Can a polite sign lead to political change? What types of events work?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently gave reporters in Canberra, a “lesson” in what types of protest he says work best.

Last week he sentenced Protesters from Extinction Rebellion who sprayed graffiti on Parliament and the Lodge, set a pram on fire and stuck to the ground, demanding more action on climate change. Morrison describe this as “madness” and not as the “Australian way”.

This is not the way we go.

In the same breath, he praised the efforts of a woman – Frances – who holds a sign “strong climate goal = strong economy” in front of parliament (incidentally, she is also a member of Extinction Rebellion).

She’s there almost every morning and she makes this point every day, and she waves to me and she gives me a smile. I’ll tell you what, I’m listening.

Without diminishing Frances’ efforts, the evidence regarding the most effective form of protest to promote social and political change suggests that disruptive protests tend to be game-changers once avenues of polite protest prove ineffective.

Disruptive events

Disruptive manifestations are generally defined as actions aimed at stopping or delaying a controversial activity. Violent protests are rare in Australia, especially when it comes to environmental protests, so we are really talking about nonviolent disruptive protests here, often referred to as “nonviolent direct action”.

Climate change protesters broadcast messages to parliament with the release of the latest IPCC report.
Lukas Coch / AAP

The most familiar forms of disruptive protest are physically disruptive manifestations such as blockades, sit-ins, lock-ons, and graffiti. More recently, less physical and more sophisticated disruptive forms of protest may include corporate campaigns targeting consumers, investors and businesses, or campaigns involving strategic litigation.

Thinking back to the great successful campaigns of the social movement – the suffragettes, civil rights movement in the United States, 1966 Wave Hill station on foot directed by Vincent Lingiari and Freedom riders in Australia, opposition to the Vietnam War, Franklin River events and the Bentley blockade this stopped fracking in the rivers of northern NSW in 2014 – they all involved disruptive protests.

The power of disruption

Social movements goal alert, educate and inspire the population while putting pressure on those in power to give in to their demands for change. Disruptive protests can be the spark that attracts attention, stops destructive work, and ignites political pressure.

Initially, disruptive campaigns are designed so that the action has a full impact. For example, a blockade can stop the destruction of the environment.

Read more: ‘Lockdowns’ are a symbol of non-violent protest, but they could soon be banned in Queensland

The process of disruption then becomes newsworthy and stimulates further political debate and pressure. In the case of corporate targets, disruptive events can draw unwanted attention to corporate practices. In the case of a government goal, it will draw attention to policies or behaviors that protesters believe need to change.

More passive forms of protest (writing letters, signing petitions, talking to politicians, building community support) can work with or without disruptive tactics. But it often takes many years of campaigning to generate the groundswell needed for change. australia matrimonial equality is a good example of a long successful campaign of this type.

Why you need more than graffiti

It would be a mistake, however, to think that disruptive manifestations in themselves lead to social change – the process is more complex than that.

Nonviolent direct action is more powerful when integrated into a smart social movement campaign that speaks to the audience with accurate information, a cohesive framing of the issue, and ready to exert political pressure when the opportunity arises.

Rolling protests as part of the campaign against the Adani mine are a good example of direct action.

The dangers of being too disruptive

Politicians don’t like to admit that disruptive protests can lead to political change. Our leaders obviously have an interest in maintaining their authority, and not giving the impression that protesters have power and influence.

However, you have to be careful. Disruptive manifestations work best when they disrupt the target activity itself, and less well when they disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens.

Animal rights activists block an intersection in Melbourne's CBD in 2019.
Blocking traffic or harassing ordinary citizens does not tend to gain public support for a campaign.
Ellen Smith / AAP

For example, in Australia, the blocking of roads and intersections by certain environmental factors or animal rights groups did not win hearts and minds.

It is also interesting to note that anti-containment protests during COVID do not receive widespread support. This is because they are about hyper-individualistic demands, rather than society-wide needs.

The “cry test”

We can also find out what works by examining the “cry test” – or how governments and businesses respond to protesters. In recent years, these cries have manifested themselves in a multitude of anti-protest laws. This follows sustained activism against the mining industry in particular.

While Morrison can congratulate protesters he can wave to from the safety of his Comcar window, his government has been very active in opposing effective forms of protest.

Read more: Is protesting during the pandemic an “essential” right that must be protected?

In recent years, federal law has prevented non-governmental organizations that depend on tax-deductible donations from engaging in political advocacy. These are expressly intended to restrict anti-mining groups such as Lock the door, but also hamper the advocacy work of charities such as St Vincent de Paul. In 2019, a new law was introduced preventing protesters from using social media to organize rallies that disrupt certain types of businesses.

In 2018, the parliament adopted legislation to restrict satirical parodies government policies such as the popular publication of Juice Media honest government announcements.

Legislation has also been suggested to prevent environmental groups from to make a campaign prevent financial institutions from investing in fossil fuels and prevent environmental groups from taking over mining and logging companies to the court.

Legal backlash

At the state level, following the Bentley blockade, the NSW government introduced legislation to increase fines for demonstrations that disrupt business and the possibility of prison terms for protests against mining and hydraulic fracturing.

An anti-coal banner is hung by activists in the federal parliament in 2018.
Federal and state governments have taken steps to crack down on protests in recent years.
Mick Tsikas / AAP

Lockdowns have also been the target of anti-protest laws, with specific legislation introduced in Queensland and NSW. Tasmania introduced some of the toughest anti-protest laws in 2014. These were overturned by the High Court in 2017 because it find they violated the freedom of political communication implicit in the Constitution.

If we are to know what kinds of protests are working, we need to track the backlash, rather than what kinds of protests the Prime Minister would prefer.

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