Why protests are usually a waste of time

IssueDecember 2018 - January 2019
Feature by George Lakey


Women’s March, 21 January 2017, San Diego, USA. Photo: Bonzo McGrue (CC BY 2.0)

Protests are well known, and popular. The trouble is, when I look back on the one-off protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed the policy we were protesting against.

In February 2003, I joined millions of others around the world on the eve of US/British war on Iraq. The BBC estimated that a million protested on 15 February in London alone. In the US, unprecedented numbers turned out in 150 cities, according to CBS.

The New York Times said in a front page story that the protest indicated a ‘second global superpower’. I wish. Even while we were in the streets, I realised that the protest wouldn’t prevent the war, because the protest’s leadership wasn’t telling us what we would do next, and that we would escalate after that – how we would take the offensive. The leadership didn’t offer us a campaign.

“George W Bush and Tony Blair had a plan to persist. We did not.”

George W Bush and Tony Blair had a plan to persist. We did not. The peace movement in the US never recovered in the years since, even though the majority shifted and came to agree with us while the war continued. After mounting that one-off protest, and then failing to shift strategy to focus on direct action campaigns, discouragement and inaction accompanied the growing suffering and death in Iraq.

We need sustained struggle

The military equivalent to the one-off protest is a battle. How many generals would plan an initial battle, send the troops home afterwards, and expect a victorious outcome?

The equivalent electoral process in democracies would be the candidate who organises a grand launch with an inspiring speech and a lot of media, then goes home to await the election.

Those at the top of institutions that generate war and injustice do respect power – staying power. After all, they continue to do what they’re doing. Why should they respect an opposition that can’t stick around?

When those who manage war and injustice look at a group of aroused protesters, however large, they ask, does this event represent organisation, or just mobilisation? If it’s simply mobilisation, there’s a good chance it will dissipate. (There are exceptions, of course, when the managers blunder and attack the protesters with flagrant violence, unwittingly stimulating an actual campaign against them.)

If, on the other hand, the action in the streets is a product of organisation, the managers often know they are in trouble. An organised collective force for justice can wage a direct action campaign and actually win.

The contrast between organising and mobilising has been true for a long time, but it is even clearer today because of communication technology. In January 2017, activists using social media produced in just weeks the largest protest in US history, the 21 January Women’s March that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration. The easier it is to mobilise one-off protests, the more likely it is that they are evanescent.

I joined 100,000 others in San Francisco for that 2017 Women’s March and, noting that the organisers didn’t lay out a plan, wrote the next morning a ‘10-Point Plan for Defeating Trump’. The national organisers picked it up, endorsed it, then tweeted the entire 10-Point Plan, one tweet per point.

If the Women’s March had been the product of organisation instead of mobilisation, and people set to work to implement the 10-Point Plan, we could since then have been winning victories and Trump would be stymied. After all, progressives have the majority on our side.

One-offs and protester violence

For mobilising numbers of people, the easiest tactics to use for one-off protest organisers are marches and rallies. Those are also remarkably predictable and boring, likely to raise questions in participants’ minds about effectiveness: ‘How is this march going to change anything?’ Since the leadership isn’t itself offering a plan for escalation, if the issue is emotional the situation begs for some way of escalating on the spot.

This is the opportunity for activists (and police disguised as activists) to appear and start destroying property, perhaps in hopes of escalating further to fighting the police. Even though most participants will see the foolishness of that activity, some will feel the strategic vacuum and join the mayhem, to the delight of the tabloid press and the authorities who may want to muddy the message of the protest.

“Antifa is a rabbit hole. It wants us to invest our energy in a distraction.”

That outcome is even more likely with fascists around, who some participants in a march or rally may be even more distracted by. It’s tempting to engage in a shouting match with fascists, and escalate to a physical fight.

When the event itself is the product of mobilisation, not organisation, there’s little the leadership can do when this happens. Organisation implies strategy, which means anticipating provocation and planning counter-measures. Strategy may also mean planning something more creative than a march or rally – there are hundreds of alternatives.

The likely growth of fascists underlines the importance of shifting from one-off protests to campaigning. Campaigns learn strategy and tactics from each other, and we can learn from others’ successful handling of white supremacists and fascists. The civil rights movement was surrounded by violent extremists, knew they were a distraction from its goal, and responded with a series of moves summed up in the title of the song: ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Prize.’

One reason why antifa is such a rabbit hole is that it wants us to take our eyes off the prize and instead invest our energy in a distraction. [antifa is the Black Block anti-nonviolence anti-fascist movement ­— ed]

What’s more powerful?

Campaigns are not enough to make fundamental change. Other activities are important, like building economic and social alternatives and stimulating cultural and personal transformation. But the power to handle the opposition of a determined or rigid opponent requires a nonviolent action campaign.

Campaigners plan from the start to continue until the goal is reached. The campaign harnesses a series of actions into an escalating sequence. I was fortunate enough to be active in the civil rights movement and see first-hand the dynamics of strategic campaigns that won against all odds. The civil rights movement faced a degree of violence few of us have ever experienced: the Ku Klux Klan, opposition from local and state law enforcement, usually zero protection from the federal government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation worked actively to defeat us.

If the civil rights movement had relied on one-off protests, today’s activists would never have heard of it. The movement had staying power because it used the campaign technique. Each campaign had its target: a department store or restaurant or school board or bus company or political entity. As the trainers of the Midwest Academy [a community organising training academy,] point out, a ‘target’ is able to meet your demand.

Because a campaign is sustained, it has time to bring allies into the struggle. As the civil rights movement matured, it was able to force the federal government to become, against its will, a movement ally through campaigns designed with that effect in mind. Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965 are examples.

The power of direct action campaigning has been tapped by many. British anti-slavery activists forced their country’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 after campaigning that included a boycott. West Indians in Bristol boycotted buses in 1963 and forced hiring of blacks and Asians as drivers and train conductors. That led to the Race Relations Act of 1965 banning discrimination in public areas and housing.

British direct action campaigners forced the cancellation of the 1970 South African cricket tour by disrupting the previous year’s tour by the Springboks. In 2014, the University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels after a year’s direct action campaigning by students.

Although less than a month’s campaigning gave little chance for escalation, British LGBT students did increase their pressure with protest disrobings at a major Pride event. The campaign won its demand in 2015 that fossil fuel giant BP be dropped by UK National Student Pride as a sponsor.

These are only a few of the 1,100 direct action campaigns described online in the Global Nonviolent Action Database (GNAD). Campaigns can be found there from nearly 200 countries, with narratives as well as data points. The campaigns are searchable by location, kind of issue, degree of success, and even by tactics used. Most of the campaigns I refer to in this article you can find in the GNAD.

More than a campaign?

On 13 January 2009, students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies began an occupation demanding the university show solidarity in light of Israel’s attacks. Two days later, students at the London School of Economics did the same. Occupations in at least 14 other British universities followed. This happens frequently enough, even across national borders, that the GNAD calls them ‘waves’ and you can browse for them.

When a campaign inspires other campaigns on the same issue, the sum of them becomes a movement. The movement’s theme might be raising wages or ending arms sales, stopping fracking or banning university fees.

In my new book, released in January 2019 in the UK, How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning, I show how campaigns encourage the growth of movements, and then how movements powered by campaigns can join to become a ‘movement of movements’ with the power to initiate fundamental change well beyond what any campaign or single movement can do.

That’s what happened in the Nordic countries, as I described in Viking Economics: movements of farmers and workers, joined by middle-class students, joined to become movements of movements so powerful that they pushed their 1 percent aside (using direct action) and invented the highest-achieving model yet for equality, justice and individual freedom.

Influential African-American pacifist Bayard Rustin, Statler Hotel, Washington DC, USA, 23 August 1963. Photo: Warren K Leffler via Library of Congress (public domain)
One-offs and strategy

As a youthful activist, I was influenced by Bayard Rustin, the civil rights movement’s leading strategist. He and trade union leader A Philip Randolph knew that the success of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott campaign meant history was ready for a mass movement.

Rustin met black students scattered across the US South who felt the isolation of being among the few on their campuses who were ready for action. He reasoned that getting them together in one place would give them the experience of solidarity they needed, so he and Randolph organised in the late 1950s a series of national youth marches for integration in Washington, DC.

“A ‘movement of movements’ can have the power to initiate fundamental change well beyond what any campaign or single movement can do.”

I was then a student, and showed up to find myself surrounded by black students from the South who were deeply moved to be in the midst of thousands like themselves. They were the ones who went home and started the 1960 sit-in campaigns that rapidly became the sit-in movement, and the rest is history.

Rustin did not call the march in order to give us a collective chance to express our passionate point of view, or because he believed that the government would be at all affected by our being there together. He wanted to strengthen the southern black students’ capacity to initiate campaigns in their localities. He doubted that effect could be achieved through a conference. A conference can bring together thousands of people, but it can’t produce the impact of together moving our bodies from point A to point B.

This is one example of strategic reasoning that can rightly motivate a one-off protest. I offer others in How We Win. The bottom line is strategy, and where we learn strategy is in campaigning, not in events-planning.


Swedish trade unions demonstrate on 1 May 1890 in Sundsvall, Sweden. This date was the first international labour day, following agreement at the Second International in July 1889. The banner reads ‘8 hours of work, 8 hours of freedom, 8 hours of rest.’ Photo: Robert Axelsson via Wikimedia Commons

How campaigns empower

One-off protests are hard to evaluate, making it difficult to see how we can improve to step up our game. Campaigns give us ongoing feedback on how we’re doing. The benefit of feedback is that we can learn from what works and invent solutions to what doesn’t. In short, we can create a robust learning curve. Historical accident sometimes has granted success to bumbling movements that learn little from their experience, but it’s very unlikely.

“A campaign harnesses a series of actions into an escalating sequence.”

During the 2011 Arab Awakening, activist Omanis joined the political moment and launched a direct action campaign for economic and governmental reform.

For about a month, actions went well, then lapsed into campaigner violence. The campaign pressed the ‘reset’ button, organised themselves more rigorously, and pressed on nonviolently to win more than most countries did in that series of struggles.

Campaigns have far more opportunity to incorporate training than do one-off protests, and training promotes the learning curve both for the campaign and the individuals. Training incorporates new participants and meets specific needs, like ease in relating across barriers of race, class and gender, and learning to stay grounded in combat situations.


14 November saw a ‘Power Local Green Jobs’ action in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, carried out by Earth Quaker Action Team and POWER, a mainly African-American faith-based social justice group. They’re demanding of local energy company PECO that 20 percent of its electricity come from roofs in its service area by 2025 l solar should be installed in high unemployment areas l and installation should be by local workers, especially from high unemployment areas. The 14 November ‘Investigate PECO’ action searched for any plan PECO has to repair the harms of its dirty energy: ‘We found none.’ Photo: Chris Baker Evens/eqat

Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced ‘equate’), has served as a laboratory for trying out methods for empowering and increasing the well-being of participants, at the same time as we forced the seventh-largest US bank to give up financing mountaintop-removal coal-mining. EQAT’s new solar campaign tackles a power company, creating a demand that incorporates racial justice along with economic and climate justice.

EQAT accelerated leadership development of people new to activism by inventing the ‘core team’: a small team that plans and coordinates an action, working intensively over a short period. In How We Win, an EQAT organiser explains the ingredients and process that make the core team successful for campaign expansion and growth of new people – and supports an intergenerational campaign at the same time.

While most EQAT members have friends sinking under the weight of US polarisation and the media-fuelled Trump obsession, EQAT didn’t break a stride when Donald Trump was elected.

Campaigns built around goals that are both practical and visionary, with healthy internal processes and training and a strategy of escalation, are the container from which powerful movements emerge.

When growing campaigns build the direct action skills and attitudes for mass struggle, and merge into movements, and push those movements to join in a movement of movements, we’ll have the people power to push aside the 1 percent and transform our countries.

Topics: Strategy, Activism