Why Nonviolent Campaigns, Not Protests, Succeed

by George Lakey

Banner art courtesy Peace & Justice Center; pjcvt.org

How do we figure out how to amplify our power and maximize the chance of winning victories? We can start by freeing up the energy devoted to one-off protests, rallies, and demonstrations. When I look back on the one-off protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed anything. The really spectacular failure was the biggest protest in history, in February 2003. I joined millions of people around the world on the eve of George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. We did get a huge front-page headline in the New York Times, but Bush only needed to wait until we went home.

The Times said the protest indicated a “second global superpower,” but the Times was wrong. A one-off protest is for venting, not for exerting power. 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. The peace movement has not recovered, despite the American majority’s fairly consistent opposition to war. Recent polls, for example. show a majority of Americans are against sending more troops to Afghanistan. Because of the poor strategic choice to mount a one-off protest, discouragement and inaction followed.

What’s the Alternative?

In order to build the kind of power that creates change you need a direct action campaign that harnesses a series of actions into an escalating sequence. Millions of Americans have participated in the past half-century in such campaigns: bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins, the fight for a living wage, farm-workers’ boycotts, campus divestment campaigns against South African apartheid, countless anti-fossil fuel rallies, strikes against corporations, impeding mountaintop removal coal mining, blocking the U.S. plan to invade Nicaragua, preventing the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite all this, most Americans don’t understand the difference between a protest and a campaign.

A campaign makes a demand and focuses on a specific target that can yield that demand: Taco Bell, a university administration, a bank, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, the federal government’s executive branch. The choice of target is ours, as well as the way we frame the issue and demand.

“Power Local Green Jobs,” Earth Quaker Action Team’s (EQAT) 2016 campaign, framed the issue as one of racial and economic justice as well as fossil fuels. EQAT targeted a local utility owned by the national energy corporation Exelon. The demand was a substantial leap for the utility, to convert from less than 2 percent solar energy to 20 percent in 10 years.

EQAT’s choice of demands illustrates how campaigns work: Campaigners usually demand something hard but winnable. EQAT defied conventional wisdom in its first campaign by going after the seventh-largest bank in the United States and demanding that it stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

Campaigns Build Movements

We might expect that the largest global peace protest in history would produce a mighty movement, but it didn’t. One-shot wonders, no matter how well publicized, rarely produce movements that get concrete wins. The typical protest is organizationally hollow, unsustainable, and not really a problem for the economic elite, which above all fears our staying power.

Campaigns are very different from protests because they are built for sustainability and escalation. The four Greensboro students — who ignited the civil rights sit-in movement on February 1, 1960 — did not plan their brave act as a one-off protest; they understood they could not desegregate the lunch counter without returning again and again, no matter how often arrested or beaten up. What’s more, these were black students, who knew full well that black people were at greater risk of severe consequences when engaged in civil disobedience.

Each civil rights campaign had its target: a department store or restaurant or school board or bus company. This target must have the option of saying “yes” to a demand. When a campaign inspires other campaigns, the sum of them becomes a movement. Today we see the same phenomenon: A cluster of campaigns related to a theme becomes a movement, like the fight for a living wage or against pipelines.

One reason why observers wonder if the Black Lives Matter activists have staying power is because it is unclear how many of the local protests against killings by police are transforming into genuine campaigns, with winnable demands, targets that can yield those demands, and a strategy for growth and escalation. Without that transformation, there is no reason to expect an increase in justice. Systemic abusive police practices, rooted in a culture of impunity, are impervious to expressions of outrage; it takes sustained power to force a real shift.

Movements Can Win, When Some Individual Campaigns Cannot

Waging Nonviolence contributor Will Lawrence found encouragement when he analyzed the 1970s grassroots movement that stopped the 1 percent’s plan for a thousand U.S. nuclear power plants. Some large and widely-publicized campaigns failed to prevent the construction of particular nuclear plants, but the movement won anyway. That same record of campaign wins and losses operated in the civil rights movement and in the movement pressing for divestment from apartheid — and both movements scored substantial overall success. The analogy in military struggles is losing some battles, but winning the war. Campaign activists in a movement often understand this dynamic. They realize that, even though they cannot control whether they will win their own campaign, pushing hard locally counts toward winning the movement’s overall goal. That local understanding builds the power of the total movement because it motivates increased effort and smarter strategizing.

I can’t prove this yet, but I believe this dynamic also increases a movement’s yield of skilled and committed activists for the longer run. Dropping out of the larger struggle for change often happens when a particular movement ages out. Many participants move on, at least for a period. The long-term struggle for justice and peace benefits, however, from those who adopt an activist identity and join a new campaign, bringing with them the skills and experience that they earned previously. How does this activist identity emerge? While it’s hard to say precisely, I believe that it is far more likely to develop in a campaign than in a series of one-off protests.

Why Campaigns Are Effective for Developing Activists

Campaigns give us feedback on how we’re doing. The impact of one-off protests is tough to measure, making it hard to see how we can improve to step up our game.

Campaigns are ongoing and therefore invite participants to play what strategist Bill Moyer called the four fundamental roles for social change. Organizers are attracted because they see potential for more growth in numbers. Helpers/community-builders are attracted because they see a need for mutual aid that builds sustainable activists. Advocates are attracted because they see the chance to interface with influencers and decision-makers in a way that gives campaigners leverage points they might otherwise miss. And rebels are attracted because a direct action campaign needs people unafraid of confrontation and conflict.

The campaign as a whole benefits from the presence of all four of these roles because the combination prevents one-sidedness and a danger of the campaigners forming a self-reinforcing “choir” that fails to reach its potential. The four roles together generate dynamism and edginess, developing future self-identified activists/cadres.

Campaigns more than protests benefit from training, and training develops activists for the longer run. Training incorporates new participants and meets specific needs, like ease in relating across barriers of race, class and gender. Training promotes a robust learning curve, essential for the campaign to win and also for leadership development for the future.

Can Campaigns Create Movements That Force a Power Shift?

In researching four countries for my new book Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right-And How We Can, Too (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2017) I found that the movements that forced power shifts were generated by campaigns. In the Norway of the 1920s and ‘30s, for example, campaigns waged by workers and family farmers, supported by middle-class allies, created a majoritarian movement that forced the economic elite out of its dominant place in directing the economy. The movement nonviolently made the country ungovernable through its disruptive power, and the 1 percent was forced to retire from its place at the top.

That power shift opened the space to create what economists call “the Nordic model,” an economy that virtually abolished poverty and promoted historical levels of individual freedom and equality — before Norway found oil. The other three countries I describe in my book — Sweden, Iceland and Denmark — lack the oil but have for decades played musical chairs in the top tier of international measures of justice and shared abundance.

Campaigns can and do generate movements with enormous power. The web-based Global Nonviolent Action Database (nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu) contains over 1,100 campaigns, waged by people of many cultures, backgrounds and goals. The United States has its own legacy of powerful campaigns and a pool of hard-won skills in our population. It’s time to retire one-off protests, and step up to wins that can lay the foundation of a living revolution.

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Lakey is a regular contributor to our site. Please click on his byline to access his Author Archives page for biographical information, links, and an index of other of his articles posted here. This article has been shared with wagingnonviolence.org under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi