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What Makes An Effective Protest Movement?

President Trump’s policies on immigration, refugees and more have prompted millions of people to take to the streets. Many of them are first-time protesters.

Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) speaks with L.A. Kauffman (@lakauffman), author of “Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism,” about the history of protest movements, and which kinds have worked and which have fizzled.

Interview Highlights

On protests against President Trump in a wider context

“There are always, you know, waves that come and go of protests over time but I think what we’re seeing right now is really quite unique and unprecedented. There hasn’t ever been a president who’s been greeted by so many protests in his first month of office, and the character of the protests has been really extraordinary in their breadth, in their diversity, in the number of unlikely places that they’ve shown up. We’re really seeing something that in decades of observing decades of grassroots movements I’ve never seen before.”

On the sustainability of protests

“Obviously you can’t stay in crisis mode and at a fever pitch for year after year after year, but I see a lot of people recognizing that this is the long haul and a lot of people recognizing right now, really, what the movements are doing together is creating a crisis for the Trump administration, and in so doing, managing to slow down some of the worst of the harm. I think people understand that it’s going to take a lot of different approaches, that its not just going to be marching in the street. It’s gonna be the town halls, not just during one winter break but over and over and over again. I think that the deep sense of fear and concern that people are feeling for the future of our country right now is going to sustain more of this than you might expect.”

On why bigger protests don’t necessarily mean better

“There are times when all a big protest does is kind of demonstrate the scale of ones powerlessness, that’s the way a lot of protests felt to me in the late-’80s. There were a lot of times when it just felt like you can bring large numbers of people together but what are you doing but shouting slogans, you know, about changes that are never going to happen. It was particularly sobering, I was very centrally involved in the big protest against the Iraq war in 2003 and the contrast between the millions of people who marched in the streets all around the world on every continent, and the uttering difference of the Bush administration to those protests was really dispiriting. It was a lesson to me in thinking about the limits of the mass mobilizing model. It’s not always about how many people you can bring out. That does important political work, but it’s not always necessarily what brings about change.”


On the Vietnam May Day protests in 1971

“It was this attempt to shut down the federal government through non-violent direct action. The slogan was, ‘If the government won’t stop the war, the people will stop the government.’ Somewhere around 25,000 people came and used their bodies and things like newspaper boxes and cars with deflated tires and whatever else they could put their hands on to blockade the streets of Washington D.C., to block the bridges leading into town, and to try and shut down all business for the day. This was enormously controversial at the time barbecue of how disruptive it was, but it also was incredibly unnerving to the Nixon administration. Here was a non-violent protest that couldn’t be dismissed as rioting hooligans, they were really holding to non-violent discipline. They were bringing what felt like the specter of revolution right to the doorstep of the White House. They made something like 7,000 arrests that day, the largest number of arrests in any day in U.S. history. But most importantly, what wasn’t visible at the time was the Nixon administration decided they needed to speed up the withdrawal from Vietnam. They didn’t want to face that level of unrest again…

“It was this moment when a bunch movements that are now kind of called the ‘identity politics’ movements — the gay liberation movement, the women’s liberation movement, the Black Power movement, and the Chicano and Puerto Rican movement were still either in the upswing or still pretty powerful, and May Day was this moment when the model of single left, a single unified party or organization where everyone follows a single leadership and a single program started to give way to the model that we have now, which is a model of networked resistance. We have a movement of movements, and that self-mobilizing energy is one of the things that I think is so extraordinary about the resistance that we’re seeing now.”

On the main takeaways from history

“That protests work. It doesn’t always work under all circumstances, but particularly when groups are willing to be bold in their tactics and persistent in their approach within the broad discipline of non-violent action, but using the whole array of tactics, including the strongest ones. In those circumstances, movements win much more than when they rely solely on established channels of influence like lobbying or calling their member of congress. It’s the movements that are willing to take risks, and willing to do bold action over time, that are the most successful.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.