Communities around the country are mobilizing for economic equity, LGBTQ+ rights, and racial justice. Republicans are poised to win huge gains in this fall’s elections as trust in institutions—from the courts to the schools to the military—plummets (Politico, Gallup). Social issues naively considered “just settled” are now revealed as being, in the words of Vice President Harris, “real unsettled” (CBS). Marches, demonstrations, and protests are all crucial—and understanding the rationale behind them is, too. Today, we’ll look at three protest strategies for creating change. With so much at stake, using effective protest strategies is now more important than ever.
• Take the next step and join an ongoing mass movement against police violence, mass incarceration, domestic and sexual violence, or another cause.
• Consider: what actions have you taken in support of social justice? Are you applying pressure strategically to create positive change? Are there actions you’ve taken that might be considered more performative than strategic? How can you best support oppressed communities given your position as polarization and social conflict increase?
What are protest strategies and tactics?
Every protest movement involves people cooperating to achieve common goals by opposing political, social, or economic elites. In military terms, tactics describe what happens on a battlefield, while strategy is the higher level of planning that looks at all the battles over the course of a war (Esquire). Protest tactics are specific activities, events, or tools that social movements use, from letter writing to marching in the streets to shutting down a city. Protest tactics can fit into three major overarching strategies for creating change. They can be used to apply economic pressure, increase political pressure, or create direct action.
Economic pressure hurts decision-makers’ pockets until they do the right thing. In a strike, workers ensure the business owner won’t make any profits until they give in to the workers’ demands. In a boycott, consumers refuse to purchase from a certain business, industry, or national economy until changes are made (Insider, AFSC). When thousands of grape workers went on strike to demand a wage increase to $1.40 an hour, they also called for a nationwide consumer boycott of Delano grapes (Grunge). A negative PR campaign against a bad business is a form of economic pressure, as is targeted property destruction (The Nation).
Political pressure hurts an opponent’s social standing or institutional legitimacy. The most obvious example is an electoral campaign against an incumbent politician: once they’re out of office, they’ll lose the power that comes with it. But even between elections, social movements can attack an elected official’s legitimacy, position, and relationships with funders and allies. Sri Lankan protestors forced the prime minister to resign by storming his mansion (and swimming in his pool) (CNN). Rallying outside a politician or Supreme Court Justice’s home is another form.
Political and economic pressure push decision-makers to act differently. Direct action is different in that it mobilizes people to make change directly rather than appealing to people in power, encouraging participants to “achieve our goals through our own activity rather than through the actions of others” (AK Press). Black protestors sitting at white-only lunch counters is one example; opposing the construction of a police training camp in the Atlanta forest by physically blocking construction machinery is another (Letter from Jail, IGD).
How do movements win?
It isn’t necessary to pick a single strategy. For instance, desegregation sit-ins were direct action that applied economic pressure to restaurants by disrupting businesses and increased political pressure on politicians to pass legislation. Responding to unjustified police murders with local property destruction puts economic and political pressure on an unaccountable system (Rolling Stone); poor people feeding themselves by taking things from stores is simultaneously direct action (New Inquiry). It’s also unnecessary to endorse all protest tactics associated with a particular strategy. Some people who apply political pressure by voting wouldn’t apply political pressure by protesting outside a politician’s home; others might do the opposite (Huffington Post, NCR).
But it’s crucial to understand protest and social movements in a strategic way. The actions we take need to either put political and economic pressure on specific decision-makers to force them to do the right thing or directly create the conditions we want in our communities. Otherwise, we risk taking action that might feel good or get us accolades without materially changing the balance of power and creating a more equitable society.
Supporting a boycott is strategic, but making a singular decision not to purchase a product doesn’t pressure anyone. Publicly pressuring or campaigning for or against a politician can be strategic, but relying solely on your one vote as the high-water mark of political engagement isn’t—you have a greater chance of dying in a car crash on the way to vote than influencing a presidential election (Forbes). The stakes of collective action aren’t self-expression, assuaging our guilt, or speaking our truth: they’re whether we and the people around us get free or die. We need to understand protest as part of a real struggle that we don’t have the luxury of losing.
• Some protest movements apply economic or political pressure on decision-makers.
• Others actively create desired conditions through direct action.
• Our protest movements must be strategic, not performative; the objective is to win.