Civic Engagement Toolkit
Protests and Civil Disobedience
After all of the usual avenues of political influence and community engagement are exhausted, the possibility of engaging in direct action of some kind is always open. This is the kind of political and civic engagement one should only exercise with caution. While it is the right (and in some circumstances, duty) of citizens to engage in protests and civil disobedience, it is important to understand the nuanced differences between various tactics and strategies, and the fluid nature of such events, as well as the significant risks they can pose for participants.
Direct action can be justified if other avenues of political influence have failed. However, direct action does not replace the other avenues of influence. The point is always to get back to the negotiating table to make change via the political process. A good direct action can give you more leverage at the table given the demonstrated willingness of the population to support your negotiations with direct action. A failed direct action is one that strengthens the political case against your position.
Strategy around direct action should be aimed at inflicting the kind of pressure that will bring the powers that be to the negotiating table. It is not a method for extracting revenge on society for the wrongs that have been committed. Most importantly, direct actions should only be undertaken when all of the conditions above are fulfilled, and the group engaging in the action has finished an extensive process of deliberating, preparing, strategizing, training, and ensuring the safety of participants and bystanders. For example, in recent protests in St. Louis that blocked the highway for short periods of time organizers worked to ensure that only activists who were trained and prepared took part. This meant that everyone knew their place, and roles were clearly divided. These roles included selecting those who would keep an eye on traffic, insuring that any emergency vehicles gained immediate passage (this included training for the participants to keep a lane clear for such purposes).
Economic/social/cultural disruption is an effective method under certain circumstances. It is not a desirable constant state of affairs.
Here is a brief overview to a few different kinds of direct action:
- Sanctioned marches/protests. These are marches and protests that have garnered permission from local authorities. They take place in public locations secured or authorized by authorities. An example is the 2016 women’s march on Washington. While it was big, the city was expecting it, had organized for it, and given permission for the march to take place. These kinds of events carry relatively little risk to participants.
- Unsanctioned marches/protests. These can be unsanctioned because they are spontaneous, because the organizers failed to get sanction, or because the organizers intended to make a point by having an unsanctioned protest. These kinds of protests carry some risk to participants, in the form of potential legal trouble or confrontations with law enforcement.
- Direct civic disobedience. These kinds of actions include specific tactics designed to attract attention, or disrupt business-as-usual by specific actions aimed at perceived wrongdoers. They are never sanctioned because they are supposed to be a surprise. However, the level of risk presented to participants varies greatly. If you participate in an action to hang a banner with a political motto on a public bridge, or at a public event, you are subject to legal consequences if you are caught. Also there are actions that can present significant personal risk, including injury. These are actions such as trying to shut something down by physically placing yourself in the way. Deliberately allowing yourself to be arrested while peacefully protesting in an unsanctioned way is a form of direct action with an honored history, but it comes at a cost.
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