Protest without strategy is performance

Originally published at:


I expect everybody is ready to point to somebody else and say “grifter.” But won’t this just lead to paralysis by analysis? I am sure even Gandhi had moments when he had no idea what he was doing. Jesus had his moment at Gethsemane (although I’m not sure how there could be eyewitnesses to his solitude.)

Sometimes we’re all just muddling through.


“Strategy” is usually defined as a cycle of Ends, Ways, Means, and Risk". Meaning you have to be clear about goals and what methods will be used towards them and how you will enact the methods. Risk is in the “political” sense of how much you stand to lose if things go wrong.

What the author here describes is more the planning that goes into means. Or rather challenging and examining plans. Plans are absolutely essential but they also need fallback scenarios (“no plan survives first contact with the enemy”).

I suspect theres lots more involved here than just protests about specific issues or general rage.


Protest without strategy is performance

I thoroughly agree. And further more, not flushing the toilet is not a protest.


This is a cute bit of writing. I’m not sure if this is a right wing counter protest piece or a misguided left wing bit of noise.
Imagine if the Jan 21 marches all stopped to ask “what’s my strategy? Am I just part of a performance?” and stayed home because they didn’t have the answers to those questions.
Never underestimate the power of feets on the streets and don’t poo poo people just because they protest from anger and fear rather than follow some strategy. For some people, anger and fear are all they have to use.


As a number of commenters have said above, the headline of this article is more promising than the content. Thinking deeply about strategy is an issue for the left, but it needs to go a bit deeper than this piece does. I recommend a book length treatment by Jonathan Matthew Smucker called Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. Here’s an excerpt from a useful review of the book:

Building political power is not just a matter of telling the right story. It involves organizing, building numbers. On this front, Smucker offers some concise, practical advice: “Develop a core and a broader base; build a culture and a system of plugging new members into meaningful and capacity-building roles; maintain an outward focus so as to avoid insularity, and engage with existing infrastructure [and networks] rather than constantly starting from scratch.” This last point is crucial. We can’t recruit a mass movement one-by-one. We should think of our organizations as vehicles for mobilizing existing blocs, allowing people to take action as teachers, as union members, as Quakers, as students. These blocs will be compelled to take action with us if we have presented a compelling enough counter-narrative: a story about the world we want, an inclusive “we” in which they see themselves, a vivid “them” in which they see their enemies.

Full review in The New Republic here:


If someone says “who wants to storm the Bastille?” and no one raises their hand because they think that hand-raising is a pointless gesture, well, that’s not helpful. But if someone says “donate 10 francs and we’ll storm the Bastille for you”, it’s wise to be a little bit skeptical.

I pretty much agree with the article, but there are different ways of putting it depending on your audience. If someone is never in a million years going to do more than click a petition or donate $5, I don’t think they should be discouraged from that. “Moral support” isn’t worth much bit it’s worth something. But if your audience is ready to spend real effort to make a change, they can handle being reminded that online petitions and indies-gogo don’t really count toward that.

It’s like those letter-writing campaign sites where they pre-write “your” message for you. I’m sure this greatly increases the response rate, but I can’t help thinking that elected representatives would be more worried about a hundred personal messages than a thousand minimum-effort form letters. Here, “saving people effort” is the same thing as “people making less effort”. What you don’t want is for anyone to satisfy themselves by doing less than they would have been willing to do.


Unfortunately, attention-seeking performance artists who give no thought to strategy also try to invade legitimate activist organisations, giving the MSM and conservatives the opportunity to discredit public demonstrations and actions. What is heartening is that serious activist organisers have wised up since the 2003 anti-war protests where this happened a lot, to the point where the egomaniacs now fall into the “you’re not welcome, we don’t need your ‘help’, go away” category.

This may also explain why some of them are now starting their own orgs. I’m thankful that Kat Calvin is extending this approach to help identify bogus or resource- and energy-draining orgs and appreciate your publicising her article.


I remember the story of the young lady who met Hillary after the election and apologized for not voting, but assured her she had marched.
Protesting is social but voting is private, making it a much harder sell.

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I completely agree. And yet, Trump is still president, and all the things that happened since Jan 21, still happened. What almost all modern protest movements seem to lack and what those of the civil rights era had are institutions (of varying types, structures, and philosophies) with leadership that could act as credible spokespeople, direct members to certain types of activities, and focus efforts where success can be channeled into real results.

The problems and emotions that drove Occupy movements and the 2017 protest marches are real, and crucial. Who can channel their efforts into results the way, say, the ACLU can pick test cases (or the NAACP could plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott and all the things leading up to and from it)? Who can direct surges of money and time and energy over the course of the years and often decades it takes to make change stick?

Put it another way: how does one individual, who has only anger and fear to use, decide where and when to use it? Those are limited resources. Who is the trusted filter that credibly says, “This is not the right moment yet…not yet…NOW! EVERYONE GO!”? We’ve lowered the activation barrier to generating big outraged protests, without lowered the barrier to their doing anything beyond being an emotional outlet.


Let’s be real - for that, you don’t use protest anymore, you pay lobbyists to buy off politicians. Look at the anti-gun childrens rally for an example. They managed a quite effective protest as for as those things go. They had no strategy to enact change because their goal was to be seen and heard. Their “strategy” was simply to show up. But that’s precisely what this article says is nothing but performance. There is no data to show that a protest will enact change. It wasn’t directed by people who knew Washington. There was no agreed upon specific goal beyond “I don’t want to get shot too”. There was no contingency plans based on the number of people who showed up. And there were already local groups wanting gun control.
The children’s anti gun violence march broke all the rules from the article so according to that criteria, it was just a performance. Never mind that it expanded the national conversation. It didn’t enact change and it didn’t follow these “rules” so it was just performance.



Unfortunately egomaniacs are using the “you’re not welcome, we don’t need your ‘help’, go away” tactic.

I live near an ICE facility, it’s on my nightly walking route. I’ve been quietly flipping it off since I moved in. Some people occupied the area outside it this past week, which made me happy - especially ICE’s statement that the protesters were “keeping them from their families.”

So, I go down there to help out, unfortunately I was wearing this shirt. That was enough to immediately categorize me as a “fascist skinhead” to a a few people there. They surrounded me, peppered me with questions, which I answered.

“Why are you here?” “To support and help out.” “Um, why?” “Because what this administration is doing is bullshit.” “Riiiiight.”

There was nothing I could say to convince them I was not a fascist skinhead. And here’s the big kicker - I’m a guy and I was holding my boyfriend’s hand the entire time. My boyfriend also happens to be the son of Mexican immigrants. Like what kind of skinhead has a gay, interracial relationship?

At least in my town, anti-fa has gone off the deep end. I’ve had a few encounters with them, but this was the most explicit “get out, we don’t want you” I’ve experienced so far.

I’ve had rightwingers call me a faggot, and it doesn’t bother me because ultimately it’s based on some truth. But people calling me a skinhead, it’s driving me absolutely nuts. Especially since no one talked to me before making that judgment. Introduce yourself. Learn who people actually are. More importantly, learn who the “enemy” is. I have way too much hair to be considered a skinhead.

I see this type of problem getting worse as time goes by. I’ve had an issue with the Resistance’s strategy since it began. By building a movement opposing something, it ultimately ingrains an “us vs. them” philosophy that will permeate throughout everyone and everything. And now, at this point in its evolution, anti-fa (around here at least) is very “us” - if you don’t look like them, talk like them, act like them, then you can’t be a apart of the protest that they “created.”

I want to see more people standing up for what they believe in, instead of opposing. Remember that HOPE poster of Obama? The artist created another poster for the 2016 election - it was Trump. At the end of the day, he inspires people - whether it’s to support him or oppose him - and that’s where he gets his power.

Of course, there’s plenty of bs from him that we need to oppose, but the Resistance needs to be built on the values of connectedness, inclusiveness, and respect. Because when this is all said and done and Trump is out of office, we need to work together to rebuild the future. And recklessly calling people nazis is not the way to do that.

If any one needs me, I’ll be among my people in the trees. Environmentalists are pretty cool.


From what I’ve seen, a small minority of the antifa are current or former anarkiddies, exactly the kind of attention-seekers who initiated tired and cliched “direct action” that I was talking about above. To give your local antifa a small amount of defense for their suspicion, anarkiddies are notorious in activist circles for constantly getting infiltrated by police agents provocateurs and lured into obvious traps, so perhaps this bunch was overcompensating with all that questioning.

Most of the antifa I’ve heard about have been welcoming of allies but it looks like you have a bad bunch in your town. I hope that there are more reputable activist groups in your area who’ll appreciate the contributions of serious people like yourself while continuing to tell the anarkiddies and other assorted egomaniacs, grifters, and clowns to take a hike.


I certainly hope so. The whole encounter just triggered all my social anxiety, so it’ll be a while before I try again. Until then, I will support my local immigrant-owned businesses.


And that’s fine. Not every protest can, will, or should be expected to enact change. But if none of them do, if none of them lead to a chain of events that enacts change, then yeah, it’s just (cathartic) performance. And based on this:

you seem to tacitly agree. Or is there another metric, or another way of looking at protests, that makes them meaningful in the absence of enacting change?

So…is there a chain of events whereby protests lead to someone hiring lobbyists, if that’s the path to success these days? Or any way for protests to change what to path to success looks like? I don’t expect the people who show up to a march to think about this sort of thing much. But someone, somewhere, needs to be thinking about it strategically.

Absolutely. Aside from the catharsis, there is the emotional and visceral realization that a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand like minded people are with you. This strengthens the resolve of those who seek change. There is the inevitable public conversation that such events create. This places the issue in the public narrative. There is the fear of loosing an election a large protest creates. This creates “sympathetic” politicians who may be more easiy swayed ($$$-$=$$ ). I’d say a well done protest is a realy source for nudging people in a positive direction, building coalition, and priming the political pump.

Interesting question. I suppose that’s an area of research worth pursuing. I know on the right it does. But their protests tend to be organized and directed by corporate interests (and operate much like the article suggest).

I don’t think a singular path to success exists. I can’t think of any major political and cultural shift that’s followed the path of a prior one so I’m not sure about changing “what to path to success looks like” because I don’t know that anyone can say what it does or indeed should look like (hence my consternation with the article).

Why? To what end? Do you imagine that someone can sit down, come up with a strategy and get the general public to follow them? I mean sure, if you have a brainwashing 24/7 propaganda outfit like Fox, you can do something like that but outside a self captivated audience, getting buy in from the plurality of interested parties is likely a pipe dream.

What do you suppose was the strategy of Dr King? Keep speaking until change happened? Try not to be violent? How is that any different from any non-strategic protest?

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Thanks! You made some really good points I hadn’t thought of, but agree with now that I’ve seen them.

I would say he had the advantage of a large and already-close-knit community, and existing institutions (church, NAACP, and others) that had been around a long time and were widely known. Institutions like those create common knowledge in the community, which is an incredibly useful thing for streamlining communication, and trust, which does the same for streamlining mobilization efforts. Today, getting out a message has never been easier, but for at least as long as I’ve been alive it seems to me that everyone (especially but not only on the left) has been tearing down all the formerly-trusted institutions that served these purposes, and not built anything comparable in their place (part of the trend of atomization).

I got called a faggot and a skin head on the same day. I was 16 and had long hair, but was planning to shave it off in solidarity with my mother who was undergoing chemo. Anyhow, on my way to school a bunch of guys tossed empty soda cans from their car and called me among other things a hippy faggot. On the way home later that day, after having shaven my hair off at a friends house, I was harassed on the same block by another group of guys who called me a skin head. To say the least, it was a weird day.

I’ve never really been much of a people person, but that sure didn’t help.