What Makes a Successful Protest?

Throughout 2020, pandemic lockdowns have been punctuated by mass movements calling for political change. What characteristics allow such protests to make an impact?

Explainer Published 15 December 2020 Updated 13 October 2022 10 minute READ

The year of lockdowns was simultaneously a year of protest and citizen action. Throughout 2020 numerous hashtags on social media demanded our attention towards protest movements, accompanied by sometimes inspiring and sometimes horrifying images. #EndSARS, #BlackLivesMatter, #ShutItAllDown, #zwartepietisracism, #NotMyPresident, the list goes on; all demonstrating to us the commitment and fearlessness of ordinary citizens across the world asking for equal treatment and concern. 

For the Common Futures Conversations community, where young people from Africa and Europe discuss key international issues, the impact of protests and citizen action also became a central focus; not least as young people were frequently found at the heart of these movements.

In Sudan, protest movements brought about direct change in government last year. People who were actively protesting on the streets are now part of that government.

Ahmed Soliman, Research Fellow, Africa Programme

Many of the protest movements we have seen this year were catalysed by single events: moments which ignited long-held grievances and concerns. The most internationally recognizable is the murder of George Floyd in the United States, but there are many more examples of deaths or serious abuses that created a spark. While such sparks instigate sudden and intense swells of support, it can sometimes also mean that the resulting protests are disorganized, repeat previous mistakes and communicate their demands poorly.

Protesters are often painted as disruptors, terrorists and a nuisance, yet across the world demonstrations and direct action have been a vital form of political engagement: providing women the right to vote, people of colour the right to citizenship and people everywhere the right to stand up against populism.

Civic engagement must become an expected part of democracy; it is not a threat to democratic governments.

Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

In the face of crisis, panic and retrenchment in 2020, many protests found their voices demanding the change needed for marginalized groups to survive. Beyond the call for us to find our humanity, these examples demonstrate that protests are still and perhaps increasingly a method of crucial political participation.

This also means that society must become better at protesting. We must learn from previous protest movements’ successes and failures, from their tactics and methods and from their determination to be inclusive.

Protest should always be seen as a legitimate avenue towards policy change and influence, and one that must therefore professionalize to make politics more reflective of societies wants, needs and demands. To this end, ten members of the Common Futures Conversations community discuss impactful protest below.

From Protest to Policy Change: How Are Mass Movements Making an Impact in 2020?

— Dr Catherine Fieschi of Counterpoint UK speaks to the Common Futures Conversations community, 14 October 2020.

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1. Dialogue must be your first priority

Hugo Santiago Barrail (Spain)

You must focus on facilitating and strengthening dialogue mechanisms between the government and citizens. Antagonistic and violent strategies often prove counter-productive in bringing about sustainable and concrete change. Instead, protesters need to reach out both to those in power and unconvinced citizens through peaceful methods. There are many dialogue options available, including citizens’ assemblies, referendums and improving the participation of civil society in policy-making. 

Responsible citizens have an obligation to provide solutions and to institutionalize them in an inclusive way.

Ahmed Soliman, Research Fellow, Africa Programme

When protests erupted in Chile in October 2019 over a rise in public transport fees, they were initially disjointed and disorganized. Many different groups, each voicing their own grievances, took to the streets and the government responded brutally. Key civil society groups and political parties then stepped in and soon enough found consensus around a single set of demands, to be pursued through a referendum process. Through the referendum, all Chileans were able to quantify support for concrete change, as a constitutional process was backed by an overwhelming majority of the electorate. 

The road to achieve sustainable change is always long for protesters but through dialogue mechanisms, you can institutionalize channels to voice grievances to those in power and increase the likelihood of success. 

2. Clearly communicate what you want

Salome Nthenya Nzuki (Kenya)

For a protest to be powerful, you must communicate clearly about why you are protesting and what changes you desire. When it comes to communication, there are clear lessons to draw from the #MyDressMyChoice protests in Kenya. In 2014, a woman in Kenya was publicly stripped by men at a bus station and groped for wearing a mini skirt. The men claimed she tempted them. Thousands of Kenyan women were angered by the act and the constant abuse of women while in transit. The incidence gave birth to the #MyDressMyChoice protests where Kenyan women took to the streets to demand the elimination of all forms of violence against women and, in particular, calling for prosecution of the men who stripped the woman and for this to be explicitly be made illegal.

The protests caught the attention of women’s rights organizations, the judiciary, the deputy president and the president himself. The men were arrested and prosecuted and it is now illegal in Kenya to strip a woman. Although we have a long way to go in terms of protecting women in public spaces in Kenya, the #MyDressMyChoice protests made it clear that if you assault a woman you will be prosecuted. A key reason for the success of the protest was that Kenyan women were very clear in their demands.

3. Include digital means of protest participation

Laura Sanzarello (Italy)

You should recognize the crucial role of social media’s facilitation of digital protest participation. From the Arab Revolution to the #MeToo movement, both traditional and digital platforms have provided a valuable contribution through their ability to spread news, create visual representations of events and extending the potential for active engagement beyond physical barriers.

During the pandemic, mass gatherings represented a health hazard for both individuals and the wider community. However, movements like #BlackLivesMatter have nonetheless been able to obtain worldwide visibility and support. The use of hashtags, amatorial reporting, live-streaming and instant communication has enabled international engagement, reduced the chances of suppression and manipulation of stories and shown the importance of digital protest participation.

Digital participation’s effectiveness does not just apply to individual action, it can also help draw the attention of international actors. This can pressure governments to engage with the matters animating protesters, demonstrating that both in-person and virtual contributions can help encourage impactful resolutions.

4. Listen to everyone’s concerns

Clinton Dangote (Cameroon)

You will need a broad coalition of many different people to support your protest if you want it to create change. Often protests occur when governmental policies are inconsistent with the needs of citizens. This can lead to urgent calls for change and one way to bring about this change is in the form of protests. However, it is crucial that protest movements do not make the same mistakes as governments. They must amplify the voices of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. This involves making sure to include a wide range of voices and not just listening to concerns and solutions of the first people to join a protest.

Protests are often seen in contexts where governments support those at the top and disadvantage those at the bottom.

Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

A protest can only bring about valuable policy change, when it is well-planned, focused, and the demands are clear. Protesters must express their displeasure and constructively present their demands as one voice. Proactive leaders must engage all protesters in a dialogue and find common demands to meet their needs. This way a protest can mirror the way the general public feels about a given policy.

5. Use social media, where one click makes a difference

Mateusz Ciasnocha (Poland) 

You should leverage social media for the benefits of protests. Social media has changed and is continuously changing our lives. During the earthquakes in Nepal or the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and Paris, our friends were able to mark themselves as ‘safe’. These small actions created a unique sense of global unity, which we should build on when it comes to protests. Creating a campaign, a new group, or even proposing a new overlay for your profile photo are all happening today. These campaigns can go viral and are a great mechanism for creating momentum for your demands for change.

It is clear that our actions on social media can lead to positive change. Protest movements should take the time to create frameworks and mechanisms, to help transform momentum into real positive change in an inclusive, transparent and efficient manner. 

6. Create inclusive working groups

Barima Peprah-Agyemang (Ghana)

You should create frameworks for protest participants which work together to approach problems and create inclusive solutions. Protest movements are often dismissed by governments by deploying excuses along the lines of ‘their demands are unclear’ or ‘they have no solutions’, as happened with the Occupy Wall Street protests. A way to ensure that protest movements are able to stand together in support of solutions is by forming ‘working groups’. These groups gather the concerns of the protesters, sit down to analyse the responses and then develop specific demands and solutions that represent what protesters want. 

This requires professionalizing a protest movement and will create a reliance on people from professions like law, community organizing and economics, but should be open for any protestor to join. This would enable protest movements to capture varying opinions that enrich the specific solutions being prepared. 

The work of these groups would not only pre-empt standard excuses used by governments to avoid change, but would also enable them to project an image of seriousness to the world, an ingredient necessary to secure support for the struggle.

7. Professionalize your media outreach

Paula Stuurman (Netherlands)

You need to professionalize your approach to communicating the protest internationally. Real-time news reporting pushes events to the forefront at lightning speed but replaces them just as quickly. In 2020 the world saw many protests met with violence, for example when US militias policed the streets as a response to Black Lives Matter protests or when police conducted violent acts against protestors in Belarus. We saw these events because protestors themselves provided videos of the violence, but they then quickly disappeared from the world stage of media attention.

Through meticulously documenting protests, altercations and human rights violations—harnessing the power of social media to continue to inform a global audience—protestors can inspire public outrage, support and ultimately policy changes once their voice can no longer be ignored.

To maintain the media’s attention and overcome the 24-hour news-cycle, protestors need to develop a professional approach to documenting protests to magnify their voices internationally. This reporting must be honest and unbiased, drawing on the lessons from human rights organisations’ techniques to maintain the public’s attention.

8. Connect with social activists from across the world

Zakaria Ouadah (Algeria)

You must engage with social activists in other countries who are also striving for change. Today’s technological resources demonstrate how effective virtual spaces are for connecting and working together, something which the Common Futures Conversations platform has demonstrated to me. Engaging with international networks composed of social activists who can support your movements and provide you a space to share your experiences, can be very advantageous to your cause.

It is crucial to link up with organizations in your own country which are working towards similar goals, but do not underestimate the value of connecting to other social activists as well.

The networking, support and expanded skills resulting from engaging with others can help protests movements put themselves into a position where the authorities are forced to enter a phase of dialogue and hopefully answer the demands given to them.

9. Citizen action should start in schools

Ella Burdett (United Kingdom)

You should make sure to include young people in discussions on citizen action and educate them on protests, policy change and political engagement. From an early age, people should learn that their voice is important and how they personally can impact politics and policy. The issue is, however, that schools do not sufficiently educate children on how policy works and in failing to do so send them out into the world without the tools to change it. 

Protest should not been seen as synonymous with violence but with dialogue.

Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

In the United Kingdom there are Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons, but neither the statutory nor the optional subjects include political participation, policy change or citizen action. Yet, as participation is integral to democracy, education on civic and political engagement is essential for creating citizens who understand how to critically participate in a democratic society. 

Compulsory civics classes in secondary schools would therefore provide all children with equal tools to make their voice heard. In the absence of this, take any opportunity to educate younger people in your society on the importance of standing up for your principles and the mechanisms available to succeed.

10. Combine all non-violent protest mechanisms

Ashiru Ayuba Dannomau (Nigeria)

You should learn from previous successful protests and research all the non-violent approaches that could be effective. There are many ways that non-violent protest approaches are effective; they convey a vital message to both government officials and citizens that peoples’ lives matter. In this way, drawing on lessons from previous non-violent approaches helps protect the life of every individual and allows for strategic tactics to pursue the change you wish to see.

Protest organizers must learn about past methods that have worked, why they may be effective and relevant to your context, and then ensure the whole movement learns these lessons collectively. It will also help protest leaders be more strategic in their tactics, in their approach to governments and when moulding the ideas of citizens into policy demands.

During the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, I witnessed how people lost their lives and property because they came out to protest against police brutality. I also saw how this youth movement repeated past mistakes because everyone was saying different things and there was a lack of coordination in message and action. 

We must learn from previous protest movements to prevent such confusion, all the while keeping in mind that whenever someone is killed, injured or has their property destroyed during a protest that it is hazardous to your community. 

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