Words by Florence Robson
Steve Crawshaw, author, Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief
Katherine Sladden, Activist, Campaign Consultant, Founder, Chorus Campaign
Srdja Popovic, Activist and Founder, Canvas
Johanna Hamilton, Writer, Director and Producer
For centuries, people of all political leanings have taken to the streets to demonstrate their civic discontent. Wielded as a weapon of change, protests can take many different forms, from individual action to mass demonstration, peaceful marches to violent confrontations. Today, protests are an almost daily occurrence across the globe, with notable recent examples including the Youth Climate Strike, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movement in France and Algerian protests against President Bouteflika. But in this historic moment of global struggle, is protesting the best way to bring about change? Are we treading the path to political transformation or simply marching in circles?
These were the questions on the table at our recent panel discussion, ‘Marching Towards Change’, where we engaged some of the world’s foremost experts on social activism, civil unrest and creating people-powered campaigns to examine what it takes to build a movement.
Hard-earned lessons in activism
Filmmaker Johanna Hamilton kicked off the discussion by asking each of the panellists to reflect on a specific protest that made a real difference and the lessons they took from it. Steve Crawshaw spoke of his time living in Poland during the Gdansk strike of August 1980. In this historic revolt against the entrenched Communist regime, the Poles’ demands included free trade unions, the abolishment of censorship and the release of political prisoners – demands that were looked at by outsiders as being “about as impossible as asking for free elections in North Korea today”. Yet despite the seeming implausibility of the workers’ demands, the wave of strikes played a key role in initiating the sequence of events that led to the collapse of Communism in Europe and, eventually, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The lesson? ‘Believe in the impossible’, says Steve, ‘but combine that belief with strategy. Pick your ask as carefully as your moment.’
With vast experience in bridging the gap between online petitioning and the real world, Katherine Sladden joined Steve in emphasising the importance of incorporating protests into a bigger strategy. “A protest can be a key moment of escalation, but you have to look forward to the next step of your campaign.” She also pointed out that numbers aren’t always the defining factor in the success of a protest, describing the time she joined a small group of people in fancy dress outside the Bank of England to campaign for getting more women on bank notes. “It was a tiny protest, but the Bank of England isn’t used to anything of that kind outside its doors”, she said. “It turned out that inside they were busy getting legal advice!”. The protest worked; within a week of taking over the top role, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announced that Jane Austen would be featured on the ten-pound note.
Serbian political activist, Srdja Popovic, admitted that he “used to think activism was the most boring thing on the planet – but then my country started falling apart.”. Recounting his early days of activism, he emphasised the importance of mobilising the portion of society to which you don’t normally belong, stating “it’s not only about numbers, but diversity. If only educated, urban people are protesting, there’s something missing.” His other key takeaway was that fun is as important as strategy when it comes to building a movement. “It’s about feeling part of a community”, he explained. “If you feel cool, you’ll keep doing it.”
Is violence ever justified?
Many may still associate protests with riot police and aggression from both sides, but our panellists were united in their view that non-violent protests not only take more courage than violent ones, but that they’re actually more effective. The data supports their perspective: a study by political scientist Erica Chenoweth proved that non-violent protests have a 53% success rate, while violent movements are only successful 23% of the time. What’s more, “violence poisons the waters of change and contributes to greater instability in the future”, said Steve.
But it’s all very well speaking out against violence from the UK, where marching on the streets leaves you with nothing more than a new snap for social media. Is peaceful protest futile in the face of a regime willing to kill its population?
Activism is still possible in dictator states, but it requires a level of risk assessment. There are always opportunities to make an impact without using violence by getting creative with your methods, according to Srdja. He recounted a memorable Chilean example, where huge volumes of people drove or walked at half-speed, enabling them to recognise each other as participants in the movement without acting illegally. Other examples include mass-sandwich-eating in Thailand, ironically applauding the President in Belarus and painting dwarves over government slogans in Poland.
It’s also possible to hurt a regime from outside of its control. “Dictatorships look like corporations’, said Srdja. “Even if their pockets are deep, you can hit them by understanding where their profit lies”, whether that involves boycotting particular businesses or lobbying your own government to intervene in human rights violations.
Even in the UK, violence on the streets is not always as alien a prospect as we think. Katherine spoke of her work with the locals affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, who decided to eschew violence in favour of regular silent protests, almost two years after the event. She was quick to point out, however, that their silence isn’t born of passivity. “Holding the peace is hard – it takes energy, courage and dignity. But they’re expressing it in the way that they think will best bring change in the end.”
Connecting across divides
In our current, increasingly fractured world, it seems that the average citizen is completely disenfranchised from the political elite and decision makers, leaving a vacuum that can either be filled with hope or fear. Benjamin Franklin famously stated that every society consists of Movers, Movables and Immovables – so how do the Movers persuade the Immovables to shift in their direction? “The bad guys will build on their fear and anger; the good guys will offer them hope”, said Srdja. “I’m afraid that the ‘bad’ guys understand this theory better than the ‘good’ at the moment and aren’t hesitating to exploit it.”
The rise of clicktivism
What of the ‘clicktivism’ phenomenon? Does online activism lead to genuine change or is it simply digital hysteria, easily drummed up and just as easily dispersed?
The room was in agreement that, despite the bad press ‘clicktivism’ has received, seeing thousands of signatures against a particular cause is incredibly powerful, allowing the spread of information and leading people to feel they’re with the momentum. What’s more, online petitions give you access to a list of engaged people who are ready to support a particular cause – an invaluable resource in building a movement.
The next generation of activists
With a fresh wave of youth climate strikes making headlines, the evening ended with a message of optimism, as Steve encouraged young activists not to get despondent when their demands aren’t immediately heard. “There’s an established pattern of generations not understanding each other. During the Civil Rights movement, it took decades for parents to appreciate why their children took the risks they did. It’s about keeping the focused energy and remembering that, generally, people on both sides want things to be better than they currently are.”