Disruptive protests gain media attention. For many people, this media attention might be the first time they learn of a particular social or environmental movement.
This tactic and resulting media coverage often prompt predictable responses from the public and officials. Why, some ask, are protestors blocking roads instead of standing on the pavement educating people? Why protest if they don’t have a solution?
But herein lurks a pervasive misconception of what activism actually is. Acts of civil disobedience enable awareness of a movement to bubble to the surface of daily life because they are newsworthy. However, this media attention can mask the years of relentless campaigning which builds the scaffolding to sustain these moments of shock. This scaffold is the groundwork done by the foot soldiers of a movement. Work done day after day, year after year, labouring at the often unseen toil that is the bread and butter of activism: recruiting volunteers, educating people and creating solutions.
These tactics aren’t newsworthy. And sometimes to activists, they may feel like failure, creating the justification for the emergence of radical action. Does that mean that this toil was futile? Or, as argued by Extinction Rebellion, that tactics are now only just beginning?
Coordinated acts of civil disobedience do not emerge spontaneously from an empty well.
Take the American civil rights movement. Yes, Rosa Park’s determination to hold her bus seat created an iconic moment which helped galvanise the movement towards its goals. However, Rosa Parks was a long-term activist who, for decades, fought relentlessly against school segregation, wrongful convictions of black men, and anti-voter registration practices. Many other people had, in fact, held bus seats before her. She was one of thousands, many of whom, like her, were on the verge of exhaustion after perceiving that their years of activism had produced little change.
We could look at any moment of newsworthy radical action and find parallels. Take the Salt March, an iconic moment of disobedience is now inextricably linked to the success of the Indian Independence movement. Organised as a defiant act against British rule in India, it was however, just one of the many tactics used in the 90 long years of struggle.
Here in Australia, recent acts of civil disobedience for climate change action have emerged from a rich and vibrant foundation of environmentalism. Thousands of groups have been running thousands of campaigns across an array of issues. Activists have engaged in radical action against mining, logging and other destructive environmental practices for many years, using a diverse range of tactics for their cause. What were these tactics? Building groups, training volunteers, handing out flyers, organising workshops, visiting politicians, contacting polluting companies, developing policy frameworks.
These tactics can successfully generate change. Almost half of the campaigns focussed on climate change achieved their goals, without the use of civil disobedience.
As social change researchers we look to understand the potential of tactics to generate change. But when we research activism, it is important to look beyond the headlines.
Civil disobedience is not where ‘tactics begin’. As a movement works to raise awareness, create sympathy, motivate intentions to act, and ensure implementation, civil disobedience may instead be the end of the beginning.
- By Robin Gulliver
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.