Activism: How to Protest Effectively

12 minute read

Updated on: 14 Oct 2020

One person’s actions alone aren’t enough to stop climate change . So what can you do to encourage broader, systemic change?

Well, you can vote ! But you need lots of votes to win an election, and some people are too young or unable to vote. Because of this, some people turn to activism to make their voices heard.

What is activism?

An activist is someone who works to raise awareness about an issue, with the aim of causing change . You’ve probably heard of a few:

  • Greta Thunberg - Climate Change - 2003 to Present
  • Nelson Mandela - Racial Equality in South Africa - 1918 to 2013
  • Malala Yousafzi - Female Education - 1997 to Present

Activists often join forces in large groups. For example, Greenpeace, Fridays for Future, and Extinction Rebellion are all activist groups fighting for environmental causes .

Image of Activist Earthly

Activist Earthly

What do activists do?

These groups sometimes organise large protests. For example, in March 2019 a number of organisations held the first “Global Climate Strike”, where an estimated 1.6 million people took to the streets in cities around the world to demand climate action .

That’s not to say all activists do is protest :

Image of Actions and activist can take

Actions and activist can take

Increasingly, activism is also happening online: for example, more than half of Americans use social media to engage with political ideas .

Image of Online activist actions

Online activist actions

But does any of this actually work?

Activists seek many goals with their protests. The two biggest are triggering direct action from the government, and changing moods within a wider population by raising awareness. Let’s take a look at these one by one…

Goal 1: Make things happen

Protesters often have clear demands which they want met. For example :

Image of Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests

Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests

However, because governments make decisions for a number of reasons, it is often extremely difficult to know whether government action comes as a direct result of protests . This makes it hard to know whether the protest itself was successful at causing the change .

Plus, governments sometimes take action which harms protesters, rather than helping them. For example, in June 2020 around 15-26 million Americans took part in largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests around the country . In some places, the police responded with disproportionate violence, including firing rubber bullets and spraying tear gas at protesters .

This can happen to environmental activists too: in 2019, French police used tear gas on a group of climate protesters blocking a bridge in Paris . In some countries, law enforcement can be much harsher on protesters, for example through arrest or violence .

While protesters like the Wet’suwet’en protesters in Canada have clear demands, a protest is not necessarily a failure if these are not met. This is because protesters have another goal too…

Goal 2: Change people’s minds

In many ways, activism is a fight for attention . If activists can get enough people to think about an issue, they might be able to change how they think about it too. How?

One way is by changing the words and images people use to describe an issue.

For example, in recent years the language of climate activism has shifted from tree-hugging concerns about the Earth (think of polar bears) to concerns about the impacts of climate change on people and justice . This imagery tends to move people to act a lot more effectively .

Image of What imagery works best for climate activism?

What imagery works best for climate activism?

Protesters aim to change people’s views about a topic, too. For example, look at how American public opinion has changed since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020:

Image of Public opinion can quickly change

Public opinion can quickly change

It is impossible to tell how much of this change can be linked to the protests, but activists should take some credit for the change of national perspective.

Finally, there is some evidence that activists can make people more likely to vote for specific politicians . Let’s take a look at another example from the USA…

In 2009, an organisation called the “Tea Party” organised protests to support conservative politicians in the USA. One study found evidence that having one more protester at these events led to 12 more conservative votes !

When do protests work?

Image of Large, peaceful protests are more successful than violent ones

Large, peaceful protests are more successful than violent ones

But how big does a protest need to be?

One famous study of anti-government protests shows that if a protest gets 3.5% of a population involved it is almost certain to succeed .

But studies looking at other types of protest have found that you need far more people - up to a quarter of a country’s population . What they all agree on, however, is that the bigger the protest, the higher the chance of it being successful .

Things become a bit more complicated when there are two protest groups in direct opposition to each other. Here we know that the difference between the two movements’ sizes becomes important .

More problematically, when there are two big protest movements on either side of an argument, their views can become even more extreme . This makes the problem worse because it becomes harder for each side to find middle ground and compromise . This is known as polarisation.

Image of Polarisation between cats and dogs

Polarisation between cats and dogs

This isn’t to say that if a protest is big enough it will always be successful. For example, after the 2008 global financial crash, anti-inequality protests attracted millions of protesters around the world. Despite this, global inequality is now worse than ever .

Why violence fails

You might think that, since protests are partly a struggle for attention, more extreme or violent protests attract more attention and so are more successful.

In fact, evidence suggests that violent protest is considerably less effective than peaceful protest . Just look at these numbers!

Image of Non violent campaigns tend to be more successful

Non violent campaigns tend to be more successful

You read that right, violent campaigns are more than twice as likely to fail as peaceful ones !

The difference is particularly stark when you compare violent and non-violent pro-democracy protests :

Image of The impact of non violent campaigns

The impact of non violent campaigns

Why? Because violent protests :

  • Make it harder for lots of people to get involved, since some people are unable to take part in violent activity (e.g. young people), or are scared to. This limits the size of violent protests, which is the most important factor.
  • Increase the chance that forces will respond disproportionally, which quashes the protest.

Online Activism

With almost 60% of the world’s population having access to the internet, it is no surprise that online activism is becoming so popular .

One way that activism happens online is through petitions…

What is a petition?

A petition is a written request, signed by many people, to a person or body of authority, such as the government or a company, in the hope of finding a solution to an issue .

The theory is that the more people who sign the petition, the more pressure the body of authority will be under to follow through with the request .

Image of Petition supporting free ice cream for everyone

Petition supporting free ice cream for everyone

In the UK, anyone can create a petition, but it must receive 10,000 signatures to receive a response from parliament and over 100,000 for it to be debated !

Yet even this does not mean that the request will be granted. In fact, in 2017 four of the ten most signed petitions were not even debated, and not a single one of them was successful . Those are not great numbers!

Should I sign a petition?

Due to the high failure rate of petitions, you might be thinking there’s no point in signing them .

Petition signers are sometimes called ‘slacktivists’ - ‘lazy’ activists who feel as if they have created change, without actually engaging with direct action .

Image of What is “slacktivism”?

What is “slacktivism”?

There are some benefits to petitions, though.

Petitions and other forms of online activism, such as sharing information on social media, are peaceful, safe and accessible to anyone at any age with an internet connection .

This helps more people to engage with issues. Though online activists may spend less time being an ‘activist’ than those attending physical protests, it’s possible to argue that the sheer number of them make them an equally impactful part of a movement as the core minority .

Image of Why having a strong 'periphery' matters

Why having a strong 'periphery' matters

Also, online activism is a great stepping stone for people to become more passionate about issues and move onto more direct forms. Take a look:

Image of Common traits of petition signers

Common traits of petition signers

There is no harm in signing as many petitions as you feel passionate about, as long as every click is met with real online or physical action, or further education!

Conclusion

Unlike the other personal steps we’ve looked at in this course, there’s no way to say how much CO₂ could be saved by taking part in protests.

But we can look at the ways past protests have been successful in changing how people think about an issue in order to learn how these could be applied to the environmental movement.

Beyond benefits to the planet, studies have suggested that going to protests can improve self-confidence , increase well-being later in life , help develop skills and knowledge , and more .

As long as you stay thoughtful and safe, and match activism with real life-long commitments to change, there’s little harm in making your voice heard , and there’s a chance you could contribute towards meaningful change .

Image of Actions to help fight against climate change

Actions to help fight against climate change

If you do decide to go to a protest, it is very important to remember that protesting, no matter how peaceful, isn’t always safe or legal. Make sure to prepare well and research the laws and rights in your country before heading off.

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