18 October 2011

198 ways to protest

Occupy Wall Street is inspiring street protests around the world as representatives of society's 99% least wealthy declare their concerns. Wired magazine has responded with a how-to guide for peaceful and effective protesting.

The focus of this guide is on the practicalities - in a US context - of mass gatherings, rallies and marches. It provides some interesting information about the security of mobile phones, what to do if the internet or social media networks are blocked, and the ways that photos can be used. It is best supplemented by an older but no less interesting resource, from 1973: Gene Sharp's list of 198 forms of non-violent protest - to which you can add a few digital options.

What I find missing is the bigger communication issues of public and media relations: how to get your message across and effect change.

One of fundamental constraints for the Wall Street and earlier protests such as the 'Arab Spring', Chilean student rallies and others, is that the gatherings seem to have grown organically to express general dissatisfaction rather than the defined needs of a narrow interest group. Most appear to be true, grassroots protests reflecting widespread societal discontent.

While there are some themes and specific demands emerging from the Wall Street activists, the news media was initially slow to cover these events or to lend them much credence, due in part to the diversity of issues being expressed by individual protesters and the lack of organized representation. This left some journalists struggling to make sense of the events and to gauge their importance and potential impact.

Mainstream news media are accustomed to being drip-fed information. Journalists are actively sought out by aggressive media representatives from big business, academia and major non-profit groups. Fewer journalists will have experience of popular outpourings of public opinion that are not filtered through established processes.

These days we are accustomed to seeing media-savvy protests on clearly defined issues, where everyone is waving a professionally printed sign about one of a limited set of key messages. Such events are well equipped and short-term rallies of the faithful, bussed in for a day as part of a larger campaign or political movement. Occupy Wall Street appears to reflect a groundswell of public opinion with multiple concerns. It is not fronted by a celebrity (though many are joining in), not are the concerns and demands being carefully packaged into soundbites to be repeated on demand.

The idea of holding up placards reflects an understanding that the news media - TV and photography - can have a strong influence on the visibility of your cause. What is unusual these days, is to see hand-written signs scrawled on bits of cardboard box.

Do we need the semi-professional packaging of protests now there are social networks, blogs and independent digital media to convey messages? (for a more academic review of social media and activism see Johannes Schunter's interesting blog). Occupy Wall Street and similar campaigns have used online channels to organise, share information and discuss issues. And it is clear there are disgruntled communities around the world that feel the need to gather, share and express their concerns across many issues, whether they are well organized or not.

Is it really necessary for these communities of interest to select a single figurehead? Will a trained spokesperson be more effective in winning support?

Media-centric advocates will typically construct a campaign that can deliver against defined and measurable objectives. This should ensure that the group explores ways to achieve their goals using available resources - from writing to their representatives to marching down the street with a common message writ large on clear banners. But does this mean that all groups need a narrow agenda? Do they have to agree on all the issues, propose solutions and publish a manifesto? Or can they survive on raw passion?

I have seen protests that seem to be poorly organized, with no central message and activities that are pointed not at decision-makers, but to anybody who will pay interest (or nobody in particular). But that does not diminish the power of conviction that is apparent when enough people join together. Simply meeting to unite their voice and share their worries and anger can inspire others and move issues along. In fact the diversity of a crowd can send a clear message that discontent is broadly felt in the community. Perhaps the main requirement is simply that the protest is relevant to enough people that it draws broad support and becomes visible to the media and to those in power so that they take notice and effect the necessary change.

While the messages may be muddied and sometimes competing, the Wired and Sharp guides may ultimately be enough: just get out there, and the change will follow.

See also:
How to film a revolution, and
How to advocate with video