The Two Competing Strategies Behind Every Protest

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There are two fundamentally divergent theories of change behind direct action campaigns. They should never mix.

What Do We Want?!

Nothing is more closely associated with social movements than the image of a protest. Even for community organizers like me who know that protests are just the tip of the iceberg, the term social movement conjures images of lunch counter sit-ins and civil disobedience. Given the ubiquity of protests, it’s not surprising that there are several different reasons movement organizers employ protest tactics. All too often, however, organizers aren’t explicit even with themselves about the purpose of a protest. This exposes movements to a major strategic vulnerability. 

There are two main reasons social movements use protests. One is to put pressure directly on decision makers to cause them to accept protester demands. The other uses protest to attract attention and draw in new participants. On the surface, these objectives seem perfectly compatible, and indeed, they feed into each other in important ways. However, over the long term, an organization which lacks clarity about which of these two objectives is primary will find itself adrift. 

Each of these two strategies, pressure campaigning and mass movement building, serves a vital function for social movements, and a healthy social movement has plenty of room for both. But in this paper, I will demonstrate surprising ways that these strategies collide, making it unwise to combine them in a single protest or even a single movement organization. First, let’s briefly understand each strategy on its own terms.

The Pressure Campaign Theory of Change

This is the strategy that animates protest in the imagination of the public, and for good reason: pressure campaigns by a litany of NGOs (from Greenpeace and PETA to labor unions and the Breast Cancer Fund) have driven countless government bodies and corporations to adopt meaningful policy reforms. 

Pressure campaigners use protest to cause such a nuisance to their targets that its cost exceeds the cost of accepting the protesters’ demands. There are several ways protesters can exert this kind of pressure. Consider an activist group trying to pressure a company to change a policy. Activists can target the company’s reputation, which over time will cause economic harm to the company. Or they can disrupt the company’s operations directly, causing immediate economic harm. This doesn’t require destructive sabotage; blocking trucks from leaving a supply center can rack up huge costs for a company without exposing activists to the legal or reputational risks associated with property damage. Activists can also disrupt decision makers directly, by protesting outside their homes or sitting in at their offices. While these actions may not cause obvious economic harm to the company, they obviously inflict a different sort of cost. Beautiful Trouble’s teaching Points of Intervention is emblematic of the pressure campaign theory of change. 

Pressure campaigns are not necessarily short-sighted. Strategists often choose to launch a pressure campaign to win a small victory as an incremental step towards a larger social transformation. They can also use a pressure campaign as a way to influence public opinion. Indeed, influencing public opinion can be both a method and a goal for pressure campaigns; campaigners seek to jeopardize a company’s brand in the eyes of the public to win a concession, and they also use their campaign to reach people and win support for their larger issue. Thus pressure campaigns can be seeking both institutional and cultural change at once. However, as a strategy, pressure campaigns put institutional change before cultural change. They situate a discrete policy change as their immediate objective, operating with the knowledge that incremental policy changes across society are key to driving long-term institutional and cultural change. 

 Because they win tangible victories on shorter timescales, pressure campaigns are appealing to donors, both large and small. In an organization with an established donor base, a pressure campaign will bring in enough donations to pay comfortable salaries to all the staff needed to organize the campaign. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to pay every participant in the campaign; you’ll need volunteers, but you may not need very many. This is crucial: a small number of people willing to be persistent and take legal risks are sometimes enough to pressure huge corporations to change their policies. Meanwhile, organizing volunteers takes time and effort, as does recruiting and training new ones. In a pressure campaign, there’s no reason to try to recruit more volunteers than you need to win. 

For all these reasons, pressure campaigns are especially popular with NGOs. An organization with an established reputation, a donor base, a modest staff, and a small base of dedicated volunteers familiar to the staff and their way of doing things is ideally suited to run a pressure campaign. An established donor pool means the org can focus on winning the campaign to impress its current donors, rather than finding news ones. Dedicated volunteers will trust the organizers with the strategy, so that organizers don’t need to worry much about making each protest a thrilling experience or even making sure participants understand how it contributes to the campaign. A more traditional organizational structure enables a high degree of strategic unity and quick decision making, helpful assets in oppositional campaigning. (There are certainly instances of major pressure campaigns run entirely by grassroots collectives, such as SHAC.)

In summary, pressure campaigns use protests to win incremental policy changes by leaving decision makers with no better option. The immediate goal is institutional victories; engaging activists and shaping public opinion are means in service of that goal.

The Mass Movement Theory of Change

Alongside the rich tradition of pressure campaigning, there exists a separate tradition of social change movements which essentially invert that strategy. For mass movement strategists in the vein of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., incremental policy demands are merely a tool for catalyzing dramatic cultural and political transformation by engaging large numbers of activists in dramatic confrontations with the status quo. 

While pressure campaigners use protest primarily to put pressure on decision makers, mass movement organizers have different objectives in mind. Their primary objective is to rapidly transform the cultural and political imagination of the public, usually of an entire nation. Mass movements subdivide this into two core objectives: active popular support and passive popular support. Protest is crucial to both.

Passive popular support is the number of people who agree with the vision the movement is advocating for. If the movement can win over an electoral majority to support its vision, it doesn’t need incremental policy wins; it can enact its demands in one fell swoop through government action. These movements aim to drive their ideas into the political mainstream, thus opening up far greater possibilities for institutional change across the board. They use protest to force attention onto an issue which societies gatekeepers are otherwise ignoring, to start a conversation across society and gradually win people over. These protests are designed to be maximally visible to the public and the press. They happen in population centers where the greatest number of people will see them, the press will have no trouble getting there to document them, and members of the public can easily join in. Ancillary protests may take place at other points of intervention, but make no mistake, these protests are much more about building excitement among movement participants than exerting pressure on institutions.

This is where active popular support comes in. A handful of people may be sufficient to disrupt a supply chain for one company or otherwise cause a massive headache for its executives, but to force a society-wide reckoning, much larger numbers of people are needed. Active popular support is the number of people actively contributing to the campaign by coming to protests, or even by putting a sign on their lawn or talking to their friends about the issue. The mass movement theory of change believes that engaging mass numbers of activists in the movement sets off a number of chain reactions across society, and mass movements use protest to build active support. Protests are how movements attract new participants and provide them with a transformational experience which causes them to identify with the movement and begin advocating in their social networks. The attention gathered by protests on traditional and social media alerts potential new participants to the existence of the campaign. Skillful mass movement organizers work hard to promote protests, then try to contact every new person who attends and plug them into the organization’s network. If the only consequence of a protest is to bring a few new people on board so that the next protest can be bigger, mass movement organizers consider it a success. Because it is central to their theory of change, these organizers are willing to compromise nearly any other objective in order to engage more activists in the movement.

Institutional policy demands have a place in mass movement organizing, but they are a tool rather than an objective. They exist to legitimize the campaign in the eyes of its supporters and the public. Mass movements select demands for their symbolic value. These movements are best understood as social theater; in a sense, a mass movement is a theatrical performance of a pressure campaign, with the whole society as an audience! The movement must present a compelling performance that the purpose of protests is to win immediate policy changes. Without credible demands, few people will be inspired to join the campaign, and the public will condemn the protests as pointless trouble-making or attention-seeking. The demands must seem achievable, but also be bold and attention grabbing. Occasional victories are even necessary to sustain the excitement of participants and the public, though skillful organizers can create a sense that a victory has been accomplished without any concession from the targeted institution. 

Gandhi and King frequently justified their campaigns with modest, incremental demands which dramatized or encapsulated the larger injustice. But their true strategy had little to do with actually winning these demands, and in fact, many of the campaigns now regarded as pivotal victories in their movements did not achieve any immediate institutional change. For instance, the salt march remains Gandhi’s most famous campaign, a massive act of civil disobedience where hundreds of satyagrahis endured vicious beatings merely for trying to collect salt directly from the ocean and thus avoid paying a British tax. To many of Gandhi’s fellow strategists, this objective seemed farcical, a distraction from the essential issue of British occupation. What’s more, after a year of campaigning and extraordinary sacrifice from many thousands of Indians, Gandhi negotiated an agreement with the occupiers which didn’t even end the salt tax. Yet the campaign had a dramatic symbolic effect that Gandhi’s detractors, British and Indian alike, only recognized later. According to Gandhi biographer Geoffrey Ashe, the British officialdom “ever afterwards groaned over Irwin’s move [to negotiate with Gandhi] as the fatal blunder from which the Raj never recovered.”

Mass movement organizations tend to employ very different structures than organizations that run pressure campaigns. Because they prioritize engagement over other strategic objectives, mass movements use decentralized structures, trading in strategic unity and easy coordination in favor of a scalable structure that eliminates barriers to entry for new participants. Though they mobilize far greater numbers of people than NGOs, they almost always operate on much smaller budgets. Even with an NGO budget, however, mass movement organizations could never afford to pay all the organizers needed to engage activists at scale. These movements depend on a mass volunteer model, with perhaps a small number of paid staff taking a support role to enable volunteer organizers to do the work of the movement.

Mass movements use protest to seize the public’s attention, shifting public opinion and attracting new participants. In contrast to pressure campaigns, the immediate goal of mass movements is cultural transformation; announcing policy objectives is merely a tactic to win legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

This table summarizes some of the key differences between these two protest strategies.

Theory of ChangePressure Campaign Mass Movement
Uses protest to……pressure decision makers to change policies; concrete institutional wins.…seize the narrative, attract and transform mass numbers of participants, and catalyze dramatic cultural shifts.
DemandsAchievable demands which will cause immediate, short-term improvement while taking us a step closer to long-term vision. Narrowly target corporations or government.Bold-but-credible demands (may or may not be achievable) which legitimize the campaign and dramatize the larger injustice. Typically target government to justify widespread disruption.
Volunteers…Are an operational cost. Need some but a small, dedicated, experienced, familiar group is ideal. No reason to recruit more people than you need to get the job done.Are central to the theory of change. Organizers will compromise other objectives in order to engage more activists. 
StructureSmall, tight operation. Fast, centralized decision making. Appealing to donors, able to be run by a handful of paid staff.Large, complicated operation with minimal funding. Decentralized decision making for inclusivity over efficiency. Volunteers organize, any paid staff only support volunteer organizers.
Key Distinction: Means & EndsThe goal is policy changes; activists are instrumental.The goal is engaging large numbers of activists; policy demands are instrumental.

PB&J or Oil and Water?

Ok, so pressure campaigners and mass movement organizers each use protests to accomplish different objectives. But are these two strategies really incompatible?

At the level of movement ecology, they are certainly compatible. Each strategy understands that cultural change and institutional change are deeply entangled in a feedback loop. The concrete policies held by both public and private institutions are a reflection of the cultural mainstream, and at the same time they play a major role in shaping what the public is able to imagine. I have written elsewhere about the interplay between cultural and institutional change, but the essence is that they must proceed in lockstep, with one reinforcing the other. If cultural change is not codified into laws and policies, the change is almost certain to regress, due to the constant feedback that existing social structures exert on social ideology. But institutional change can’t get out ahead of cultural change, either: if a coalition of advocates manages to win a policy change that is too far outside of the Overton window, there will be a political backfire, and the change will be repealed.   

Different strategies are able to intervene at different points on that feedback loop. That’s one way to understand the difference between the two strategies in question: pressure campaigns seek immediate institutional change, mass movements seek immediate cultural change, and both strategies are in service of greater institutional and cultural change in the long term. 

There are also more specific ways that the symbiosis between these strategies manifests at the inter-organizational level. Most obviously, when mass movements are able to shift the overton window, they enable pressure campaign organizations to pursue more ambitious goals. Mass movements also attract huge numbers of new participants, many of whom gain experience and become the dependable activist base that pressure campaigners draw on. In the opposite direction, pressure campaigns institutionalize and concretize the progress made by mass movements. Critically, they also provide mass movements with a stream of victories to celebrate, helping their participants see that they are accomplishing something tangible and thus sustaining motivation. 

Strategic Gridlock

However, an organization which is tempted to pursue both of these two strategies on equal footing will find itself in a bind. Let’s look at three reasons these strategies don’t mix well inside an organization.

Volunteers Are a Giant Pain in the Ass

Anyone who ever held any responsibility in a mass movement context knows that organizing large numbers of volunteers is the least efficient way to do literally anything. Yet getting work done with volunteers is at the heart of the mass movement theory of change. I already mentioned that movements simply will never have enough money to pay everyone contributing to mass movement organizing. More importantly, however, creating opportunities for volunteers to take ownership of meaningful work is essential for an organization to achieve exponential growth. Joining a team and becoming an organizer transforms participants in a whole new way, inspiring them to bring their friends out to protests and to generally champion the cause and the organization every chance they get. Political scientist Hahrie Han has demonstrated that movement organizations succeed in engaging far more people when they involve volunteers in the work of organizing and decision-making in a meaningful way. 

Recruiting, onboarding, training, and mentoring new participants to the point that they can take on work, and eventually even assume leadership roles, requires an enormous investment of resources on the part of the organization. No sane organization would choose to do this unless it inextricably woven into their objectives and strategy. And the fact is, this kind of volunteer engagement simply is not necessary for waging effective pressure campaigns. If an organizer or team is told that their objective is to win a specific concession from a specific institution, they will quickly realize that trying to involve new activists in that work as anything more than bodies at a protest is inefficient to the point of being irresponsible. Instead, they will take the most direct route possible: doing the work themselves and turning out just enough volunteers to the protests for it to serve the campaign.

This is what I experienced as I was cutting my teeth in Direct Action Everywhere, and I think most DxE organizers would agree with that description. DxE’s flagship chapter in Berkeley has been trying for years to increase the size of its grassroots membership with no success. At the same time, organizers have gotten better and better at making do with the number of people they do have to achieve other kinds of victories. A large percentage of the group’s volunteer members have been around for years, creating a deep well of trust between activists and organizers. This enables DxE to do things that many grassroots groups its size can only dream of. For now, DxE continues to invest considerable energy and staff time into largely fruitless efforts to grow its volunteer base (it does bring in new members, but others leave at the same rate), begging the question of what else could be done with that energy that might be more productive.

Different Objectives Require Different Protests and Structures

Could you have one team of organizers focused on engagement and another focused on pressure? You could, at the effect of shearing the organization into two largely unrelated and inharmonious halves. If, for instance, the team planning protests is told that their objective is to win a pressure campaign, they won’t plan protests that are compatible with the goal of increasing engagement. For instance, mass movement organizers might prioritize protests in easily accessible locations on weekends or evenings so more people can come; pressure campaigns might be better served by disruptions on remote, rural points of the supply chain or in an office during business hours. While these may not seem inherently contradictory, in practice they are often at odds. 

I saw this tension play out in my time with Extinction Rebellion UK. XR is a quintessential mass movement organization, using a highly decentralized structure to engage massive numbers of people in general disruption of central London with symbolic, non-specific demands. XR’s democratic nature enabled many sub-groups to emerge within it pursuing different strategies, and naturally some groups were drawn towards pressure campaigns. One such faction within XR got involved with a campaign to try to stop the construction of a new high-speed railway (HS2) which was annihilating some of the last old-growth forest in the UK, destroying hundreds of thousands of trees and likely driving several species into extinction. I tear up now thinking about the devastation caused by the construction of HS2, which continues today. Yet this created a conflict over strategy in XR. After two large rebellions in London, some organizers thought that XR’s next sustained mass mobilization should take place at the remote construction site of the railway. Other organizers argued that far fewer people, especially new activists, would participate in an action that was difficult to get to; the action would undermine XR’s growth strategy, ultimately key to changing the political landscape concerning environmental destruction. The people organizing against HS2 were free to plan protests at the construction site using XR’s name, but asking for their campaign to displace XR’s central strategy of building mass engagement would have been a step too far and sent XR off course. In the end, XR stuck with its core strategy and held another mass disruption in London. 

Similar contradictions appear in the structures that support the two strategies. As I described earlier, mass movements benefit from highly decentralized structures with minimal barriers to entry, while pressure campaigns demand a fast, highly coordinated decision-making structure to respond to the rapidly evolving campaign. You could attempt to blend these by embedding a pressure campaign structure inside a mass movement structure, but again, in practice this causes friction. DxE and XR UK each attempted a structure somewhat like this, and in each case it led to a crisis of legitimacy, with volunteers in the decentralized structure growing resentful of the core leadership, who were paid. 

There is always, in any organization, an appeal to do a bit of everything. But the most successful organizations instead identify their niche and focus on doing it very well.

Pulled Towards Pressure: The Cannibal Twin Effect

One of the greatest challenges facing mass movement organizers is that cultural change is largely intangible while it is happening. It involves counterintuitive processes and it is virtually impossible to establish clear causal relationships between a discrete event and its impact on the culture. Often when culture change movements are at the height of their vibrancy, many participants feel frustrated that their efforts don’t appear to be accomplishing anything concrete. For instance, even a few weeks into the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, just as I and others were amazed by their cultural shockwaves, many participants started to feel the movement was failing because it hadn’t already enacted its agenda in policy. This effect goes doubly for organizations with high-dollar donors, who often want to see exactly what their money is getting.

For this reason, organizations that try to balance these two theories of change end up getting pulled further and further towards the pressure campaign approach over time. Pressure campaigns are much more likely to provide the tangible victories organizations need to justify their existence to supporters, donors, and even staff. The pressure campaign strategy crowds out the mass movement strategy like a fetus devouring its twin. The only way for an organization to resist this is to be exceedingly persistent and explicit in communicating the mass movement theory of change to its organizers and supporters, even juxtaposing it against the pressure campaign strategy so as to preempt any temptation.

I’ll Meet You in the Promised Land

Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated that every protest organization needs to decide whether it is using the pressure campaign or the mass movement theory of change. I want to reiterate that I fully believe each of these strategies is whole and valuable to the movement. The most important question is not “which of these strategies is the right one?” but “which of these strategies is right for my organization?” Depending on an organization’s structure, culture, and history, it will be able to contribute more by following one strategy or the other, but not both. 

I will finish, however, with a caveat. There is a point in the lifecycle of a social movement, at the zenith of its activity, in which these two strategies completely merge. For example, when civil resistance movements topple governments using weeks of sustained mass protest and noncooperation, they are making full use of both theories of change. These revolutions place enormous pressure on the most powerful individuals in a society by essentially shutting down the economy until their demands are met, ensuring that the cost of ignoring them is literally greater than the cost of acceding. And they do it by drawing absolute maximum participation into a campaign of generalized disruption, usually growing at this point into something almost completely structureless. Hypothetically, these same dynamics could occur in a reform movement, as opposed to a revolution, but to date this has not occurred; it simply hasn’t been necessary for social movements to win changes less absolute than the replacement of a regime.

So for now, let’s focus on doing what we know works: using the tremendous power of protest to advance a single, clearly defined strategy for each organization we operate, building a diverse movement ecology working towards the dramatic institutional and cultural change we so desperately need.