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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Using Protesting as a tactic, efficiently


The recent "Occupy Wall Street" offers a good current example of a common political tactic: protesting. Having a protest seems like a self-validating enterprise: just by doing it, it's successful. But as any participant and every organizer knows, five minutes into any protest everyone is asking, "why am I here, what's the point?" Displaying collective outrage is good in small doses, but if you want it to go on longer, you need to have a plan.

So let's discuss what that plan might be.

Every organization suffers if it's essentially listless and directionless. You need a mission statement, which we've discussed before, and you also need concrete demands and goals. The mission statement is your statement of timeless values, the first principles that motivate you, your intellectual non-negotiables. Your demands are the tangible things right here right now that could be changed to better reflect those values. If you are anti-war, your mission statement says that you hate violence, and your demands are to remove the troops from a foreign conflict. If you hate the United Nations, your value is likely either state sovereignty or local control, and your demand is to cut funds from annual contributions to the organization. Your mission statement is an abstract set of values, your demands are a tangible set of measurable actions.

In writing this I know it sounds like a formality, it sounds like a boilerplate thing you can just copy and paste from elsewhere, but you're shooting yourself in the foot to do that. Ask yourself, what values am I motivated by, and what do I want to accomplish? This doesn't have to take an hour, maybe you can do it in five minutes. But whatever you come up with, write it down, put it on paper, and use it to help orient your later actions.
Protesting just to protest is a lazy leader's way of
looking active. Tie your protests to your mission,
make the most of your members' time and effort.

Your protest, then, fits with that mission and those demands. Your protest can help grease the political wheels in accomplishing your demands. It's hard to make protests an effective use of your organizing time. Which is why getting into the numbers game is probably unwise, especially for smaller or startup campaigns and organizations. But you'll so often hear that "let's just go protest" that, in the right setting, it can be a good thing that energizes your people and motivates them, as well as bringing attention to your cause or campaign.

Every protest, every activity, should have concrete goals. Your participants should be able to say, "I'm here to bring awareness to [insert demand] because I believe in [insert value] and the people need to see that so [insert decision-maker] can do it."

Every single person should understand that's the reason you're there. You have a clear mission, demands and the collective consciousness wants that thing done.

Many major protests in recent years have tried a model of having no discernible purpose to their protests, just venting collective angst. The 2000 IMF protests were one example, and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests are unfortunately falling into the same trap: failing to clarify goals and demands. To the extent that such goals can be assumed, it's that the current economic system is broken, which most people can agree with, but their demands are cloudy. And their identification of the decision-maker is also messy. And their identification of the decision-maker is also unclear. 

If your demand was to change the economic system, you're likely going to be able to do that only from Washington. Washington, however, is almost famous for controlling, stunting and dulling any organized protest movement. Even getting a million people out on the capital lawn doesn't really accomplish any tangible demand. It becomes a circus and publicity event of sorts, but one with enormous costs.

You want to identify a decision-maker, you want to find who can make the change that you seek.

If you want lower tuition on a college campus, even your university president likely can't deliver that demand, you'd want to focus on the board of trustees. If you're protesting police brutality, then focusing on the committee that funds and oversees the police is likely your best bet. You have to find, identify and focus your efforts on the decision-maker.

Let's look at a few comments from Occupy Wall Street protesters as to why they're there:

1. To remove corporations from influencing politics

2. To bring awareness to the extreme amount of corporate control of our government, and the associated collusion/corruption.

3. To install regulations that would keep the wealth of the country from being condensed into the top percentile of our population.

4. Redoing what Congress has been busy undoing for over a decade.

5. Lots of reform.

6. Get money out of politics.

7. Stop buying into the corporations, and try to do things locally

Only using the "Occupy Wall Street" protest as a convenient current example, these statements represent a protest that has become more social than political, more focused on involving disparate interests rather than on shaping the collective consciousness. Instead of trying to make a media splash by giving images of a counter-tea-party, a results-oriented protest could have and should have focused on one decision-maker. Focusing, for example, on the leadership of one of the investment banks who has become a billionaire through artfully channeling government power and displacing that person from power would have been action with results.

It's not enough to take actions. Actions don't mean that you're making any progress, you could just be running in place. Protests are not self-validating. Just taking the action can be a waste if it isn't done to support your mission and to implement your demands.

An upstart campaign sometimes uses a sidewalk rally or a corner cheering squad to build name identification in an area, and that's important because getting that initial name identification is critical. But for organizations and groups with limited time and limited budgets, protesting just to seem active isn't the most efficient use of your time. A protest is an action best served when it is in synch with your campaign or organization's mission and demands.

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