Asking the Wrong Questions About Protest

We social movement scholars are in the news a lot these days. There have been massive protests since the election of Donald Trump. Reporters want to know: will the protests be effective? Do protests work or are they just ego-trips of protesters? How can protesters be sure they can win? These are the wrong questions because they presuppose that people can just make the right choices and gain victory.

To be sure, there are things that are correlated with the effects of protest, and many of my respected colleagues have obliged reporters by giving them some of the answers. The most important one is size: absolutely, yes, bigger and more sustained protests are more likely to get at least some of what they want than smaller more ephemeral protests. Non-violent protest is more likely to win than violent protest. Successful movements combine street protests with other strategies. Proactive protests (where the protesters have the initiative) are more likely to win than reactive protests (where the opposition has the initiative and the protesters are scrambling to keep up). Left out of the recent news coverage is another generalization I think is often important: moderate groups in a field where there are more radical groups are more likely to gain victories than comparably moderate groups where nobody is more radical than they are (what we call “radical flank effects”).

But even these broad patterns are not always true: some very large and sustained protest movements that stay nonviolent, employ other strategies along with protest, and have radical flanks are still utterly defeated. Violence is sometimes effective, especially if your group is already strong or the violence works as a radical flank effect. Radical flanks help moderates win but not always: sometimes opponents successfully equate the whole movement with the radical flank. Small reactive protests sometimes achieve big victories. Even less consistent are other factors some scholars cite, like whether narrow or broad agendas or coalitions are more effective or whether and how to craft a message to it speaks to bystanders.

Bystanders are the people in the middle who are neither protesters nor their targets. The reactions of bystanders are often crucial. Will the protest win their sympathy or motivate them to join the movement? Or will it alienate them? Protest is often polarizing, challenging people to choose which side they are on. If the protest leads bystanders to choose the opponent’s side, it can backfire. And even when they don’t side with opponents, if bystanders dislike the protesters they may tolerate repression against them.

Although the disruptive anti-war protests of the late 1960s were important for pressuring the regime to scale back the Viet Nam War, they also alienated sizeable fractions of the US public. There was a significant fraction of the US population who opposed the war because US personnel were dying in it to no apparent purpose but who also opposed the anti-War protesters and their larger political and cultural ideologies. The wave of Black urban riots had the direct effect of increasing social welfare policies to calm things down and opening some doors for advancement via affirmative action and passage of anti-segregation laws, but also led to escalated police repression of Black communities and fed into the mass incarceration boom. The massive Wisconsin Uprising protests of 2011 ultimately failed to change policies enacted by the Republican Governor and Legislature and had the effect of increasing polarization and strengthening support for the Governor among those who were not opposed to him (i.e. hollowing out the middle).

All of these discussions also ignore structural power imbalances. This week’s anti-Trump protests basically pit two large majority groups against each other: White liberal Democrats and White conservative Republicans. The Republicans have gained control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, but the Democrats also have substantial bases of power and are only recently out of power in the national government. The bases of other movements like Black Lives Matter or immigrant rights or transgender rights are smaller disadvantaged minorities. Smaller, weaker groups are much more likely to experience police repression if they protest disruptively, lack the raw numbers to have the same level of power as majority groups, need allies to win, and are more likely to suffer defeat no matter what they do.

Media cycles and protester fatigue matter, too. It has long been recognized that there are “media attention cycles.” Something is big news for a while, then news attention wears out on that issue and moves on to something else. Research shows that protests are less likely to make it into the news both before and after the spike in news coverage. The way news media portray the protest issue and the protesters is crucial to how it will affect bystanders. Businesses and civic actors that support or tolerate protest in the short run become weary of ongoing disruption and become more supportive of repressing protest the longer it lasts. One common finding is that police become more repressive toward protesters after the media attention cycle has turned away.

And the protesters themselves have to go home at some point. Unless the entire society has fallen apart and people have no homes or jobs, they will have to return to life maintenance activities. It is just not possible to be in the streets day after day, unless you have someone else taking care of your home front. Leaders of a white hot mobilization at some point look for a way to end the protest and claim at least a short term victory, before the protest collapses from exhaustion. Movements that want to sustain themselves for the long haul look for ways to take breaks and put rhythms into their protest. Teacher protesters in the 2011 Wisconsin uprising worked out a schedule of rotation for protest days because they knew people simply could not protest day after day. Protesters now are conveying messages to each other about how to maintain protest pressure while getting back to work and maintaining life and doing self-care.

Protest is always at least two-sided and typically multi-sided in its effects. Protest is a tool for the disempowered and those out of power to express dissent, to call attention to a grievance, to create pressure for policy change through disrupting institutions or systems, or to topple a regime through disruption or violence. Protest has produced large-scale social change. But the protesters are not the only actors in the system. That a group is protesting at all is usually a sign that it is in a weak or at least defensive position. People who already have power and privilege usually don’t protest because they don’t need to protest to get what they want. They just get it through the normal workings of the system, or through political control or back-stage lobbying. These powerful people do not just give up when they are the targets of protest, they look for ways to counter the protest. They try to ignore it, or trivialize it, or outlast it, or repress it. If the protest keeps going and seems to be winning, they will engage in ideological campaigns or promote counter-protests, or escalate the repression.

In a ball game, you know what things it takes to win, but it is still the case that every ball game has a loser. The outcome is a result of the relative strength of each side, but also luck and the ability to out-smart the other side and do something unexpected. A protest field is like a ball game in that the outcome depends on the interactions between the sides and elements of luck. Except that the protest field has 12 teams, each trying to win with a somewhat different vision of what winning would mean, employing a wide variety of different kinds of tactics, forming temporary coalitions with other teams, trying to out-guess and out-think those opposed to their interests, and having somewhat different ideas of what the legitimate rules of the game are. Protest is a complex chaotic system in which intentional human actors can and do change tactics in light of their predictions about what others will do. Even systems that follow the strict laws of physics, like the weather, are unpredictable when they involve a large number of independent probabilistic factors in complex nonlinear interactions. When you add human intentionality to the mix, you really cannot generate consistent predictions about outcomes.

Strategy always matters in this complex field, but it has to be a strategy that is constantly adapting to the actions of opponents and bystanders, seeking ways to gain allies and an advantage over opponents. It is easier to develop strategy in a proactive protest where you can take your time, quietly build support and alliances before going public, and work out clear demands. In a reactive protest where the opponent has the initiative, coalitions are cobbled together quickly among people with divergent goals and tactical repertoires, communication and coordination are often poor, and groups argue about what the best response is in the face of time pressures and uncertainty. They disagree about whether a particular response is appropriate or an overreaction. They are not sure where the mass of public opinion is, what actions will attract or repel allies, or how to deploy their resources. In the current period, protesters are not sure whether they are facing an authoritarian coup or “merely” a weak and losing position in the normal game of democratic politics. This is not because they are stupid or have failed to study the playbook. It is because there are too many uncertainties in the game.



  1. Not so sure about non violient protests are more effective, Gamson’s Strategy of Social Protest and the empirical works that test Piven and Cloward’s work on rebellion and welfare programs find evidence for the power of violence and riots under the right circumstances.

    1. Yep. I made this point about violence in paragraph 3. Regarding the effect of the riots, paragraph 5. It’s a long post. Also important to distinguish between disruption and violence. My reading of Gamson (and I admit it has probably been a decade or more since I reread) is that violence-users are typically strong movements before they use violence and that’s why violence use is associated with winning. I associate use of violence primarily with White supremacist movements. Use of violence (or threat of use of violence) by weak groups gets them killed. Piven and Cloward advocate disruption and turmoil, but I reference the difference between short term and long term effects. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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