Why Protests Fail

Why Protests Fail
(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Much like 2020, 1968 was a year of massive unrest. Starting with four days of riots that spread throughout the country following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., continuing with the race-fueled Watts riots in Los Angeles and culminating with the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where protests against the Vietnam War spun out of control and were violently put down.

Nineteen sixty-eight also marked a turning point in which much of the great social and economic progress made since the end of World War II ground to a halt. Essentially, when “I have a dream” turned to “by any means necessary,” all impetus for meaningful change dissipated. The 1970s would be remembered as an era of social and economic malaise.

Yet the past is not always prologue, and history does not need to repeat itself. Although the country is likely to remain divided for the foreseeable future, meaningful, positive change is not only possible, but firmly within reach. What’s needed, however, is not the passion and fervor of zealots, but effective strategies that promote mutual understanding. Lasting change is always built on common ground.

Here are some basic principles.

Mobilize People To Influence Institutions

Recent movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Gezi Park protests and Black Lives Matter inspired thousands of people to flock to the streets with ardent calls for change, but achieved little. They were, to paraphrase Shakespeare, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The recent storming of the U.S. Capitol probably had the opposite of the intended effect, allying institutional power against the protesters.

Today, there’s no shortage of important issues that arouse passions. But significant change requires more than protests and marches. The truth is that nobody cares if you want to sleep in a park or shout slogans on the streets. To make a real impact, you need to influence institutions.

For example, little was achieved from the marches organized in the wake of George Floyd’s death, but the Facebook boycott organized by Stop Hate for Profit had a real effect on corporate behavior. “March for our Lives” activist David Hogg used a similar strategy when he tweeted out Laura Ingraham's corporate sponsors after she attacked him, many of which quickly began pulling their ads

As Martin Luther King’s biographer, Clayborne Carson, put it, “a social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” There is no point in just riling people up. For every action, you need to ask, “who are we mobilizing and to influence what?”

Shift to shared values

Many would-be revolutionaries are frustrated marketers. They want to differentiate themselves in the marketplace of ideas through catchy slogans that “cut through.” By emphasizing difference, they seek to stoke enthusiasm among their most loyal supporters. Yet to achieve real change, you must appeal to shared values.

For decades the LGBTQ movement spun its wheels shouting slogans like “we’re here, we’re queer and we’d like to say hello.” They led a different lifestyle and wanted to demand that their dignity be recognized. Yet they only began to gain traction when they started to assert shared values, like the desire to live in committed relationships and raise happy families. 

More recently, Black Lives Matter activists have made calls to “defund the police,” which many found shocking and anarchistic. It may have sounded inspiring to those passionate about ending police violence, but ignored the fact that most people look to law enforcement to keep them and their families safe. 

The best way to identify shared values is to listen to your opposition. Just as LGBTQ activists exploited the call for “family values” into an appeal for same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter activists can leverage accusations of “chaos and anarchy” into calls to promote safe neighborhoods and police accountability. Much like the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, such a strategy could leverage significant corporate support.

Shifting focus from differentiating values to shared values is in no way a compromise, it simply creates an effective entry point for people to understand your cause better. Certainly, focusing on families did nothing to make anyone less gay. 

Strength against weakness

Tough, important battles can only be won with good tactics, which is why successful change agents learn how to adopt the principle of Schwerpunkt. The idea is that you want to focus on your opponent’s weakness and win a decisive victory at a particular point of attack.

In the 1980s, anti-apartheid activists initiated a campaign against Barclays Bank in British university towns. This of course, had little to no effect on public opinion in South Africa, but it meant a lot to the English university students that the bank wanted to attract. Barclays’ share of student accounts quickly plummeted, and two years later the bank pulled out all of its investments from South Africa.

This is not a static concept. You have to constantly innovate your approach as your opposition adapts to whatever success you may achieve. As the sociologist Doug McAdam has pointed out, the civil rights movement had its first successes with boycotts, but eventually moved on to sit-ins, “Freedom Rides,” community actions and eventually, mass marches.

Today’s activists need to show some of the same strategic flexibility and creativity. Instead of relying on marches to protest police violence, which are easily disrupted by provocateurs, more focus can be put toward police unions that protect abusive officers. These will prove to be far less sympathetic than hardworking cops on the beat. 

Break the cycle of backlash

Legendary activist Saul Alinsky observed that every revolution inspires a counter-revolution, and we’ve certainly seen that to be true. Bill Clinton’s scandals gave way to George Bush’s brand of “compassionate conservatism,” whose shortcomings swept Barack Obama to power. Rural backlash then led to the rise of Donald Trump. 

The pattern repeats with almost metronomic regularity. The ultimate failure of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution gave way to the rise of the Russia-oriented Viktor Yanukovych, whose endemic corruption led to the Euromaidan protests and his ouster. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted in the Arab Spring, only to be replaced by the equally authoritarian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

The truth is that if a change is important and has real potential for impact, there will always be some people who will hate it and will work to undermine it in ways that are dishonest, deceptive and underhanded. Any progress will inspire them to redouble their efforts. That’s why it’s important to learn to anticipate the backlash and plan on how you will survive victory

You do this by not getting stuck on any particular person, policy or tactic, but staying focused on shared values. That underlines the fundamental fallacy of the misguided rioters who recently stormed our nation's Capitol building. By proudly displaying Confederate and Trump flags, they made it clear that they categorically did not share the values of most Americans and their fellow citizens recoiled in horror.

Successful revolutionaries understand that power will not fall simply because you oppose it, but it will crumble if you bring those who support it over to your side. That’s why lasting change is always built on common ground. Our ability to identify and expand common ground will determine whether we spend the next four years mired in inertia or building a new and brighter future.

Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto.

Srdja Popovic is the Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolence Action and Strategies (CANVAS). Named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers and author of Blueprint for Revolution, he was previously a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic.

The views expressed are the authors' own.

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