Experts weigh in on what makes an effective protest
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;
Story

Experts weigh in on what makes an effective protest

Stories/659 , Issues/Policy , Issues/Human Rights
Sydney NSW
20th Mar 2020
Experts weigh in on what makes an effective protest
Put some imagination into your next demonstration.

In the last twelve months, there has been at least one major political protest in almost every continent, but demonstrations are only effective if used as part of a larger picture rather than the end goal, experts say.

Although the act of protesting is a protected right in democratic countries, it doesn’t guarantee the government, media, or unsympathetic constituents will even pay attention to the rallies, let alone act on their central causes.

Without these measurable outcomes, revolutionary historian Peter McPhee considers protests an “inept” expression of collective anger, which does little more than act as an annoyance to the community.

“Simply mobilizing a lot of people may just be a waste of time,” he says, “or it may even have a contrary effect to what you're hoping for.”

Zali Steggall, the former Olympian who last year upset Tony Abbott for the seat of Warringah, considers the number of local protests — even their very presence — to be a “health check” for politicians.

But because “the number one concern [for politicians] is re-election”, Steggall agrees with McPhee, saying protests need to translate into action.

“It’s no good just protesting for protesting’s sake,” she says.

“It has to translate into action.”

Mary Hui and Laurel Chor, two journalists who covered last year’s Hong Kong protests, join McPhee and Steggall in speaking with The Quo about what makes a successful protest, and what makes — as McPhee calls it — one of the many “protests that have fizzled out”.

A little more conversation, a little more action

Similar to Steggall’s health check analogy, Luke Buckmeister, one of the organisers of Melbourne’s arm of Extinction Rebellion (XR) rallies, compares protests to smoke alarms.

Like smoke alarms, those encountering disruptions from protests might find themselves first “annoyed and perhaps startled, and then, later on, you realise the smoke alarm has notified you of something dangerous”.

Although XR breaks their protests into three categories according to their objectives — political pressure, economical disruption and outreach — and each with slightly different strategies, Buckmeister says that like most protests through history, they expect the majority of groups benefiting from the current system to reject the protests seeking to disrupt their power.

“We’re more concerned with how average people react than how the powerful with vested interests will react,” he says.

That’s why, no matter which objective the protest serves, “part of most protests have an outreach component that is not to protest per se,” Buckmeister adds.

“We talk to the general public about what we’re doing and why.

“It really puts a human face on the protest to facilitate a dialogue.”

Get to the point

While older generations traditionally hold positions of power when it comes to making an impact on future opportunities such as healthcare, Chor and Hui note there was a larger number of youth taking to the streets because they will be most affected by policies passed now.

It’s the same young voters who can leverage what Steggall considers their greatest advantage — a “greater capacity to spread a message than previous generations” who relied on face-to-face communication. But only if they create a shareable purpose.

“They need to have a clear ask and a clear purpose,” she says.

“If it’s too vague it’s no help.”

To clarify, Steggall suggests all protests should include a concise call to action beyond marching in the streets, and a deadline, to hold politicians to account.

Hong Kong offers a very clear example of this.

Locally, “everyone knew what they wanted, despite being a largely leaderless movement,” Chor says.

This allowed Chor and Hui to be able to measure the level of success using a concrete metric: the Hong Kong government eventually withdrew the inciting extradition bill.

Because the government delivered this “a little too late” — as Hui says — it pushed the protesters to expand their demands to five, pushing for democracy.

“The Hong Kong protests achieved the first demand but they’ll probably never achieve the rest, or most of them,” Chor says.

“It didn’t really change what they set out to do, but as they grew it made everyone think about things.”

Hui agrees, saying that although the protests grew increasingly violent and have largely polarised onlookers, it seems to have kicked off long-term changes to political apathy: unions have formed, citizens galvanised, and politicians placed under ongoing scrutiny.

In with the new

McPhee credits Hong Kong protesters’ adaptive ‘water’-like tactics in not only keeping the message alive, but also spreading it beyond its borders.

He was particularly interested in technology’s increasing role in protests since the early 2010s when social media was used to recruit demonstrators to the Arab Springs protests. Last year, protesters used it for everything from monitoring and broadcasting events live, spreading their demands, and even avoiding the police.

Symbology has also innovated, McPhee notes. As Cantonese wordplay would go viral among the locals, symbols such as Pepe the Frog — ironically appropriated from the alt-right, anti-semetic movement in the US— became the pictorial symbol of government resistance on Lennon walls and digital stickers, allowing non-Chinese speakers to identify protesters at a glance.

According to McPhee, mixing non-linguistic symbols is becoming a successful trend in gaining international interest. The 2018 Changmai protests also combined the 1789 French Revolutionary phrase ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ with the three-fingered salute from popular young-adult novels The Hunger Games.

In fact, McPhee believes it’s “imaginative” techniques such as this that will lessen how disruptive the public perceives demonstrations — and therefore, less annoying.

Internationally, Chor has found local politicians as far as Scandinavia who sympathised with pro-democratic protesters, despite China’s consistent message that these ‘rebellions’ were dangerous.

“There were people writing letters, people making art,” she says, “people putting out messaging in several different languages to reach several different international audiences.”

The success in gaining a positive global reputation beyond “just angry kids in the streets” was a testament to the targeted messaging to foreign communities, Chor adds.

Walked the walk? Now talk the talk

Similarly, Steggall advises young protesters to consider rallies and marches as part of the bigger picture.

In her experience, youth and students — a major demographic in most protests — often mistake protests for the only way to communicate with their local or national politicians.

It’s the same age group that was “by far” the hardest to engage with in the last election. The Independent MP suggests this can be remedied by being politically informed and connected.

“Trust in politicians has gone down,” Steggall says.

“People have become disconnected from politics because of what they’ve seen and heard.

“But you have to be involved in the system to change it.”

In the latest election, Steggall saw disconnected voters becoming more vulnerable to campaigns with more exposure and using targeted ads such as Clive Palmer’s, even if a quick Google search revealed his policies to oppose their protests.

“Make your vote reflective of your concerns,” she says, “and be informed.”

To do this, Steggall warns youth against the prevalence of misinformation found online and suggests they check their sources to make use of their vote’s full potential.

In fact, Chor uses the results of informed voting to get a read on the level of public support for last year’s protests, filtering out biased media and emptied streets from coronavirus and mass arrests.

“I don’t think public support really diminished for them as we saw in the election when the pro-democracy side won in a landslide,” she said. 

“People saw that as a referendum.”

In Australia, Steggall has already seen an improvement in youth engagement with politics recently, crediting social media and campaigns designed specifically to target the demographic.

“We’re learning to speak the right language to engage the right demographic,” she says.

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