Community Protest Tactics

I do not always advocate all out win/lose protests, as we are witnessing in the Town Hall Meetings on health care. Protesting has long played an important role as a catalyst in bringing together disenfranchised communities, and the most important aspect is to win the issue. No one advocates protesting for protesting sake. It is dangerous and difficult, so people are sincere in their protests.

Protesting is an admirable cause with hard-working individuals who dedicate their lives to honorable causes. This devotion and dedication tends to focus on consistency, doggedness, and principles of the cause. Much of the professional thinking and leadership today is a product of the 60’s and 70’s when polarization and divisiveness allowed little room for negotiation, compromise or inclusion.

Many professional protestors saw the world in absolute terms: The military-industrial complex was an unholy alliance killing and eating up scarce finances. Any articulate leader showing concern for minorities was assassinated. Blue-collar whites were grouped as reactionaries and racists.

Suburbanites absolved themselves of all responsibility for creating an equal and just society. Protestors pointed out these truths and demanded a change in the power imbalance. Then, a series of complex factors turned America toward conservatism, leaving activists with an ever-shrinking number of supporters and an ever-increasing number of apathetic citizens.

Principles of justice, fairness, and opportunity are alive and well in protesting today, but we live in a world of increasing complexity. Imagine the changes from the ’60s, when minority meant mainly black and labor unions focused entirely on domestic issues.

As protestors attempt to analyze these changes, some tend to dig in their heels. In the 80s, massive permanent cutbacks occurred in the steel industry, and some protestors felt that pressure must be exerted on steel companies to force factories to remain open. Others insisted that worker-owned companies were the answer. Fifteen years later, many still believe the sole reason that the jobs were lost was because there was not enough pressure put on companies. These backward looking analyses and tactics, in the face of changing circumstances, occurred throughout protesting.

Wouldn’t a more effective strategy have been to focus steel companies and unions on their responsibility to help prepare workers for new jobs, rather than making a demand to save their old ones?

It is remarkable how few causes were protested in the 80’s and 90’s. Look where that got us.

Often, protestors feel uncomfortable changing premises, feeling that they are compromising and watering down demands to help the disenfranchised – as if there is honor in going down with the ship.

Take a sample issue of welfare reform. Many protestors are frozen in time, rehashing the unfairness of legislation to no apparent avail, while each precious day passes with former recipients unprepared for the harsh realities they face. Instead, shouldn’t we be harnessing our skills to form partnerships with employers, trainers, housing authorities, and day care providers? Should we embrace change and not automatically assume that if we did not demand it, shape it, and control it that it must be bad?

The point is that there is power in numbers. We have to do a better job in recruiting a sufficient number of protestors to win against the establishment when we are right.

Relationships, political supporters, friends in high places, past detractors, previous roadblocks, should all be seen as interchangeable pieces on a chessboard with new rules constantly in progress. Simultaneously, the protestor must remain grounded in the bedrock values of fairness, justice, and equality.

The protestor who sees the world in terms of absolutes is unfortunately doomed, for the time being anyway. Most people, regardless of income, realize how complicated the world has become. We can no longer afford to attack a singular issue head on. Instead, we have to admit how complicated and contradictory the world we are fighting has become. Government has grown to a point where their power is absolute, unless we issue them mass challenges. In our lifetime, most cities will not have majority racial or ethnic groups; and almost everyone will change jobs, and even careers, every few years.

The analytical skills of the protestor are more critical than ever. We need to teach people how to analyze the self-interest of potential partners and have the ideological flexibility to mix and match partners, for example.

This flexibility may seem like a cop out to protestors of the ’60s, some of whom are more comfortable with old opinions of bad businessmen, mayors, and corporate leaders. But today’s landlord may be on the board of the community development corporation. Today’s mayor may be a major advocate in improving the public schools, and today’s corporate leader may be hiring and training welfare recipients. They may be our allies.

Can protestors play this game? There is great skill required in protesting, but there must also be well-defined intent. Intent must center on the development of others, never drawing attention, recognition, or focus on the protestor or the organization that employs or trains him/her, as is often the case. This focus detracts from the development of people in the neighborhood and the resources of the overall community.

Today’s protestor must be seen as a skilled practitioner, a potential asset to everyone in the community wishing to be involved in civic action. Our lines of communication need to be open, and our desire to listen to everyone must be clear. This openness will allow us to sort through all the possibilities of partnerships and help create opportunities for future collaboration. In addition, the protestor must build cohesion and trust among all constituents. And, when allegiances are impossible, we should depersonalize our differences, so we can maximize chances for future alliances.

We find young people are rightly sensitive to being used for political or ideological reasons. They are interested in and even fascinated by protesting, though; but they want to pick their issues and organize themselves. They are intensely interested in learning about how government, the corporate world, and educational systems function. They want to understand how to negotiate and strategize within the system, as opposed to being marginalized as vocal critics from the outside. They want the system to take them seriously.

Surprisingly, high school students have demonstrated overall greater success than older protestors. They have easier access to others of like principles at school. Also, people are not polarized against their innocent ideals, that are typically not self serving.

Instead of taking power from those who have it, consensus protestors build relationships in which power is shared for mutual benefit. Cooperation, rather than confrontation, becomes the method for solving a community problem.

We have found that the introduction to protesting attracts a broad cross-section of young people, not just a narrow political slice. They see value for the stakeholders. We need to be extremely articulate about how protesting has taught us to think, analyze, and follow through, aware that these skills will assist us as we pursue a variety of careers.

Another important outcome is that high school students have been exposed to people of various ethnicities, incomes, and educational backgrounds. They have struggled with the complexities of diversity and gained skills and experience, which has both energized and humbled them. It has almost become cliché to stress diversity when talking about protesting. All statistics show rapid increases in the number and variety of ethnic and racial groups in the United States. Therefore, we must encourage and develop protestors who can find the commonalities among seemingly divergent people. Since diversity is everywhere, communication must be everywhere as well.

We see tremendous growth for the community protesting field, including recognition by government, philanthropy, nonprofit and for-profit corporations. The central question is, “Will we take advantage of opportunities to expand the profession we are so proud to be part of – and open our minds to all of the potential helping parties that need to be organized?”

If we look at protesting as inclusive than exclusive, we can remove it from the clandestine, private back room and out into the greater community.


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