Strategies For Long Lasting Protests

Protest movements are designed to accomplish three things; promote a message effectively, exert influence over states and other forces, and bring about positive change. These are not easy goals to achieve, but based on the experiences of protest movements, there are a number of tactics that can be followed that make the achievement of these goals and the consistency of protest movements more likely.

The strategies that can be used to accomplish these goals are as follows :

  • Multifaceted strategies
  • Winning hearts and minds
  • Unifying messages
  • Media coverage
  • Creating a feeling of community
  • Strategic locations

“Anyone who claims to have uncovered the best way to protest non-violently probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Except for wacky corners of Twitter, there is more or less a consensus among the current generation of protesters that non-violent action is best. Beyond that, though, there’s very little agreement; rather, there’s a perpetually noisy conversation going on about the best way to protest”.

  • Multifaceted strategies
    The most effective protest movements have strategies for spreading their messages that are multifaceted and target different groups of people in different ways. This is important as it involves numerous interest groups in a movement, all of which bring with them different resources, influences and ideas. This diversity increases the likelihood of a movement sustaining momentum in the long term.

Setting goals

Depending on the cause, it may be important for movements to set clear short-term and long- term aims or goals. This involves creating a vision that extends beyond the immediate issues that gave rise to a movement and looks for practical ways to transform society. By setting short- term and long-term aims, movements are prompted to think about and take action to ensure the sustainability of their cause. The creation of these aims should be done collaboratively and representatively to ensure that members believe in them, and they should be clearly framed. Clearly stated aims help movements to measure the successes and failures of actions and campaigns. Many movements are successful in the short term but dissipate once short-term

aims have been met, despite the potential they may have had to make lasting change. Similarly, the failure to meet short-term goals does not necessarily minimize the impact a movement can have in the long term. For instance, during the Chilean student protests, the short-term goal was to increase state support to students through scholarships and subsidized lunches and transport. However, the movement was less successful in achieving its long-term aim, which was to reform a political system still based on a constitution written during the Pinochet government. However, because of the short-term successes, many members of student movements were able to garner enough public support to start their own political parties and run for elected office. Those parties went on to hold around 20 percent of the seats in parliament and thus may in the future be able to achieve the long-term aims of the movement and ensure sustained change.

Diverse campaigns

There are a number of ways that movements can spread their messages and achieve their aims. However, no single way is always effective as different contexts require different strategies. It is important to consider all of the actors that are involved in bringing about change and design campaigns to target each of them. In Mexico, the growing disappeared movement, which arose in response to the tens of thousands of people who have been disappeared, uses an array of campaign strategies. The movement organizes mass marches in multiple locations, particularly on special days such as Mother’s Day, and also carries out widespread advocacy and awareness campaigns in an attempt to gather information about the missing people. The movement partnered with the media to spread awareness about the situation on a local and global scale, and also physically carries out search parties and digs to find mass graves. Each of these strategies targets a different segment of society in the hope that cumulatively they will lead to an improvement in the situation and the uncovering of the truth.
While carrying out protests, it is also necessary to develop a strategy to target reformers within government. Particularly in very repressive environments, these reformers provide an opening for citizens to express their grievances to sympathetic people with access to the levers of power.

“Elites and governments are often important allies in reform and challenging the abuse of power. In especially repressive or restrictive contexts, it is sometimes reformers within the government who can provide openings for citizen demands to be heard.”
Strategic partnerships
Partnership with established organizations that have similar goals is an important way of increasing public support for and credibility of a movement. Alignment can only be achieved if the movement seeking partners has clearly defined short-term and long-term aims and understands how creating partnerships would help to achieve these. For instance, during the Chilean student protests it made sense that in order to achieve the shorter-term goals of improving access to and state support of universities, different student movements partnered

with one another. However, the students were also seeking long-term political change and, as a result, partnered with public sector workers’ unions that had similar interests. This increased participation in marches and campaigns.

Decentralized leadership and management structures

A useful strategy for increasing the longevity of a movement is to decentralize leadership and management structures to ensure that all voices in a movement are accommodated, decision-making is not centralized within a group of a few individuals, and the management responsibilities of a movement are spread across its membership to mitigate protest fatigue. Additionally, for larger movements, the establishment of various chapters or units across cities and jurisdictions can increase membership and develop additional buy-in from protesters with similar causes. For example, Extinction Rebellion, which was founded in the UK, has grown into a global movement protesting against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and the risk of social and ecological collapse. In order to expand the movement, local groups have been established in various cities and jurisdictions.

Winning hearts and minds

The angle that is used to convey a message impacts on how many people will relate to it and take action as a result. Historically, successful movements focus their messaging on issues that will personally touch people and encourage them to learn more about the cause underpinning the movement. Equally, a universally applicable message, such as prohibition against torture, climate change, housing, or access to basic water and sewerage services, can promote support for a cause and make it more relatable.
Tug at heartstrings but ensure substance
Messaging that is personal and relatable is effective messaging. This entails sharing information in a way that may make people realize how likely it is that they or someone they know will one day be affected by a problem, or how lucky they are not to be affected by a problem. This brings the message and the movement advocating it closer to home and makes it more difficult for people to dismiss the cause as too far removed from their worldview. In Mexico, the most successful and largest mass marches by the disappeared movement were organized on days such as Mothers’ Day by the mothers of people who had disappeared. People can empathize with mothers who have lost children and feel some of the pain that these mothers experience at not knowing where their children are, particularly on special days celebrating those family relationships. Through these campaigns the movement has gathered supporters and resources. Messages should be considered and contain substance to ensure that they are relatable and taken seriously.
“Messaging that is personal and relatable is effective messaging.”

Employ hope-based messaging

When movements are born out of dissatisfaction with a state or situation, it is easy to focus all messaging on shaming the people responsible. However, this strategy does not always garner public support and often fails to pressure the authorities into action, as they may be shameless, go on the defensive, or choose to surround themselves with supporters. Instead, movements should seek to mobilize hope. Linguists and psychologists have found that the best way to persuade undecided people to agree with a cause is by evoking positive emotions in them. This does not mean that bad situations should be sugar-coated but rather that sorrow should be acknowledged while simultaneously finding the hope in a story. Effective messaging is relatable. If you show people crowds, this can scare them. If you tell people about individuals who could be them, they are more likely to be compassionate. So instead of showing a prisoner in jail, a campaign could show a former prisoner who is rebuilding their life. Instead of a refugee at their lowest in a refugee camp, a campaign could show a refugee building a business and caring for their family. The message is to show people, and not just the suffering, and show the life that is possible if we mobilize and act.
“We need to convince people that another world is possible. Visionary ideas change the world, and people who put them forward set the agenda instead of being on the defensive.”

Be empathetic

As protesters, it is important to show that while you are dedicated to your cause, you have not lost your humanity. It is important to understand that the campaigns of which you are a part may often cause inconvenience to people. Some inconvenience will simply be a by-product of a protest that people will have to be asked to deal with. However, it is important that campaigns do not cause unnecessary harm to bystanders. To avoid harm, you must be empathetic to the circumstances in which bystanders may find themselves and be adaptable to those circumstances. For instance, during the Velvet Revolution in Armenia, protesters stopped traffic. This obviously caused inconvenience for some people. However, members of the movement walked among the cars to find out whether any of the drivers needed to be somewhere because of a genuine emergency. When such people were identified, the protesters helped them through the traffic and to the place they needed to be.

Unifying messages

The way a message is crafted and publicized shapes the impact it has. The success of protests often relies on the number of people who support them. Based on the experiences of successful protest movements three key messaging tactics arise.
Worth mentioning:
Research shows that governments around the world have been shaken to their foundations, and often toppled, when a mere 3.5 percent of their populations are organized in opposition.

Unify your audience

It is important to focus the work of a movement around core issues that affect many people. This is the best way to ensure mass support for a movement. In Brazil in 2013, protests broke out against price increases for public transport in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The protests managed to gain mass support because so many Brazilians use public transport every day. Once their support had been gained, the movement expanded its aims to include issues such as state corruption. Similar transport-related protests took place in Armenia. Because of the large numbers of supporters, the protesters were able to set up a parallel transport system with volunteer drivers. This showed the government that even though many people rely on public transport, people could not be strong-armed into paying higher prices and would band together to create an alternative. The government decided not to charge the proposed higher prices as a result of these protests.

Dynamic spokespeople and influencers

Celebrities and public figures with large followings and public support are often effective at spreading a message. Where appropriate, it is useful to partner with these people to assist in gaining support for an idea or a movement, particularly in a world that is increasingly reliant on, and influenced by, social media. Protest leaders in Argentina increasingly rely on celebrities, who are viewed as role models, to raise awareness about protest movements. Careful and strategic choices should be made about which celebrities to partner with. It should be clear that the chosen celebrity knows and cares about a cause and is not involved only for their own interests. For instance, Leonardo DiCaprio has become a spokesperson for the movement against climate change and has been dedicated to this cause for years. Similarly, when the UK government wanted to pass a law taxing single-use plastics, they partnered with beloved nature journalist, David Attenborough, who helped persuade the public to support the law.

Clear instructions

Popular movements that seek to bring about political change are often led by a specific person or opposition political party. Where people can unify behind this leadership, leaders should ensure that they are broadcasting clear instructions and guiding principles for protesters. This should be done using mainstream and social media to ensure wide reach of communications and should establish the tactics that a movement endorses and the core values of a movement. During the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia, the protests were led by the opposition party and, as such, the instructions of the leader of that party carried great weight. The leader put out calls for non-violence and respect on social media and this contributed to the success of the revolution without any bloodshed.

Worth mentioning:

The Velvet Revolution in Armenia has been dubbed the ‘Revolution of Love and Tolerance’ because of the strength of the underlying values to which protesters subscribed.

Media coverage

Media coverage is a key factor that contributes to the success or failure of a movement. Media houses often report unfavorably and untruthfully about protests, making it more difficult to garner public support for the cause underpinning these protests. It is important, therefore, to form strong relationships with journalists and media organizations, and spend time advising journalists on a cause, why it is important and what rights protesters have. Media coverage tells people at home and all over the world about the campaigns that protest movements are mounting. Positive reporting about a protest lends itself to increased internal and external pressure to address a movement’s demands.

Worth mentioning:

Researchers have found that protests only have an effect on political actions if they are the subject of mass media coverage. Moreover, where the media labels the government ‘majoritarian’ or ‘dictatorial’ rather than ‘consensus-based’ or ‘democratic’, protests are more likely to influence political change.

Livestream and publicize

Media companies that record and edit material often, intentionally or unintentionally, manipulate the situation that they report on in favor of particular political leanings. To mitigate this manipulation, the Occupy Movement in the USA partnered with two video-sharing platforms, Ustream and Livestream, and used these to disseminate live video content and images widely. These services allow protesters to create their own channels, such as YouTube which counter potentially biased narratives from traditional media. Live-streaming allows the coverage of issues that mainstream media will not report on, and such coverage can then be disseminated on social media.

Create mutually beneficial relationships

Journalists are always on the lookout for a new story or a new angle to a story. Allowing the media access to spaces from which they would generally be barred may get them on your side and can have mutually beneficial results. For instance, in Mexico, the family members of people who have disappeared often go into the mountains to search for places that look like graves and dig up these graves to search for human remains. This is both a private practice and a dangerous one. Many people are attacked while doing this or are disappeared themselves. People formed relationships with journalists and asked them to travel with them in search of these graves. This gave the journalists a fresh angle on the story and provided searching families with protection as attacks were less likely when journalists, who would be missed if they disappeared, were present.

A human face

It is important to have good relationships with the media as this allows protesters to influence the way that their movement is covered in the news. When media houses have relationships of some kind with protesters, they are more likely to invite them to give interviews or offer their side of the story. Protesters also feel they can approach these outlets with stories without the fear of the story being manipulated. Being involved in interviews and public debates that are organized by journalists helps to humanize a movement because instead of seeing a crowd on the news, the public sees a person with whom they can more easily relate.

Creating a community feeling

Protests do not have to take the stereotypical form of a march. Successful protests can be staged as occupations, sit-ins or any number of creative expressions. Regardless of the form, it is important to create a feeling that those participating are part of a community. This makes it likely that more people will join a movement and creates a space where people feel safe to participate for extended periods of time, which is sometimes necessary in mass movements.
Protest art
Protest spaces are inherently creative as people seek to express discontent and imagine a better world. Art is often a feature of these spaces. During Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution musicians kept protesters and bystanders entertained by playing impromptu concerts. Performance art can be used to satirize politicians, involve people in a movement and avoid the police brutality that might often come in response to conventional protest methods. For instance, at the height of Serbia’s Otpor! Movement in the early 2000s, protest leaders painted the face of the much-despised dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, on a barrel. The barrel was placed in a busy pedestrian street with a stick next to it. Passers-by were encouraged to hit the barrel if they felt the need. No one could be arrested for hitting a barrel but dissatisfaction was effectively expressed and the small humiliation of Milosevic gave people hope. Such creative expressions can shape the image of a movement and boost participant morale. Art and photography can also be used to publicize injustices suffered during protests and often serve as snapshots of a protest that can outlast the protest message.

Worth mentioning:

One of the most famous groups of protest artists is Russian feminist punk rock band and performance artists, Pussy Riot. They have dealt with various political themes such as feminism, LGBTQ rights, democracy, freedom of speech and opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Since their first arrest and subsequent prison sentence in 2012 for an anti-Putin protest performance, they have become a symbol of the battle against Putin’s regime.

Inclusive protest spaces

It must be recognized that protest is often exhausting and time-consuming. Many people cannot participate to the extent that they would like because of other responsibilities such as the need to work or care for families. Protesters should attempt to create spaces that are aware of this and are inclusive and accessible. The 2018 anti-gun violence protests in the USA involved a school walkout that resulted in almost one million school children and university students leaving their classrooms. The use of such tactics that enable different age groups to participate can be valuable, but it can also create additional childcare obligations for parents when children are at home when they would usually be at school. In response to these difficulties in Armenia, special childcare arrangements were established among neighbors and at sites of protest to ensure that parents could still attend mass meetings and marches. Protest movements must be alive to the changing needs of their members and be willing to adapt accordingly and accommodate needs.

Strategic alignments with the police

The police are often the enemy of protesters. Antagonism between protesters and police often leads to violence, brutality and the possible delegitimization of a movement. Violence presents a significant barrier to the achievement of a movement’s goals. The potential for violence is something that must be addressed from the beginning of a movement. Some of the most successful protest movements have avoided violence altogether by neutralizing antagonism before mass marches start. In Armenia in 2018, protesters presented the police with sweets and flowers. They tried to speak to them about their personal opinions of the regime and showed how the protests were in the best interest of the police officers. It is less likely that someone will react violently when they are not provoked, and even less likely when you have been friendly to them. The protesters relied on the police not wanting to hurt people who they liked and went out of their way to form these strategic alignments. In the entire protest, which lasted more than a month, there was only one instance of police violence.

Appeal to the diaspora

Numbers are important in protests. In states that have experienced extended repression or unrest it is likely that there will be a large portion of the population who have left the state in search of safety and better opportunities. By appealing to this diaspora to return to lend support, protest movements can increase the number of people present and draw international attention to the cause, thereby increasing pressure on the state. During the #ZumaMustFall protests in South Africa against the former president in 2017, South Africans living in London and Sydney protested in solidarity and extended support messages for the movement on social media. During the 2018 Velvet Revolution, Armenians from around Europe flew back to Armenia because the revolution was portrayed as a change that people wanted to be a part of. This was encouraged through the creation of a community feeling, the inspiring discipline of protesters in adhering to principles of non-violence and clever positive messaging campaigns.

Worth mentioning:

A strong diaspora network made up of Ethiopians around the world works tirelessly to publish videos, photos and articles in international media to dispel what they claim are inaccurate reports about the unrest in the Oromia region.

Strategic locations

While it is strategically important to select the various forms of protest that a movement will use, choosing the location of a protest is no less vital. A protest in a strategic location is often one that causes sufficient inconvenience and disrupts ordinary business and as a result puts additional pressure on a state to meet the demands being made.

Economic importance

Because different countries rely on certain industries to sustain themselves, finding a location that impacts on the functioning of these industries is likely to urge states into action. The first step is to identify a location that is key to the running of this industry. The next is to devise a protest strategy that shuts down this location and best disrupts it. This plan should be non-violent and take into account the constraints of a movement, such as the number of people who are likely to participate in the protest. In South Africa in 2015, a small community in the township of Majakaneng had been without water for an extended period of time. They realized that by blocking the national highway, which was used by trucks transporting platinum, one of South Africa’s primary exports, from the mines in the northwest of the country to the economic hub of Johannesburg, they could disrupt the key industry as a whole. Despite there only being a small number of protesters, the pressure this protest put on the state resulted in water being restored to the community.

Growing your campaign

If the location at which a protest is held is strategically chosen, it can lead to increases in membership and growth of support. For instance, in the UK in 2019, Extinction Rebellion chose their main protest locations based on the routes that Londoners take to get to the city center. Protests on Oxford Street, which attracts a lot of foot traffic, and Waterloo Bridge, one of the main commuter routes from South London, meant that thousands of people passed the protests, saw what a good time the protesters were having – there were activities such as music performances and group yoga sessions – and discussed the cause with protesters. Leaders claimed that this not only increased awareness but also influenced many people, who would ordinarily not have gone out of their way to join a protest, to join the protest.

The article was originally published by the Iranian opposition activist Sia Ayrom on

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