Measuring the impact of movements

The current psyche of the protestor is one marred by an appeal to individual ethics and positionality, rather than effective engagement with institutions. It is yelling out into the abyss, hoping for a response, rather than demanding a specific course of action. It is prioritizing the symbolic over the practical. 

Anti-war protests in 2003, the Enough! National School Walkout of 2018 in response to gun violence and, more recently, the September 2019 climate strikes, suffer from these problems; they exert a facade of power, only to end up fragile and set up to fail.

Current protest is synonymous with one-off demonstrations: a strike on a Sunday and back to work the next day. A one-off protest rants but does little to create material change.

George Lakey, an activist involved in direct action campaigns for six decades and a former professor at Swarthmore College, gives the example of 2003 anti-war protests as a failure of one-off demonstrations. 

“A one-off protest is for venting, not for exerting power,” he states. “I realized even at the time that the protest wouldn’t prevent Bush’s war, because the protest’s leadership didn’t tell us what we could do next, and how we would escalate after that. Bush had a plan to persist. We did not.”

As Lakey puts it, leaders often fail to escalate the movement and are instead concerned with demonstrating support of vacuous ideals. In the years following 2003, the peace movement never recovered, despite a majority of Americans consistently opposing war. Fatalism, dissent and inaction all occurred in the aftermath of the demonstrations due to a lack of strategic vision. 

Organizers were able to introduce their voices into the public arena, but at the expense of wasting the public’s limited attention. While protests are described as a way to raise awareness, it’s misguided to assume protests act as segues into campaigns.

The 1960 Greensboro sit-ins are a prime example of a campaign, which, as a part of the Civil Rights Movement, had a clearly defined and achievable goal of desegregating one location; it had sustained and direct action as the students returned each and every day, and placed pressure on the institution by drawing media attention and disrupting business.

Rather than raising awareness, one-off protests do more to disincentivize others from joining the movement due to a perception that “they do nothing.” Additionally, those unaware of the research, time and effort necessary to create broader change enter the movement and exit quickly, ruining the campaign’s sustainability or escalatory potential.

People often want to be part of the spectacle, not the solution.

A prioritization of symbolism over achievable demands further decimates movements. If the institution cannot fulfill demands, then both sides end up at a standstill with no change achieved. 

For example, The Youth vs. Apocalypse organization staged a climate strike at Chevron Headquarters in San Ramon and listed one of its demands for Chevron to transition away from fossil fuels by 2025. The problem of achievability is exemplified here, since Chevron’s business model is largely built off of fossil fuel revenue and six years isn’t enough to successfully transition without incurring huge losses, which makes meeting the demand virtually impossible. Symbolic demands are synonymous to setbacks.

Pressuring institutions to yield to demands to they possibly can’t yield to forces them to find ways to undermine protest, ignore them altogether or provide an illusion of change.

While many appeal to an emotional denouncement of compromise, believing that settling for anything less than perfect helps those in power and often deeming any moderate concession to be unethical makes dealing with forces outside activists’ control impossible and the movement itself strategically inflexible. 

For instance, during the Civil Rights movement, while the state and the structures within it were largely considered to be anti-black, engaging with them was seen as necessary to dismantle harmful policies. The NAACP worked with Federal Communications Commission lawyer Clifford Durr, who was related to Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, in order to ensure a favorable decision in Browder vs. Gayle, which struck down Alabama bus segregation. 

Similarly, big demands require proportional pressure, and therefore campaigns ought to build off previous successes and work within flawed systems, rather than aiming for the end goal from the get-go.

The Earth Quaker Action Team, a grassroots nonviolent action group, demanding that the seventh largest bank in the United States stop financing mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia was something hard to achieve, but not impossible. It built off its success of ending said financing and went after PECO, an energy company based in Philadelphia, successfully forcing it to take its first step towards solar jobs.

But ultimately, making achievable demands and deployment of tactics like sit-ins are useless if there isn’t research done to accompany and inform them. 

William J. Barber, the architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement and former president of the NAACP in North Carolina, explains, “One of the quickest ways for a movement to lose its integrity is to be loud and wrong. We’ve seen too many movements that have bumper sticker sayings but no stats and no depth. Researchers help to protect the moral integrity of a movement by providing sound analysis of the facts and issues at hand.”

Research protects credibility, but also makes strategies more effective. During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, some camps were called on to disband because they didn’t correctly answer the fundamental question of where to protest. Poor research led to protesters standing in freezing weather and areas where contamination of the water was highly likely, which led to dwindling numbers and destroyed resolve. 

Campaigns, prior to their start, must answer questions, including where to protest, which institutions to protest against, how to fund themselves and attract support, and which tactics will amount to the most pressure. Failure to find answers causes unraveled and unsustainable methods of resistance.

If we are to build broader movements that can effectively challenge oppression, we must alter our current modes of protest. The fact is that there is a limited amount of critical energy, which one-off protests sap. Protests require sustainability, research and achievable demands. 

At its core, politics is a game of inches, not miles, but progressive change stalls every time we neglect to create proto-institutional, highly organized and strategically flexible campaigns and instead we choose to be revolutionaries for a weekend.