Five Tips on How to Plan Protests that Make Real Social Change
Lately I have been seeing too many sad examples of ineffective protests and rallies. Typically, these are a group of people holding signs in support of a topic, standing outside of a building that may or may not have anything to do with the topic being protested. While their intentions are good, these protests can be demoralizing. If all of your experiences with protests are that they are useless and ineffective, people will learn to stay at home. Despite a powerful history of effective labor activism, this is what most Americans have learned.
But organized direct action can change the world. We just need to be smart about it, starting with these basic concepts. Here are some key ideas to help you learn how to protest effectively.
Effective protest has ONE clear objective
Your organization can have many goals, but to protest effectively you need to have one clear, unambiguous ask that you are trying to achieve. For example, though the civil rights movement was fighting various forms of racism, the Montgomery bus boycotts had the clear objective of desegrating busses.
This is often thought of in terms of making easy sound bites for the media to share, but it’s more than that. Having a clear goal makes it easier for activists to determine the best next steps and to assess whether they are making progress. It’s demoralizing to fight for an ambiguous goal, especially if the overall cause feels insurmountable.
It’s also important to have a single clear objective so that those you are targeting are clear on exactly what it would take to get you off their backs. If the Civil Rights Movement went after an end to racism, the people who ran the bus companies wouldn’t have felt the same pressure to follow through.
Speaking of those you’re targeting…
To protest effectively, have a clear target, who has the power to make change
Once you’ve decided what your campaign is going to be about, it’s so important to know who has the power to change the thing you are protesting. For example, let’s imagine you are deciding how to plan a protest to reduce excessive packaging from corporations. There are a lot of corporations out there, so it would be best to target the most egregious offender, with the largest distribution network. A “stop overpackaging” campaign would not be effective, even though the goal is clear, if there isn’t a specific company being held responsible. Without a target, there is no pressure on those executives to follow through.
Once a particular company is decided on, even that is not specific enough for your protest to be truly effective. Who are the shareholders? Who are the executives? When do they meet? If you know the answers to these questions you can be more effective. Instead of putting pressure on a brand, you can target the individuals. There are many more ways to disrupt the life of an individual than a corporate entity.
You can’t hold someone accountable if you don’t know who they are.
Note also, your task is to put pressure on the person who holds this power now, not to get someone new in power. Unless like Ghandi your goal is revolution, don’t confuse the goal. Of course you will want to support candidates who are better poised to support your goal, but stay focused on keeping pressure on the person who holds the power now. Elections don’t happen often enough to sustain continued pressure on your target. And if you plan your protest effectively, your target will eventually relent, even if they are staunchly opposed to your cause.
Know where your power lies
There is much ado about protest as media stunt. Some might say it is cynical to play to the media. But look at it another way: often one source of power is the support of the general public for the cause…but the public can’t support your cause if they don’t know it exists.
Returning to the civil rights movement, many Americans see nonviolence as a moral tactic. But it’s more than that; the general public wouldn’t have supported desegregation of restaurants if they’d seen the activists fighting back against the police. Instead the images of their bodies going limp and accepting the beating was a powerful visual that engendered support. They were leveraging the support of the public and their belief in fairness and equality.
Gandhi himself said, “I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.” Which is not to say that one should choose violence, but rather that the nonviolence movement was grounded in strategy and tactics. What does your movement have going for it? Who supports your cause? How can you grow or leverage their support? What groups are natural allies? Have you partnered with those groups? How can you leverage these allies to plan your protest more effectively?
Even one person can be a source of power, if that person is put in the way of the target completing their goal. They can’t get in the factory to build the weapons if your body is chained to the locked door.
Hit your target where it hurts
Just as important as your sources of power, and reciprocal to it, is to know what your targets care about and how you can impact them.
It is odd to me that there are protests of Trump regularly, but never do we see these protests at Mar a Lago. Donald Trump doesn’t care about people holding signs outside the city hall in a state far away. But he cares if the profits for his real estate holdings are hurt. Five people chaining themselves to the entrance to Mar a Lago would be more effective than five thousand people holding signs in Washington DC. One stink bomb released in Trump Tower would be a more effective protest than five hundred people holding a rally at the White House, because those actions would make it inconvenient and unpleasant for people to live in Trump Tower.
Those who enable your target to continue their corruption are suitable secondary targets. The goal is still the primary target, but those who are complicit and apathetic are a good source of leverage.
Beyond a single protest, plan to use escalating tactics for the full campaign
It may be tempting to start with a big action like a strike or building takeover, but if this doesn’t succeed, you have nowhere to go from there.
Moreover, starting with the highest-pressure tactic doesn’t gain as much support from the public. You want to establish a narrative, and that story begins with the simplest ask. If your objective is to get your representative to back a bill, don’t start with a protest. Start with a polite meeting in their office. They might say yes! But even if you are sure they will say no, this is the first step to holding them accountable.
Then you can go to the media and say, “look we asked real nice and they said no.” That is the beginning of the narrative: “a group of citizens are advocating for Bill XYZ.” That gives you a chance to grow support, which will make your next protest tactic more effective.
When you are organizing your campaign and brainstorming all your potential actions, take the extra step of sequencing them. Instead of asking only what you can do next, plan ahead. Look at all the options and see which ones are easiest to do first, with what power you have to leverage. How can you use these smaller actions to grow support for larger protests that you may do later?
For example, if you planned a local protest that was effective in getting media attention and building support from the locals in the neighborhood, it may be a smart strategy to repeat that protest in other neighborhoods before you escalate to a building takeover or a national protest.
Keep in mind that these tactics must be evaluated in context of the other protest strategies above. Having repeat protests that don’t put pressure on a target or have a clear goal are not going to be effective.
Organizing a protest effectively is not merely about gathering people to show support for your cause. It is about understanding how the system functions, and then systemically stopping that system from continuing.
What are you doing to foster the change you want to see?
It can be tempting to criticize the tactics of other movements. But ultimately criticism is less effective than action. If you are organizing a smart, strategic, grassroots activism campaign, those who are doing it wrong will be drawn to your movement. Even better, join those groups and offer your criticism from within. These groups may not know how to protest effectively. They need more than your criticism, they need your action. Movements are hungry for leadership and will most likely welcome your criticism, so long as you are willing to do the work to make change.
In Summary: How to Plan an Effective Protest Campaign, Step by Step
How to Protest Effectively, Step by Step
- Determine your first objective
This can’t be an ambiguous goal, it needs to be singular enough that it is clear whether or not the goal has been achieved.
- Determine your target
Ideally this is an individual, and that individual has the power to make the change you seek. You may have multiple sub-targets but keep the pressure on key decision-makers.
- Outline your sources of power
Who are your allies? Who else cares about this cause, and what can they offer? What resources do you have access to? How can you leverage these things in protesting more effectively? Remember, public support is a source of power.
- What does your target care about?
List the assets your target cares about. If they work for a company, how can you affect their profits? If they are a politician, how can you affect their reputation with their constituents? What do they care about more than your cause?
- Come up with a list of potential actions
Based on steps 1-4, plan some protests (or other actions) that you can use to put pressure on your target. Note which actions will help grow your leverage (such as gaining new followers, exposing the target’s weakness, or increasing public support).
- Sort your potential actions with the easiest and simplest first
Organizing is not about one protest. You are building a movement. Your first action should be the one that requires the least power/support and large protests that require a large turnout should be bolstered by the actions in between that will grow your movement.
- Confront your target
The first and simplest step is always to ask the target to give you what you want. This only takes a handful of people. Send the results of this to the media.
- Use escalating tactics until your target relents
If you’ve followed the steps above to plan a protest, if your campaign fails it will still have grown. The more you grow, the more leverage you will have. Rinse and repeat.
What happens if we lose?
Look at whether the actions you have organized have grown your support or empowered your movement in other ways. Even if you lose, that means you are still stronger than you were before. What did you learn? What mistakes were made? If your target wasn’t motivated, is there another way you can put pressure on them? Were there in-between steps you might have taken, such as smaller protests, additional allies, or media outreach? Who else cares about this that could be brought in? The second time around you will be stronger and more capable.
Remember, your goal is not to convince the target that you are righteous, your objective is to put enough pressure on them that they would prefer to relent.
What happens if we win?
Be prepared to turn your attention to the next target. Because the focus of an effective direct action protest is highly specific, it is likely there are other, related issues that you want to focus on. Those in power are likely to retaliate if your work is impactful. Be prepared not only to plan your next protest campaign, but also to defend your achievements.
What else do you need to know to plan a powerful protest?
Be sure you understand the fundamentals of direct action. Encourage actions that are creative and make use of participants’ many skills. For any protest you are organizing, include protest planning parties the week before. Any other tips? There’s more to be said, say it in the comments.
Karma has a degree in writing and sociology. She’s an Americorps grad and a board member of the California Writers Club. Her first foray into human rights work was with the Westcott 12 activists who launched a 100+ day camp out in protest of sweatshop labor. Since then she’s organized with IndyMedia, Occupy Oakland, and most recently with Solidaridad Con Los Ninos, a group that organizes caravans to visit detainment centers. She loves street art, poetry, and dancing with wild abandon.