Protest Tips From Someone Who's Been Protested


QUESTION: Two weeks ago, when you learned that Speaker John Boehner's office was stormed by naked protesters, how did you react? (If this is the first you are hearing about this, a link to the story is above.)

A. I quietly chuckled to myself.

B. I tweeted the story to all of my followers with the preface: “Boehner gets what he deserves!!”

C. I ranted to my wife/husband/neighbor/coworker/Facebook friends about what disrespectful, #([email protected]$&-ing buffoons liberals are.

D. I spent twenty minutes researching the issue and then called my Congressman to voice my thoughts/concerns about federal spending cuts included in sequestration.

OK.  Now, show of hands: Who remembers what the naked protesters were protesting?

When you work on Capitol Hill, you get used to being protested. During my ten years as a hill staffer, I was yelled at, sworn at and spit on.  I saw grown men dressed up as farm animals, children with pictures of dead babies and a camel. (Yes, a camel.)

Because my email address was public, my inbox was regularly flooded with angry emails and form letters. And I once had to help my boss and his pregnant wife escape two Code Pink protesters determined to snare him in a giant fishing net. Neither of those protesters seemed to know -- or care -- that my boss was on their side.

Some protesters made me laugh.  Others ticked me off.  (No one likes to get spit on.)  A chief of staff friend of mine is still looking for ways to exact revenge on the organization that -- five years ago -- crashed his email account with pictures of dead animals.  But I have a hard time remembering a protest that changed my mind or got me fired up about an issue. (Except last year’s SOPA/PIPA protest, which I admittedly helped organize.)

Now, I’m not arguing that there is anything wrong with protesting. Ask anyone: I hold few people in higher esteem than John Lewis. (If you haven’t heard of him or have never read his book, you should. It’s brilliant.) But as John Lewis himself explains, when they protested segregated lunch counters in the south, they had a very deliberate strategy. Everyone who participated in the protest was briefed on the “essentials of sitting-in,” he writes.

“No aggression. No retaliation. No loud conversation, no talking of any kind with anyone other than ourselves. Dress Nicely….We wanted white people, everyday citizens, everyday customers to be exposed to us, to see us as we were, not as something in their minds, in their imaginations….If some of these white onlookers went back to their own homes, their own jobs, their own churches, and began talking about this in heartfelt terms, about what they had seen, then we had achieved one of our main objectives… ” (John Lewis, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement)

In other words, civil rights protesters in the ’50s and ’60s won sympathy for their cause by giving haters nothing to object to but the color of their skin.  It wasn’t fun and it took a lot of training not to respond negatively to racial epithets and violence, but it was effective because it showed segregation for what it really was: hate.

I bring up strategy, because -- at its heart -- protest is a communication strategy. Actually, it's not even a communications strategy.  Protest is a communications tactic, that can be employed as part of a communications strategy.

In other words, protests have purpose.  Whether the protesters are sitting at lunch counters or taking their clothes off in the Speaker’s office, what makes a protest a protest is the participants’ intent to communicate something. Without the intent, stripping down isn’t so much a protest as a melodramatic excuse to get naked.

And like any communications tactic, a protest's success hinges on the communications strategy behind it.

How do you put together a successful communications strategy?  Well, from now on, don't reach for the poster-board until you've asked yourself the following questions: 

1. What is your goal?

Do you want to end war? Fight poverty? Stop an execution? Protect unborn children? Repeal Obamacare? Be specific. (The naked protesters said their goal was to stop the $1.2 billion in HIV/AIDS funding slated to be cut as part of sequestration.)

2. What specifically needs to happen for that objective to be achieved?

This is where you analyze the situation. Who are your supporters and opponents? Is there a decision maker? Can he/she be won over? Do you need funding? Public support? Be specific about what needs to happen, so you can figure out how to make it happen.

For example: Sequestration cuts are being reviewed in the fiscal cliff negotiations. To ensure that any potential fiscal cliff deal includes restoration of the HIV/AIDS funding, those negotiating the deal need to support the funding and be able to sell it to their respective caucuses/parties. Who are those negotiators? Which of them support/oppose the funding cuts? The ones opposed to the cuts are the ones whose minds need to be changed in order to protect the funding. What will they need to win over their caucus?

3. Is protest the best/only way to make those things happen?

Think about this on a micro-level. Let’s say your friend owes you $20 bucks. What is the best way to get her to pay you back? Yes, one option is to pressure your friend into paying you back by sending an email to all of your mutual friends and contacts detailing the debt and calling her a cheap skate, but that plan could backfire, especially if you never tried talking to your friend directly about the debt.

It doesn’t matter how cool or clever your idea for a protest is, if it makes you come off as a jerk or you appear to be more interested in protesting than solving an actual problem, then your protest -- at best -- won’t be very effective.  At worse, it could seriously undermine your cause.

Back to the recent example: Was protest the best/only way to get negotiators -- like Speaker Boehner -- to oppose cuts to HIV/AIDS funding?  Did they attempt to meet with him or his staff to discuss the issue?  Did they consider arguments or surrogates that might appeal to him?  For example, the Bush Administration led a significant bipartisan effort to combat global AIDS.  Could you find sympathetic Republicans, who the Speaker would be likely to listen to on the issue?

Again, if your real goal is to effect change, reserve protest as a last resort. If you try and fail to achieve your objective by other means, your protest will have a lot more credibility and you will be taken more seriously for having tried.

4. If protest is the only way to achieve your objective, what method of protest will best further your cause?

For a protest to be effective, it needs to do more than attract generic press attention.  It needs to reach the audience it is trying to sway with a message that will sway them or -- at minimum - get them interested.

Yes, stripping down in the Speaker’s office attracted a lot of attention, but can the protest be considered effective if the press coverage it attracted failed to mention what was being protested?  Moreover, did the protesters make it more or less likely that the Speaker will support their effort?  (Be honest, if someone invaded your office, took off their clothes and started yelling, would you be more or less likely to view them as credible and want to help them out?)

Beyond that, how did being naked illustrate the point that HIV/AIDS funding has serious life and death consequences for hundreds of thousands of Americans?  Was there a better way to get that point across?  Did this protest help or hurt the credibility of AIDS activists around the country?

The bottom line is: if you are serious enough about a cause to protest it, it pays to think strategically.  If others don’t share your point of view, there is likely a reason.  Maybe they are just unaware of the issue, maybe their opinion is formed by different life experiences or maybe they are facing pressures that you are unaware of.  Regardless, considering those factors can help you formulate a strategy that is more likely to win them over than yelling and throwing things. In other words, you are never going to get others to respect you and your point of view, if you don’t first respect them and their point of view.

Again, I’m not saying that protest isn’t an important right (it is) or that protesting naked can’t be effective (it can be). I’m just suggesting that before you issue an Evite directing friends to bring their breakaway pants to the U.S. Capitol, be honest with yourself: Is this really the best way to get your point across or are you just looking for an excuse to show John Boehner your junk?

Lightly edited version of article originally published 12/12/12 at:

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