Content note: Being arrested and potential negative consequences thereof
Writer’s Note: Please feel free to share this post with any activist groups or websites that you think would possibly benefit from it.
Much like the months leading up to the Occupy movement, people are getting fed up with toothless actions and lackluster policy solutions. Instead of banks and an unjust monetary system, the current focus is on the vast impacts of climate change. A number of demonstrators are participating in civil disobedience or direct action (as opposed to indirect actions like lobbying) and many others are stating their support. Even the venerable Sierra Club has gotten in on the action, with the Club’s executive director and president participating with the full backing of the organization for the first time. As someone who’s been involved in the climate movement for quite sometime and has been trained in these techniques (although never participated in them), I’ve noticed some ways these groups can maximize their impact.
Engage diverse participants.
Diverse participants can bring essential perspectives to a movement and increase its effectiveness. Because climate change has the worse effects on people in underprivileged communities, it’s especially important to have their viewpoints included. It’s especially important to have a solid representation from groups of people who have or are personally affected by the problem. Otherwise, it can be easy for these campaigns to become a “privileged folks speak for the poor black people / citizens of developing countries / low-income residents / fill in the blank folks” parade. One of my most emotional moments during last year’s march against the Keystone XL pipeline was listening to students from New Jersey singing about their experiences with Hurricane Sandy. While the climate movement has been pretty weak on this in the past, their recent partnerships with Native American groups against the Keystone XL pipeline are a good step forward.
Having a diverse set of participants also leads to people taking you more seriously. Most people’s automatic response to civil disobedience is, “That’s just a bunch of radical, unemployed weirdos.” (This was common during Occupy.) In contrast, if onlookers see people like them participating, they may be more likely to imagine themselves in a similar position. At direct action protests against new construction at Heathrow Airport, the protestors included a huge diversity of ages and interest groups. Perhaps most notably, they had protestors from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, both which are about as radical (not very) as the Audubon Society is in the U.S.
Tell a story with compelling imagery.
Most media these days have a heavy emphasis on photos and video. A funny, shocking or striking image is more likely to draw attention in person and on social media than an ordinary one. This attention can potentially lead to increased public support and policy changes.
Again, my U.K. friends are very good at this. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company is staging a series of theatrical protests against BP’s corporate sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company and British Museum. In full costume, they’ve interrupted exhibits and plays to deliver screeds that match the tone of the presentation in everything but message – which is of course, anti-BP. They’re even planning to bring a Viking longboat into the museum to “give BP a Viking funeral!” Instead of being annoyed by these protests, people are finding them entertaining and getting the message.
Choose an action that will directly benefit your cause.
This is where the “direct” in “direct action” comes in. Direct actions should be more than just a protest; ideally, they should contribute to your movement’s goal. For example, sitting in a tree to prevent a logging company from cutting it down can bring great press to the problem of deforestation. But if it doesn’t, it at least protects that specific tree. Similarly, chaining yourself to the gate of a natural gas refinery construction site keeps the refinery off-line for that much longer than it would have been otherwise. During the civil rights era in the U.S., protestors sitting in segregated stores forced them to desegrate whether or not the owners wanted them to. Even if hardly anyone sees your action, at least you’re able to make a small difference.
Make sure the focus is still on your goal and not on getting arrested.
Many direct actions or acts of civil disobedience can involve getting arrested. However, having arrest be a goal detracts from the larger mission and lessens the movement’s credibility. This attitude can lead to the group idolizing the people who get arrested and devaluing those who don’t, including those who play essential roles like the police liaison, legal council, media representative, and medical support. In addition, it makes people who can’t risk being arrested, because they could lose custody of their children, lose their job, or be likely to be beaten by police, feel as if they are worth less to the movement than those who are more privileged.
In fact, it may be possible to get your message heard without being arrested at all. In general, the Shakespearian protestors have been communicating what they want to and then leaving without needing to be asked.
Focus on the most effective, appropriate location and audience.
Breaking the law has the potential to hurt people. After all, many (although obviously not all) laws have good intentions behind them. Because the goal of an action is to draw attention to your cause, not be a jerk, it’s important to minimize harm to uninvolved parties. I saw the consequences of being too arbitrary when I visited Mount Rushmore a few years ago. A few months earlier, Greenpeace hung a banner from Mount Rushmore protesting a lack of greenhouse gas emission limits. While it definitely provided compelling imagery, it actually ended up hurting people. Even though Congress was most likely the intended audience, most Congress members probably never heard about the protest. Instead, it seriously inconvenienced the park rangers, who were already sympathetic to the cause. It also hurt future visitors because the park had to shut down the trail the protestors used due to the risks associated with trespassing. In fact, it made the rangers so annoyed that they told visitors exactly why they had to shut down the trail, turning people who might have been supportive of the group against them.
I think direct action or civil disobedience should only occur after activists have exhausted other options. However, because it can be the only effective option in some situations, it’s an important part of an activist’s toolbox. So if you’re going to get arrested, you might as well make the most of it!