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Does disruptive protest work?

by | 25 January 2024

This year will see more democratic elections than ever before; some 64 countries will vote to elect new leaders, encompassing more than half the world’s population (even if some are probably rigged).  The recent COP28 climate talks concluded with a positive consensus commitment towards transitioning away from fossil fuels. And the global average happiness level rose by 6% in 2023. So, on the face of it, things are heading in a positive direction.

But just look at the news!  There’s little to feel positive about. Wars in Ukraine and Israel / Gaza have the potential to extend.  We’re likely to break through the 1.5C of global warming that is seen by scientists as a tipping point. The cost of living crisis and inflation are still very present in many countries. We could go on.

So actually, it is nearly impossible to look at 2024 with a Panglossian perspective.  When you really look at our collective situation, it’s tempting to think “we’re all fucked” and turn to face the wall.

However, many people are far more resilient / stubborn / idealistic / belligerent and do exactly the opposite.

Look at the stories of amazing bravery and steadfast resistance from people across Ukraine or, indeed, even at the Russian mothers recently standing up to the Putin state to demand the return of their husbands and sons.

Russian women demand their husbands and sons be returned from the Ukrainian front line. 

In fact, resistance or communal action against perceived injustices is very much alive and kicking and has been increasing over the last 15 years.  In the eight years leading up to 2018, the available comparable global data shows a 102 per cent increase in the number of riots, general strikes and anti-government demonstrations, according to the 2020 Global Peace Index, the latest available study.  

Given that this data comes from before COVID, Black Lives Matter, the latest dire climate warnings and many of the other severe issues facing us now, one can only assume the numbers have continued to grow.

The BIG GRO system on the roof at Boston University. Picture by Dr. Sarabeth Buckley, published via Interesting Engineering.

There’s been a clear rise in activism.

Climate protests in particular have seen a change of approach over the last couple of years. On one hand, Extinction Rebellion announced in January 2023  that they would be stepping back from the extreme stunts that they had become known for.  Instead they would bring together mass marches and peaceful gatherings.  On the other hand, a number of more radical groups sprang up to take their place. Just Stop Oil started disrupting sporting and cultural events and Insulate Britain brought arterial roads to a standstill.

This certainly gets noticed and creates media copy and social media sharing, but does it have any effect? Does it create empathy?  

A YouGov poll early last year finds that people generally don’t think protest makes a difference.  Even among the 18% of Britons who said they have taken part in public protest, six in ten think it either didn’t make a difference very often (47%) or never did (14%). And some 78% of people think that protests such as disrupting Wimbledon or throwing soup on a precious painting hinder the activists’ cause.

So why bother protesting? 

Well, protest does actually work, according to academics. Contradicting the public view, nearly seven in 10 academics surveyed for think tank Social Change Lab rated disruptive protest tactics as “at least quite important” to the success of a movement, ranking it as more important than gaining media coverage or even strictly avoiding violent tactics.  

Speaking to The Guardian, James Özden, director of Social Change Lab, said: “We were really struck by the contradiction between what the public and media say about disruptive protests and what academics said. The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement’s success. This points out how our intuitions can be flawed when it comes to understanding social change, and how we shouldn’t take people’s first reactions as the indicator of an effective protest.”

The BIG GRO system on the roof at Boston University. Picture by Dr. Sarabeth Buckley, published via Interesting Engineering.

Just Stop Oil protesters threw soup over Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Picture from Sky News.

And, going back in history, there are many examples where extreme protest has ultimately been a catalyst for dramatic change. Think Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement.

Some people also point out that extreme action can help to soften attitudes.  In a piece in The Conversation, Heather Alberro, a lecturer in global sustainable development at Nottingham Trent University, argued disruptive protests by radical groups can “render the demands of mainstream counterparts more palatable in the eyes of governments and the public, effectively advancing the entire movement’s agenda”.

Research suggests that people tend to be more sympathetic towards radical tactics when they see that conventional political solutions are failing,” she concludes.
Another recent US study called  “Does Climate Protest Work? Partisanship, Protest, and Sentiment Pools” by Dylan Bugden explores the effectiveness of climate protests in influencing public support for the climate movement. The study finds that peaceful marches effectively increase support among independents and Democrats, while civil disobedience positively affects Democrats. These effects are pronounced among those most certain of anthropogenic climate change. Notably, no effect is observed among Republicans, and no “backfire” effects are detected for any group or protest type.

It’s often said that change only comes with money and radical protest is also seeking to fill its coffers, in a new twist on philanthropy.

A US-based body called the Climate Emergency Fund raises money from donors and then directly funds activists.  With £150,000 from The Climate Emergency Fund, the group Insulate Britain mobilized 150 activists who carried out disruptive action on UK roads, generating more than 250 news stories about the issue of substandard housing insulation. They claim that, as a result of the media coverage and the disruptions caused by their actions, the UK government created a £1 billion program to insulate the nation’s public housing stock by 2025.

The Climate Emergency Fund also provided funding to Extinction Rebellion in the Netherlands to organize thousands of activists to block that country’s A12 highway for 27 days. A12 is a major transportation artery, connecting The Hague with the German border. For nearly a month, activists endured water cannons and police manhandling before the government was mandated to devise a plan to phase out the country’s fossil fuel subsidies.

“These actions, and others, demonstrate two things,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund. “First, they show that disruptive actions generate the media coverage and political pressure necessary to force change. Second, they demonstrate that investments in the groups leading these efforts is money well spent because of the tangible results they achieve.”

Klein Salamon pointed to the media coverage of activists who recently disrupted the U.S. Open tennis tournament in 2023. Those actions – led by only a few individuals – received more high-profile media attention than do marches and rallies that are attended by tens of thousands.

While radical, disruptive protest isn’t popular, it is a ‘last resort’ action that gets attention and does seem to spark action.  In a time of increasing geo-political and environmental turmoil, it seems likely that more people will go even further to attempt to change the status quo.  Who knows, it might just work.


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