Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why Protests Don't Work...And Why They Do

by Sara

Way back last May (yes, I realize I'm coming very late to this party, but bear with me here), Barbara at Mahablog wrote a post on Protesting 101 that was so plangent it's still being discussed here and there, even now. In it, she provided six basic rules for demonstrations that should be tattooed on the foreheads of activists everywhere:
1. Be Serious.
2. Be unified of purpose.
3. Good protesting is good PR.
4. Size matters.
5. Be sure your opposition is uglier/more hateful/snottier than you are.
6. Demonstrations are not enough.
I've been musing about these rules for the past few weeks, ever since a long discussion over in the comments at the News Blog got me thinking about my mixed feelings about demonstrations. Having spent most of my adult life in the Bay Area -- a corner of the country perhaps more given to taking to the streets than any other -- I've seen my share, and have come to a place that I generally find most of them generic, ignorable, predictable, and pointless.

And yet, and Barbara and many others have pointed out, there have been demonstrations in the past that were, quite obviously, not pointless. Somehow, once in a while, someone stages a bit of civic theater that crashes through the collective wall of unreality and rearranges our perspective, becoming a landmark event after which nothing else is ever the same. There are few Americans who don't carry their own mental pictures of the Montgomery bus strike, the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins, the crowd on the Edmund Pettis bridge, the first Earth Day events, the Battle in Seattle, or the shining sea of brown people in white shirts at last year's immigration rallies. Unforgettable moments, all.

Why are these events are still so resonant -- some of them still echoing down through 50 years and more -- while other, often bigger, demonstrations fail to change a thing? I got to thinking about it, and I think I've come up with some core answers that I'd like to set out for discussion.

Too many protest organizers work from the assumption that a demonstration is a parade, a media event, or a public party. The game is scored by bodies in the street, and the size of the crowd photo on the six o'clock news. The problem, of course, is that this focus on the numbers often leads to a lack of focus in the message; and if the police undercount the numbers (which they do), or the media decide to put their focus elsewhere (which they do), then you've just turned out 100,000 people for nothing. And when all that effort changes nothing, it adds to the general sense that protests are a waste of time and nobody should bother.

The demonstrations that break out of the box have not always been parades. Only a few looked like a public party. However, they do all have one essential quality in common: They were well-executed guerilla attacks on our cultural assumptions, carefully designed to smash the dominant paradigms, re-shape the way we reckon the possibilities, and change the terms of the conversation forever. And in every case, their success in achieving that goal stood on four solid principles -- all of which seem to be necessary for a really effective demonstration to occur.

Reality Hacking
First, every effective protest is a paradigm-buster. It takes an unthinkable, unimaginable idea -- gay couples by the hundreds, grinning in their gowns and tuxes on the steps of City Hall as they clutch their newly minted-marriage licenses, for example -- and suddenly, stunningly, turns it into a concrete, here-and-now reality. And once that reality has been brought into existence, even if only for a few hours, days, or weeks, it's like releasing a genie that can never be stuffed back in the bottle. The terms of the conversation shift forever. The old structures are broken. Reality finds itself scooting over to make room for the new order.

And so it happened that Southerners who couldn't feature sitting next to a black person at a lunch counter, eating tuna sandwiches and drinking sweet tea, saw it happening with their own eyes -- and realized they'd survive it. And The Powers That Be who tried to gather for a simple WTO meeting in Seattle were forced to accept the impossible idea there would be no meetings held, there or anywhere, until they gave a seat at the table to The Power That Is Us. And those of us whose comfortable lives depend on an host of invisible, silent, legally non-existent angels who clean our houses and mow our lawns and pick our crops woke up one day to see them gathered all together on the streets, half a million strong and shining in their innocent white, ending the silence with a single roaring voice -- and were finally forced to reckon with their existence as human beings among us.

These were all protests (and you can, no doubt, think of others) that grabbed some element of the present and yanked it sharply and unexpectedly toward a very different future. Reality hacking is the magic that made them work. It's also the missing ingredient that makes so may other protests fail.

If you're not sure your protest qualifies as a paradigm-buster, just ask yourself: "How much trouble do we stand to cause with this?" Breaking paradigms is almost always transgressive. If the order you're out to change is enshrined in cultural assumptions, unspoken or formal agreements, or unjust laws, then your protest (if you're doing it right) will deliberately confront and challenge those assumptions, gleefully shatter those agreements, or outright break those laws. The protests we remember all picked out one lone sacred cow, and butted up against it hard enough to put participants at serious risk. It's not work for the faint of heart; and it doesn’t always (or even usually) look like a party.

Second: You can't lead people into change until you first win their trust. And, to do that, you need to look like you know what you're doing, present a strong vision for where you're going, and behave in ways that people find inspiring. There should be joy -- change-makers from Mother Jones to Molly Ivins have always told us that raising hell is joyful work -- but even joy takes a back seat to confidence and clear focus when you're trying to get people to embrace your vision of change.

The beauty of trust is the effect is has not just on followers, but also on fence-sitters. People who resist change fear loss (and the fear of losing the structures that support one's culture or identity is often more terrifying than the prospect of economic loss). But once the unthinkable has happened -- even if only for a day -- resistance can begin to soften. OK, that happened. And hey, look! The world didn't end! Besides, the people who are backing this seem to be the decent sort. Maybe we can talk to them. Maybe they know what they're doing. Maybe this change can go ahead and happen, after all; and we'll still be all right when it's over. When people start having these conversations with themselves and each other, you're on the way to winning the battle for hearts and minds.

Barbara's first three rules -- the ones about seriousness, unity of purpose, and attention to PR -- go right to the heart of creating this kind of trust. She writes:
I know they’re called “protests,” but your central purpose is to win support for your cause. You want people looking on to be favorably impressed. You want them to think, wow, I like these people. They’re not crazy. They’re not scary. I think I will take them seriously….That means you should try not to be visibly angry, because angry people are scary. Anger is not good PR. Grossing people out is not good PR. Yelling at people that they’re stupid for not listening to you is not good PR. Screaming the F word at television camera crews is not good PR.
I'd add that inviting everybody and their St. Bernard to your protest just to get the numbers up is not always good PR, either, if the price you have to pay is the dilution of clarity, consistency, focus, and the chance to create that trust. A hundred thousand people representing 47 different causes isn't a meaningful attempt at social change. TV images of half-naked weirdos do not build trust. In the end, it's just another street parade, with all the usual suspects. You can't blame the media for not bothering to cover it; after all, it's not particularly serious or credible, and it's not saying anything new.

Which brings us to the third principle.

Size Doesn't Matter -- But Planning Does
It's often noted that Rosa Parks was part of a vast, well-organized, and extremely focused movement that had been planning its protest for months, if not years. Yet, came the day, their well-built cultural bomb was detonated by just one woman, one bus, one action -- which was then backed up by the rippling effects of the subsequent bus strike, which included the efforts of thousands.

Barbara's fourth rule is that size matters, but there are abundant examples proving that that's not always the case. Some of the greatest moments in protest history involved just one person, or a small group of people -- always backed up by a solid organization that stood by to seize the moment, and run with it. Planning matters. Good execution matters. Staying on message matters. Being able to back up your single actors with immediate, well-organized, meaningful action matters. The number of people you can turn into the streets matters sometimes, too -- but only if it's in the service of a larger goal, like stopping the WTO representatives from getting to their meetings, or (in the case of last year's immigration rallies, or the early Gay Pride parades) providing incontrovertible proof that that you exist. Without that kind of tangible, overarching goal, it's just another party.

The Bigger Asshole Rule
Barbara's fifth rule is also my fourth one:
Be sure your opposition is uglier/more hateful/snottier than you are…. I think Cindy Sheehan’s encampment in Crawford last August, although a relatively small group, was such a success because of the contrast between Sheehan and the Snot-in-Chief cruising by in his motorcade without so much as a how d’you do. Truly, if Bush had invited the Sheehan crew over for lemonade and a handshake, the show would’ve been over. But he didn’t…
…You don’t win support by being assholes. You win support by showing the world that your opponents are assholes.
This is, of course, why Gandhi and King were so insistent on teaching people the arts of non-violent confrontation -- a skill set whose entire purpose is to make your opposition look like the bigger asshole. Anybody who puts you at risk of losing your cherished position on the moral high ground needs to be immediately excused from your protest. As Barbara noted, a high-profile, high-risk attack on consensus reality is no time to indulge individual egos in "look at me look at me look at me" attention grabs.

And Finally
This isn’t intended as a criticism of street parades organized around events like ending the war, supporting abortion rights, and so on. A lot of us really enjoy attending these events. They're like Liberal Pride Parades, showcasing the diversity and glory that is Us. It's healthy to be out on the streets together, seeing each other, exchanging ideas and energy, and affirming things we believe in. They're educational: you can bring the kids, and introduce skeptical friends. They're opportunities for creative self-expression. They're community-building. They're sanity-inducing. These are good and important goals on their own, and they deserve to be supported.

But most of us have long since realized that the Liberal Pride Parade style of protest invariably disappoints as a vehicle for creating immediate, direct, and lasting social change. For that, I think we need a different kind of event -- one that's built around a visionary, paradigm-shattering reality hack that's courageously transgressive, designed to inspire other people's confidence in the change process, well-organized to seize both the moment and the moral high ground, and determined not let go until the desired change happens.

When we understand what lies at the beating heart of a truly history-making demonstration, we'll be on our way out of the numbers-game trap -- and back on track toward creating innovative forms of protest that successfully crack open the consensus reality, and let a little light of new possibility shine through.

No comments: