Want to Have an Effective Protest? Disrupt, Expert Says

Douglas McAdam knows a thing or two about protests. After partaking in them as a student during the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement in the 1960s, he went on to complete a Ph.D. in sociology. He’s now a distinguished professor at Stanford who’s written 18 books and 85 articles on social movements and contentious politics, and lectured on those topics and others at nearly 90 colleges and universities.

Living through and studying protest movements from the civil rights struggle to Black Lives Matter, McAdam has observed one common feature of successful movements: disruption. “The challenge to activists is always thinking outside the box as to what—in the context in which they’re seeking to mobilize—would constitute a potentially disruptive form of action,” he says. To be successful, then, a movement has to interrupt business as usual.

But context is crucial: what’s disruptive changes across time and situation. During the civil rights movement, for instance, demonstrations were unusual, and so when they happened—think March on Washington—they caused quite the scene: news outlets broadcast the impactful scenes of organized marchers, governments enacted policies, and many of the movement’s goals were met. Today, though, social movements relying on demonstrations will only get so far. Demonstrations—and other older protest tactics—just don’t hold the same potential in 2016, according to McAdam.

“Lots of social movement tactics that were disruptive in the ‘60s have become broadly institutionalized today. They’re routinized. They’re not disruptive anymore,” McAdam says. “People go ‘Ah, demonstrators.’ That’s not effective.”

So if demonstrations—the go-to tactic of activists on college campuses and beyond—are outdated, what is effective in today’s context, at a time when people still search for ways to demand change from their governments? The basic idea is still to disrupt, but the way that people interrupt business as usual has to change according to the times.

McAdam notes examples of effectively disruptive modern protests. There’s WikiLeaks, the organization with slogan “We open governments,” that publicizes secret information and news leaks about governments and politicians, including most recently the email accounts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers and other officials at the Democratic National Committee. Or there’s the string of NFL players who, inspired by Colin Kaepernick, have refused to stand for the national anthem to call attention to the oppression of Black people in the U.S. “The fact that [Kaepernick] has gotten as much attention as he has, and a lot of pushback, tells me that people are sort of vaguely threatened by this. That, to me, is what a successful movement is in the business of doing,” McAdam says. “If a movement isn’t producing that kind of pushback, then it probably isn’t being all that effective.”

Things get more complicated on a college campus, though, where students protest tactics and spaces are constrained. Finding effective means of disrupting becomes tougher. Conventional methods of protesting, like standing outside a board of trustees’ meeting and chanting “Out of Palestine,” don’t truly disrupt, but pressuring the administration to disclose the nature of their investments just might. Or a collective of students camping outside a president’s office and preventing them from going about their lives. That, too, would be more effective. These are more successful, consequential tactics precisely because they interrupt the flow of the day-to-day.

These tactics make use of the time and context in which the movement takes place. That’s the idea behind organizing effective disruptions to the quotidian—always asking, McAdam says, “In what context am I seeking to protest? What are the routines of this institutional context? What will be disruptive and non-institutionalized? What will be threatening?” Like truly effective protests, the answers to these questions can be elusive, but they surely exist.

Still, there is a limit to how disruptive and threatening a protest should be, McAdam says. Backlash can be powerful, but unnecessarily threatening tactics can have the opposite effect, making a group vulnerable to negative reactions. “It’s a fine line,” McAdam says. “But there’s a sweet spot in there.”

For college-aged activists on this campus and others—and for protesters and organizers everywhere—the challenge, McAdam says, lies in finding that sweet spot. It’s up to each specific movement, each specific cause, to look around, think quite a bit, and figure out what degree of disruption will make them as effective as possible.

Dan Sicorsky

Dan Sicorsky ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at dan.sicorsky@wustl.edu.

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