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Paul Almeida on the Fifteen Secrets of Winning Protests II


So what exactly are the fifteen secrets of winning protests?

Paul Almeida lays these out in his excellent book on the strategy of protest - Social Movements: the Structure of Collective Mobilization.

Here is my take on his arguments.

1. Frame Your Issue To Include As Many Social Groups as Possible As Victims Who Share Your Particular Problems. Groups that construct what they are fighting for as the narrow self interest of a small particular set are left alone by the rest of the world. You have to cognitively link your problems to the problems everyone else is facing. This is a matter of spin and self-presentation. But it really matters. In the Justice For Janitors Movement, Hispanic janitors were fighting for higher wages. When they told their story to community allies, they framed the issue as ethnic discrimination rather than higher salaries for janitors, and more community groups became willing to support them.

2. Be ingenious in how you create disruptions. Authorities know how to handle old familiar threats. Make them deal with something new. The auto companies in the 1930’s had a long history of dealing with worker strikes. Having workers walk out was nothing new for them. They were not used to sit down strikes at the end of assembly lines. Assembly lines had to work in sequence and depended on workers at the end of the line taking product off the line to make room for the next product. If they could get twenty workers to block the end of the line, nothing would ever move off the assembly line and the whole factory would be shut down. The factory owners had never seen anything like this before. They ultimately capitulated.

3. Big is better. Large protests are harder for the government to ignore. Large strikes make it harder for management to replace the striking workers. Large demonstrations are more likely to attract media coverage. Large actions are simply more disruptive and prevent the authorities from stonewalling or playing the waiting game.

4. You have to have combat infrastructure. You need a formal organization. You need leaders. You need a building where you can meet and speak confidentially. You need a bank account. You need lawyers. If you are striking, you need a strike fund to pay workers’ living expenses while they are out of work. Combat requires stuff. You need the stuff.

5. Youth are better protesters than old people. Young people have time. Young people have energy. Young people have flexible schedules. Young people are not risking twenty-year careers or major home mortgages. Young people are willing to be audacious and unrealistic. If need be, young people can run away faster when the police start shooting tear gas. All of this is helpful.

6. You need experts on your team. You need lawyers to keep you out of jail. If you are doing salary negotiation, you need your own accountants to decode what management is offering on more complicated contract clauses. If you are an ecological protester, you need scientists to argue the merits of your case. If you are fighting for health care, you need doctors and nurses to argue the reasonableness of your demands. If you are trying to win the battle of public opinion, you need appropriate experts to help show that what you are asking for is justifiable.

7. You want religious organizations as allies. Churches are the 600 pound gorillas of protest movements. They have large memberships. They have natural leaders. They are committed to moral action. Their congregants make donations so the church has a war chest. The church has a building they can use. Churches can be significant players in local politics. All of this gives them clout. The Civil Rights Movement was heavily built on the foundation of black churches. It is no accident that the most prominent leaders were clergymen. Reverend Martin Luther King. Reverend Jesse Jackson. Malcolm X was a minister in the Nation of Islam. The role of churches in American anti-abortion politics is well known. The role of mosques and radical Islam in the Iranian Revolution is another obvious example.

8. Connect to parallel social movements. Two social movements are stronger than one. Twenty are stronger than two. Paul Almeida in his own work showed that successful mobilization in El Salvador meant creating broad coalitions of multiple labor unions, multiple political organizations and multiple protest groups challenging other issues such as indigenous or LGBTQ rights.

9. Join up with the political opposition. Opposition politicians are looking for every vote and every source of support they can get. They will advocate for you. They will show up at your demonstrations. They will give your movement credibility and visibility.

10. Work the media – both mass-media and social media. If you want to mobilize support or make your arguments to a larger audience, you have to be able to use media. This involves creating one-on-one ties with media gatekeepers. It also involves polishing your presentation and show-business skills to put forward a compelling and entertaining product. Brazilian students bring musical instruments, sound systems and colorful costumes to their demonstrations. You can count on dancing and catchy rhythmic chants. You don’t capture people’s attention by being boring.

11. Cultivate allies within the state. This seemingly contradicts the join-the-opposition strategy. Some groups pick one strategy; some groups pick the others strategy. Some groups can actually do both. Japanese unionists used to get good results by supporting the local labor government and striking for exactly one hour on one day. The government - grateful for their electoral support - would come in on the workers’ side and quietly pressure management to make concessions. French coal miners in late nineteenth century would simultaneously court opposition politicians (who could stand up for social justice) and technocrats in government mining departments with an official interest in worker safety.

12. Historical moments when national elites are fighting among themselves are rare and unique opportunities for protesters. Usually, economic and political authorities are relatively unified. When protests occur, all of the forces of order and privilege can be concentrated to crush the aspirations of would-be troublemakers. However, there are those rare moments when the upper classes splinter into multiple hostile factions scrambling for control. Political paralysis and in-fighting rule. Some members of the elite will ally with protesters to get extra leverage against rivals. The military, which would generally crush all protest, breaks into eight or ten subgroups fighting among themselves. This allows the protesters to play one side off against the other and achieve massive previously impossible concessions. In the French Revolution, various members of the aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie were hopelessly divided about how to pay for France’s military expenses. Radical workers used the occasion to achieve the removal of the king. That was not the last time French workers would enjoy the benefits of divisive politics. The most famous study of French strikes showed that giant strike waves occurred regularly in France during political crises and landmark elections. Those giant strike waves got results.

13. Cultivate public opinion. Whether or not the state or employers crush you depends on how popular you are. If the public loves you, authorities will be more reluctant to call out the troops. The Civil Rights Movement was largely instigated and led by black churches and organizations in the South. However, careful public relations work in the North led to the existence of many well-placed liberal allies outside of the region, and a federal government willing to take the side of the Freedom Riders and not the segregationists.

14. Exploit elite blunders. Almeida suggests a number of ways in which authorities can just blow it – handing victories to the protesters. A common mistake is using excessive force when public opinion is neutral or sympathetic to the demonstrators. This produces highly visible martyrs who can be the basis for countermobilization. Another mistake can be letting information leak which supports the protesters case.

15. Avoid counter-movements. Protesters don’t get a choice on this tactic. Sometimes, the authorities will organize counter-protests of citizens opposed to what the original protesters stand for. Employers hire gangs to beat up strike leaders. Conservatives organize demonstrations next to liberal protests or liberals organize demonstrations next to conservative protests. The mobilization of antifa demonstrators to counteract the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia is a good example of effective parrying.

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I think this is a great list. IMHO, this covers most of what goes into making protests succeed or fail. I would add one item to Almeida’s list.

16. Don’t ask for too little. Don’t settle for too little. In my own work on strikes in French coal mining, moderates

always got much less than radicals. Workers who made modest requests often received those modest requests – but that is all they got. Workers who asked for the moon were turned down. But if their strikes and protests were disruptive enough, management often gave them huge concessions between strikes just to prevent future trouble.

All of Paul Almeida’s lessons hold true. But there is also another one.

Don’t Ask. Don’t Get.

For More Information

Obviously your best first source is to go back to Paul Almeida’s Social Movements: the Structure of Collective Mobilization and read all the details. He has a huge and wonderful bibliography that will give you information on any aspect of protest you could want to know about.

The class study of protest success was William Gamson’s Strategy of Social Protest. This was a statistical study of win and loss rates for many of the most famous protest groups in American history. The statistics are presented as simple graphs and are easy to read and understand. The lessons are really useful. (Tip: Don’t use violence. Don’t have violence used on you.)

The famous study of French strikes showing the link to political instability is Shorter, Edward and Charles Tilly. Strikes in France: 1830-1968.

There are nine hundred million gajillion books that have been written about the great strikes and protests of world history. Nearly all of them tell interesting stories. Nearly all of them have useful information. My favorite ones involve the great Korean strike wave of 1989 – which was the biggest worker protest in all of recorded history. But there are a lot of great books about the Civil Rights Movement, right-to-life protests, ecological protests, anti-globalization protests or women’s struggle to gain the vote.

Read up and let history be your guide!

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