Activism: How to Protest Effectively
26 minute read
Updated on Mon Aug 09 2021
What is activism?
- Greta Thunberg - Climate Change - 2003 to Present
- Nelson Mandela - Racial Equality in South Africa - 1918 to 2013
- Malala Yousafzai - Female Education - 1997 to Present
What do activists do?
These groups sometimes organise large protests. For example, in March 2019 a number of organisations held the first “Global Climate Strike”, where an estimated 1.6 million people took to the streets in cities around the world to demand climate action.
But does any of this actually work?
Activists seek many goals with their protests. The two biggest are triggering direct action from the government, and changing moods within a wider population by raising awareness. Let’s take a look at these one by one…
Goal 1: Make things happen
However, because governments make decisions for a number of reasons, it is often extremely difficult to know whether government action comes as a direct result of protests. This makes it hard to know whether the protest itself was successful at causing the change.
Plus, governments sometimes take action which harms protesters, rather than helping them. For example, in June 2020 around 15-26 million Americans took part in largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests around the country. In some places, the police responded with disproportionate violence, including firing rubber bullets and spraying tear gas at protesters.
This can happen to environmental activists too: in 2019, French police used tear gas on a group of climate protesters blocking a bridge in Paris. In some countries, law enforcement can be much harsher on protesters, for example through arrest or violence.
While protesters like the Wet’suwet’en protesters in Canada have clear demands, a protest is not necessarily a failure if these are not met. This is because protesters have another goal too...
Goal 2: Change people’s minds
One way is by changing the words and images people use to describe an issue.
For example, in recent years the language of climate activism has shifted from tree-hugging concerns about the Earth (think of polar bears) to concerns about the impacts of climate change on people and justice. This imagery tends to move people to act a lot more effectively.
Protesters aim to change people’s views about a topic, too. For example, look at how American public opinion has changed since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020:
It is impossible to tell how much of this change can be linked to the protests, but activists should take some credit for the change of national perspective.
In 2009, an organisation called the “Tea Party” organised protests to support conservative politicians in the USA. One study found evidence that having one more protester at these events led to 12 more conservative votes!
When do protests work?
But how big does a protest need to be?
But studies looking at other types of protest have found that you need far more people - up to a quarter of a country’s population. What they all agree on, however, is that the bigger the protest, the higher the chance of it being successful.
More problematically, when there are two big protest movements on either side of an argument, their views can become even more extreme. This makes the problem worse because it becomes harder for each side to find middle ground and compromise. This is known as polarisation.
This isn’t to say that if a protest is big enough it will always be successful. For example, after the 2008 global financial crash, anti-inequality protests attracted millions of protesters around the world. Despite this, global inequality is now worse than ever.
Why violence fails
You might think that, since protests are partly a struggle for attention, more extreme or violent protests attract more attention and so are more successful.
- Make it harder for lots of people to get involved, since some people are unable to take part in violent activity (e.g. young people), or are scared to. This limits the size of violent protests, which is the most important factor.
- Increase the chance that forces will respond disproportionally, which quashes the protest.
One way that activism happens online is through petitions...
What is a petition?
Yet even this does not mean that the request will be granted. In fact, in 2017 four of the ten most signed petitions were not even debated, and not a single one of them was successful. Those are not great numbers!
Should I sign a petition?
There are some benefits to petitions, though.
This helps more people to engage with issues. Though online activists may spend less time being an ‘activist’ than those attending physical protests, it’s possible to argue that the sheer number of them make them an equally impactful part of a movement as the core minority.
Also, online activism is a great stepping stone for people to become more passionate about issues and move onto more direct forms. Take a look:
There is no harm in signing as many petitions as you feel passionate about, as long as every click is met with real online or physical action, or further education!
Unlike the other personal steps we’ve looked at in this course, there’s no way to say how much CO₂ could be saved by taking part in protests.
But we can look at the ways past protests have been successful in changing how people think about an issue in order to learn how these could be applied to the environmental movement.
As long as you stay thoughtful and safe, and match activism with real life-long commitments to change, there’s little harm in making your voice heard, and there’s a chance you could contribute towards meaningful change.
If you do decide to go to a protest, it is very important to remember that protesting, no matter how peaceful, isn’t always safe or legal. Make sure to prepare well and research the laws and rights in your country before heading off.Next Chapter