Presuming you have enough participants handy, an effective protest really only needs two things: An objective and a targeted means of achieving that objective. Take the NoDAPL protesters, who are currently fighting against the construction of an oil pipeline through Standing Rock Sioux land. They are likely to get what they want, Trump’s ascendance notwithstanding. Their entire campaign is effectively a single protest. They have a very specific goal and they can impede the construction efforts sufficiently that it will be very difficult to continue construction without assent from the reservation residents, and such assent would likely come with considerable concessions. This means at least a partial success is likely. Longer campaigns can have more open goals than NoDAPL, but individual protest actions should be connected to outcomes, even if the outcome itself is considered to be modest.

Confusion arises when people think that protest actions are about emotional fulfillment of some kind or another. Even protesters themselves often make the mistake of thinking that the emotional high of public outcry is itself the purpose. Take for instance the #TrumpCup protest. This is an example of a protest with neither goals, nor a means to accomplish a goal were one to exist. The protest lacks both coercive or incentive function.

The protest works like this: People who object to Starbucks’s supposed maltreatment of a Trump supporter began to make a point of purchasing, at regular menu price, beverages and requesting that the name on the cup be Trump. If the goal is in fact, to make people say the name “Trump,” then it has been a spectacular success. However, I suspect if you asked the people participating in the protest whether a problem with the world is that Trump’s name isn’t mentioned enough, most would say that this isn’t the issue. Yet if you ask Starbucks if there is a behavior that they are considering changing as a result of this action, and I doubt they would answer that any of their policies should change in response to this protest. Indeed, that has largely been their response.

Alternatively, we can look at a protest campaign that has a specific goal, but lacks a targeted means of achieving that goal. The Phelps clan has gained notoriety in the United States for protesting at soldier’s funerals. One goal was to reverse the normalization and integration of homosexuals into mainstream society. Yes, it’s quite the grandiose goal, and inversely proportional to that grandiosity was the effectiveness of the means they chose to achieve that objective. It’s difficult to say what kind of a protest would have been more effective for the Westboro Baptist Church, hinting that all goals and protests are constrained by various realities.

An example of a protest that had potentially excellent means, but lacked a meaningful objective to work commensurate with those means, was Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. It even had intellectual heavyweights behind it, like Joseph Stiglitz, and Frances Fox Piven. The left will jump up and down in anger at this, but the lack of specific goals directly tied to specific methods doomed them. As time wore on, there were numerous attempts to rationalize the lack of goals, or even declaim their necessity entirely. Even now, some who read this will attribute the failure of Occupy to the eventual police demolition of the encampments. There is considerable irony in the Newsbusters advertisement that inspired the protests, with the headline, “What is our one demand?”


The reality is that with the number of occupy protesters willing to employ civil disobedience, a great deal that was possible may have been squandered. Having general open-ended goals, like reducing the influence of banks on politics is perfectly acceptable, but they have to be part of a larger and more resilient campaign. Once people are in the streets and performing civil disobedience, having a specific target to direct this civil disobedience at is extremely important. A march of 4,000 people peacefully pushing their way into the New York Stock exchange, or even attempting to do so, would have lead to trading losses and had an economic impact. A further promise to continue such action unless the banking industry voluntarily stopped lobbying against reforms, or if specific reforms were passed, would have likely had more of an impact. The caveat here is that determining what could have been is fraught with considerations that are difficult to determine. Speculative history is a dubious enterprise.

This isn’t to say that Occupy had no success. Indeed the limited success of Occupy Wall Street was to ultimately focus the eye of the media onto a number of salient political issues. It also served as the genesis of a broader campaign. This is not nothing, but if you asked the protesters if that was a fully satisfying end-result, it is doubtful they would agree. The Occupy protests were dominated by an air of transcendence, hope, and real sense of autonomy and power. This is evidenced in the remarks made specifically about why goals (demands) were unnecessary by Judith Butler,

People have asked, so what are the demands? What are the demands all of these people are making? Either they say there are no demands and that leaves your critics confused, or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands. And the impossible demands, they say, are just not practical. If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible — that the right to shelter, food and employment are impossible demands, then we demand the impossible. If it is impossible to demand that those who profit from the recession redistribute their wealth and cease their greed, then yes, we demand the impossible.

Herein lies an inherent danger in protests that must be resisted with discipline. Not unlike soldiers on the battlefield, protesters feel an exhilaration, and this exhilaration is intoxicating. Militaries compensate for this expected effect with discipline and command structures. Protests and non-violent resistance usually (though not necessarily) eschew these structures, and must compensate by constantly reiterating goals and transmitting them through the participants.

This isn’t to say that such protests as rallies and marches to raise awareness are useless. If anything such marches and rallies always tend to receive some coverage from at least local press. Awareness itself can certainly be a worthy goal, unless the matter you wish to increase awareness of is cancer. Cancer needs research funding, not “awareness.” Solidarity marches are also useful when they embolden protesters that aren’t necessarily within close geographic proximity, and can be useful fundraisers. In fact, conducting solidarity marches without a collection box somewhere is tantamount to protest malpractice. In solidarity marches, in addition to resources like money, always send notes of support and if possible a physical ambassador. Solidarity rallies and marches can serve to boost morale, and this end should be kept in mind in addition to keeping the issue alive in the media.

However, many protests seem uncertain of their goals, or alternatively form spontaneously from mass anger and fizzle when goals do not materialize. People can only sustain anger, outrage, and (if outside) exposure, for a certain period of time, and one of the most effective tactics of people who combat protests is to avoid provocations of outrage and subsequent sympathy that would drive increased participation and energy in the protest. This is much harder to do when protests are out to achieve a specific goal or set of goals that force the hand of the authorities. Alternatively, protest should accomplish its goals before the energy of the participants flags. As for what constitutes a good goal and good means, this will be developed further in subsequent posts.

One thought on “Protest Is Not About Catharsis

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