by L.A. Kauffman
Movements almost never win what they’re seeking through individual protests. When they win, they do so through sustained campaigns of targeted pressure, made of many different actions.
It’s easy to lose this perspective when your movement is on the defensive and responding to events as they arise, which was how many of us staggered through the early part of Trump’s presidency. When bad things happen at a fast and furious pace, mobilizing a crisis response is a worthy thing to do, and sometimes the best that you can. You register opposition to the horrors, in the hope that doing so will hold off some of the damage.
But we now have new political openings. Thanks to the extraordinary grassroots hustle that swayed so many races in the midterm elections, we can think bigger. Now is a perfect time to step back and consider how our movements can go beyond pop-up protests that simply voice disagreement into sustained campaigns of pressure designed to isolate, weaken, and ultimately defeat the Trump administration.
Campaigns of direct action and civil resistance have a logic different from that of electoral campaigns. As Dr. Martin Luther King famously put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” nonviolent direct action seeks to create a crisis for those in power, placing them in a position where they are forced to negotiate or concede.
A single protest, no matter how large, almost never has that kind of effect. To create a crisis for an obstinate opponent, you have to impart a sense of mounting pressure., You do that through sustained action and planned escalation.
Show up outside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office once with a crowd of several hundred demonstrators to demand that he stop cooperating with Trump, and he’ll notice, but he can shrug it off. Organize a series of protests, and he’ll find them less easy to dismiss or downplay. Design them to get larger and larger, and you’ll start really getting his attention. Add in stronger tactics of nonviolent direct action – maybe a small blockade of his office door one week, followed by a larger blockade the following week, followed by a small office sit-in, followed by a larger office sit-in – and you become a problem he can’t ignore.
Thinking through a campaign plan will change how you design each action. If you’re planning a protest as a one-off event, you’ll almost certainly be trying to make it as big and as strong as possible. You’ll throw everything into it and call in all your supporters, hoping for a big turnout and a huge splash.
If instead you’re thinking about each action as a step in a sustained pressure campaign, you’ll approach things differently. You might purposely start with something small, so that you can begin to create a sense of surge with the support you already have. Maybe you design your first protest so it’s only 50 people instead of the several hundred you know you can mobilize; that way you can easily organize a larger follow-up action and convey a sense of growing impatience around your demands. Maybe you choose a very mild tactic at the beginning, like a silent vigil (or a series of ever-larger silent vigils), and only then follow up with something a little stronger like a picket line. If there are 50 people in your group who are willing to risk arrest in a nonviolent direct action, maybe you only deploy 15 of them for the first blockade, and save 35 for the next one.
When you’re thinking about ways to plan escalation, be creative. Sometimes you can do it through increasing your numbers; other times, it’s by switching tactics or tone. A picket line with a brass band in the mix, for instance, will be more forceful than one that’s just a group of protesters. And sometimes you can build pressure through sheer endurance, by relentlessly using the same tactic over and over again.
You will want to think, at every step of your campaign, about how to involve more people. In this era of digital organizing, groups often forget the power of paper: It’s important to have something to hand out at every action that tells bystanders who you are and how they can join the effort. Give them clear information on how to connect with your group, as well as a concrete action step they can take right away, like making a phone call to the target of your protest to voice their support. If one or more of your actions generates a lot of attention, consider following up by organizing a well-publicized special meeting for new recruits and plugging them into your group’s work.
Thinking in terms of sustained campaigns rather than isolated actions will also help you avoid a common activist pitfall: building your movement’s identity around a tactic (like occupying), or seeing a tactic as a principle rather than a tool. Some groups will completely reject mild tactics like letter-writing or phone calls to the Congressional representatives because they see them as intrinsically weak, rather than considering where they might fit in to an unfolding series of actions. Nonviolent civil disobedience tactics can be extremely powerful, but don’t use them prematurely or to the exclusion of other tactics just because they seem badass. Think carefully about when and where they’ll have the greatest strategic impact, and help generate the crisis that can enable you to win.