Before or after the protest?

Cambodians protest against the regime in 2012. Credit: Greg Pellechi

Cambodians protest against the regime in 2012. Credit: Greg Pellechi

Over the past few years we have seen an explosion in street protests and demonstrations. Photos and testimonies are all over my Twitter and Facebooks feeds, and regularly also feature in mainstream media. However, as Moisés Naím notes in The Atlantic, all this mass mobilisation of people has to date resulted in few tangible results.

In his article Naím talks about why street protests don’t work. A central point he makes is that “[t]he problem is what happens after the march.” I think his emphasis is wrong. Yes, there is the issue of what happens after the march, but the reason that’s an issue is because of what happened – or did not happen – before the march.

I find it interesting that Naím makes no mention of non-violent action, of which street protests are a form (provided of course they are non-violent). In standard theory about non-violent action (of which the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict and the Albert Einstein Institution are great proponents), it is stressed that strategic planning is key. Mobilising supporters, developing allies, analysing existing power structures, and developing a plan of action – a strategy – are all key steps in this effort.

In contrast, street protests are a tactic. As such, the only way they have a chance of bringing lasting change is if they form part of a sustained, strategically planned, campaign to reach whatever goal the movement has.

So to determine the real impact a street protest may have, we need to look more closely not only at what happens after the protest, but – more importantly – at what happened before. Having thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people on the street demanding ‘change’ will have little impact unless strategic mobilising, organising, and planning has gone into the protest. Naím seems to recognise the need for this, but unlike many theorists of non-violence, link it to the need to develop political parties (which is anathema to most theorists and practitioners of non-violence).

My advice is this: the discontented need to move from reading simply Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent action, and graduate to reading, for instance, Robert L. Helvey’s On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals.

Tactics are easy, but it’s the strategy that counts.

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