemez Pueblo, and Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. Crane-Murdoch wrote, “They entered through a corridor lined with the flags of hundreds of other tribes who had offered support.” (As of August 23, 87 other tribal governments have written resolutions, proclamations, and letters of support expressing their solidarity with Standing Rock and the Sioux people).

In a 2012 debate facilitated by the New York Times titled “What Makes Protest Effective?” Erica Chenoweth had the chance to share what she had observed as an ingredient for movements’ success in “Creative Nonviolence Can Defeat Repression.” She lists both mass and diverse participation. Chenoweth writes, “The political scientist Mark Lichbach has suggested that when more than five percent of the population engages in sustained, coordinated civil disobedience, few governments remain in power.” Granted, the government itself may not be the issue at hand (except for the anti-Trump protesters, whose demonstrations may very well expire on January 20, 2017), but few social norms have any chance at surviving when this concentration of a population revolts. Likewise, “Successful campaigns tend to have diverse participants, too.” Campaigns composed solely of the youth, elite, or a singular ethnic minority have little chance at accomplishing their goals. On the other hand, “When large and diverse segments of society actively withdraw their support from the status quo, change appears inevitable.” The key to any movement’s successful is variety in its participants. Because DAP hosted everyone from Vietnam vets to Lissa Yellowbird-Chase (Murdoch-Crane’s guide through the encampment) to Shailene Woodley, it boasted the multiplicity in its membership to expect success.

A nonviolent norm.

One of the keys to attracting a diverse pool of participants is non-violence. Numerous studies have shown that the potential for or incidents of violence at demonstrations have deterred potential protesters from joining a movement for social change. Again in “Creative Nonviolence Can Defeat Repression,” Chenoweth writes, “Finally, successful campaigns avoid using violence. Numerous historical cases reveal that vandalism, assassination, or armed insurrection generally diminish participation.” In her book with Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, Chenoweth explains that nonviolent resistance presents fewer obstacles to moral and physical involvement, in turn increasing the number of participants and opportunities for tactical innovation and civic disruption. Jesse Singal echoes this observation in “Why Some Protests Success While Others Fail,” quoting Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and expert in protest movements. Although Fisher indicates that a “rowdy disruption” bears the potential to be an effective means of protesting, significant violence is also a surefire way to reduce people’s engagement in various protest activities. Fisher says, “I do think peaceful engagement is certainly more effective at bringing more people. If there’s going to be a lot of violence, people are not going to come out.” Violence often deters the elderly and families with young children who may further diversify the participant pool.

Over the course of time, nonviolence has proven to be a defining characteristic of protests that have succeeded at accomplishing their goals. I offer four pivotal examples (varying in popularity and objective) in chronological order.

1. Mohandas Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, an act of civil disobedience protesting British rule in India, set a powerful precedent for future nonviolent protesters. In “Five of the Most Influential Protests in History,” Sarah Begley writes about the 240-mile march to the Arabian Sea, “It was an ideal of protest, because collecting salt was a completely non-violent activity and involved a commodity that was truly important to Indians.” The protest continued until Gandhi was granted bargaining rights at a London negotiation, although India did not see freedom until 1947.

2. In “Thirteen Peaceful Protests and Whether They Worked,” Oliver Noble unpacks the 1955-56 Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Boycott as a successful nonviolent protest and impetus for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What has since come to be known as the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the United State began on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. African-Americans boycotted the public transportation system beginning on the day of Parks’ court hearing and lasted 381 days. They celebrated victory when an Alabama district court ruled that the racial segregation was unlawful, which the Supreme Court later upheld when the decision was appealed.

3. Begley lists the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as yet another pivotal and successful protest marked by nonviolence. The demonstration was intended to push lawmakers to pass legislation that addressed inequalities experienced by African Americans in every realm of American society. Organizers were so successful that more than 200,000 supporters, double their estimate, attended the demonstration. It was at this protest that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the base of the Lincoln Memorial and then met with then-President John F. Kennedy. Begley writes, “The march was credited with helping build support to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its messages of the hard work to build equality are echoed today from the Ferguson protests to President Obama’s recent speech in Selma, Alabama.”

4. Most recently – and most satirically – was 2007’s “Nurse-In” at Applebee’s restaurants across the country. Noble explains that the protest’s objective was to “stop discrimination against public breastfeeding” at the restaurant chain. The Nurse-In was planned as a nationwide movement involving breastfeeding mothers nursing their infants in plain view at Applebee’s restaurants. Following the demonstration, Applebee’s issued a statement, saying, “This situation has provided an opportunity for us to work with our associates to ensure we’re making nursing mothers feel comfortable… We will also accommodate other guests who would be more comfortable moving to another area of the restaurant.” One point for nursing mothers.

One of the greatest benefits of adhering to nonviolence is a movement’s capacity to remain above reproach. Movements often invalidate both their mission and integrity when they engage, nevertheless publically, in violent behavior. This has undoubtedly been one of the reasons for the DAP protesters’ success. As of the publication of Murdoch-Crane’s account on October 12, upwards of ninety protesters had been arrested for acts of civil disobedience (trespassing on pipeline construction sites and locking themselves to bulldozers), but none had been carrying weapons or behaving violently. In a confrontation on September 3, six protesters were bitten by dogs and attacked by pepper spray by private security officers deployed by Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline company. On September 28, officers bearing loaded rifles surrounded a group of protesters who threw their arms in the air and shouted, “We have no weapons!” About the latter, Crane-Murdoch writes, “Both sides retreated unscathed, but it was a deaf and reckless nod to history on the part of the state.” Almost a month after Crane-Murdoch’s article was published by The New Yorker, protesters tried to push past the long-blocked Backwater Bridge on state Highway 1806. Authorities responded by using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water hoses. 17 nonviolent protesters who were doused with the water in the below-freezing temperatures had to be hospitalized. Since the public has repeatedly seen the federal, state, and local governments respond violently to the peaceful quandaries of Native-Americans (both mid-nineteenth century and as recently as November), public support has swelled for the Standing Rock Sioux. The pressure has continued to mount against authorities as they have continued to respond inappropriately to protesters. This may have easily been a catalyst for the Army Corps of Engineer’s easement of the pipeline.

The motivation to remain above reproach is one faced by parties on either side of any protest. In “To Boycott or Not…” Paula Courtney, a lecturer at Wharton and CEO of a Toronto-based customer satisfaction consulting firm, explains why companies with strong brands are likely to take a boycott seriously. She says, “bad memories are longer-lasting than good ones.” Just as companies confronted by protesters are both quick and careful to respond to demonstrations in hopes of preserving their positive reputation, protesters should be both quick and careful to uphold a positive reputation so as not to risk nullifying their plight.

Granted, nonviolence does not always guarantee success. Recently, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers, has faced outrage for his own act of civil disobedience: kneeling during the National Anthem at his NFL games as a gesture of protest against nationwide police brutality and social injustice. It is worth noting that standing for the National Anthem is not a law, but a social norm, and Kaepernick has not inflicted violence upon anyone in his motions. Tomi Lahren, the cringe-worthy blonde known for her incendiary attacks on – occasionally taboo – current events, recently joined Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” to explain why she has taken such offense to Kaepernick’s protest. When Noah asked Lahren what she believed was the right way for African-American men to protest in America, Lahren countered, “Why would you take out your perceived oppression of black people [jaws hit the floor] on our national anthem and our flag? A country that you live in… that you benefit from [*from which you benefit]… that people of all races have died for, have died to protect, have died for the vote.” She failed to answer the original question, though, indicating that any movement – nonviolent or not – is bound to offend at least someone.

Alternating tactics.

A fifth key to a successful movement is strategically alternating tactics to maximize participation, media publicity, and pressure from the public. Anti-Trump demonstrations (although such have yet to come to fruition, if they even will) have spanned from student walk-outs, marches through major cities, and protesters blocking highways and burning the American flag outside of Trump Tower. For any movement to prosper, Chenoweth says, demonstrators must “alternate between higher-risk methods of concentration (protests, flash mobs, sit-ins, etc.) and lower-risk methods of dispersion (boycotts, stay-at-home demonstrations, go-slow demonstrations, etc.).”

The reason for this is best explained by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a former organizer and field coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, in “Strong Organization Makes Protests Work.” She writes, “At their best, protests can be an important tactic, but only a tactic, as opposed to an effective strategy.” For this reason, a demonstration should not be mistaken for a movement, “assuming you have one.” A public protest that adheres to a coherent strategy can help engage a broader public about the nuances and obscurities that have provoked a movement, or which a movement seeks to change, but a successful movement utilizes a variety of tactics (like those Chenoweth lists) in order to bolster its chances for success.

Singal and “To Boycott or Not…” both echo this observation. The prior again quotes Fisher, who suggests that anti-Trump protesters embrace a broad repertoire of contention, or different types of strategies. The latter references a 1985 paper published in the “Journal of Consumer Affairs” by Monroe Friedman, emeritus professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University, that examines 90 boycotts staged in the United States between 1970 and 1980. Of the sample, Friedman found that only 24 of the boycotts were completely or partially successful in getting the target to change its behavior. “Not surprisingly, the research found that the more organized and planned campaigns, including those that used picketing and other attention-grabbing techniques, had a greater degree of success.”

Social media…. Maybe.

Finally, social media is a double-edged sword when it comes to heightening a protest or movement’s odds of triumphing. While the platform boasts the propensity to promote a plight, draw participants, and encourage change, it comes with the risk of blurring both a movement’s goal and integrity, misconstruing the meaning of a demonstration, and decreasing chances for widespread change. To explain, I have analyzed each of the medium’s pros and cons.

Social media has empowered both the oppressed and the disenfranchised, those who have experienced firsthand the injustices which movements seek to correct, with the ability to advertise demonstrations. About the Cocks Not Glocks protest on the University of Texas campus in August, “University of Texas Students Find the Absurd in a New Gun Law,” Dave Phillips explains how the tactics used by opponents of the recently passed campus open carry laws are designed to go viral in hopes of drawing publicity. To fight the legislation, students carried sex toys to class and attached them to their backpacks, an act outlawed by local indecency laws. Phillips writes, “The campaign is a protest in the age of Instagram – neatly packed and ready to go viral.” Likewise, in “Get Up, Stand Up,” an exploration of BLM, Bijan Stephen discusses the importance of tools of mass communication since the civil rights organizers’ media strategy sessions are largely open to any- and every- one on the Internet. By electing to promote their mission on an universally accessible platform, BLM organizers have successfully attracted widespread attention to their movement.

Likewise, social media has expanded membership bases and enlarged participant pools by proving itself to be a constant means of spreading the news about demonstrations. Although many anti-Trump demonstrations have been spontaneously organized by local activist groups, calls to participate have come largely through Facebook and other social networks. Such networks have proven far more important than ideological biases, Singal explains, in creating and cementing newcomers’ activism.

Furthermore, protests are more successful when increased media attention threatens to taint national institutions’ brands. Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has studied 188 boycotts that occurred between 1990 and 2005, is quoted in “To Boycott or Not…” about this trend. “He found that companies were more likely to give in to boycotters’ demands when the controversy generated a lot of press.” Because of the risk to the institution’s brand, it was more apt to implement the changes which boycotters requested.

However, social media also jeopardizes movements’ effects. In one way, social media has obscured both the goals and integrity of a variety of movements. Blake and Cobb both address this disadvantage in the context of BLM. Blake quotes Timothy Patrick McCarthy, an activist and Harvard history professor with a concentration in protest movements, “We have so many more voices communicating in these spaces [on social media]. Everybody tweets, Snapchats, and posts on Facebook. Everybody has a platform.” Because of both this and BLM’s lack of a concrete mission, the movement risks blurring its own mission at the thumbs of its many thousands of members. Social media also puts the movement’s reputation at stake. Just when BLM gained traction among the Democratic National Convention’s presidential candidates, it attracted publicity for a series of “febrile Twitter exchanges.” After BLM leaders DeRay Mckesson and Johnettz Elzie got into an online dispute with Shaun King, a Daily News writer, over fund-raising for a social justice group, conservative website Breitbart ran a picture of the activists with the headline, “Black Lives Matter Leaders Just Excommunicated Shaun King.” In this particular instance, the movement’s organizers failed to be above reproach and put their public support at stake.

Social media also has the potential to misconstrue the meaning of many acts of protests. In “This Time, Colin Kaepernick Takes A Stand By Kneeling,” Billy Witz reports how a national debate has emerged questioning whether Kaepernick is disparaging military sacrifices by kneeling during the National Anthem. Witz writes, “Kaepernick said at one point during a length postgame news conference that his stance had been portrayed out of context by the media.” Because of this misportrayal, the controversy has snowballed not into a call for social justice for the families of victims of police brutality, but into an interrogation of Kaepernick’s patriotism. His protest has nearly reached a moot point because of social media’s transgressions.

Most importantly, Gladwell explains, the relationships facilitated by social networks, “weak-ties,” seldom lead to high-risk activism aimed at challenging the heart of the status quo. The greatest effect on participation in a demonstration is the applicant’s degree of personal connection to the movement. Case-in-point, high-risk activism is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.” However, Facebook friends and Twitter followers are too infrequently just acquaintances or colleagues for whom most social media users would not march 240 miles or be doused with water cannons in freezing weather. Gladwell writes, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t [high-risk] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” Granted, clicktivism is effective at increasing participation, but strictly by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. He explains, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” Marching for hours – walking out of class – joining an encampment in rural North Dakota – risking your athletic career on easily-offended white people are all high-risk actions. Hence, movements promoted on social media rarely boast the propensity to effectively promote change.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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