Making Your Protest Count

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You organize a big local protest march. Hundreds of people turn out. Energy levels are high and everyone is in good spirits. It is considered a wild success.

But what did you really gain? Unless the event was part of a larger strategy, you are probably no closer to achieving your goal. It was largely a wasted effort.

That is not to say there is no inherent value in such protests. Sometimes remaining silent is not an option. It is certainly better than sitting at home and grumbling to your dog. Perhaps everyone feels better afterwards, knowing that they forcefully spoke out against the perceived grievance.

But a protest march is not a strategy—it’s a method. If you really want to achieve a goal, your successful action should be part of a strategic plan.

Strategic planning is all about levels. The levels can be called different things and the distinctions are sometimes fuzzy, depending on the particular campaign.

Here we will propose basic definitions of four strategic elements that we can use as a framework for future posts. The terms are taken from the writings of Gene Sharp and Robert Helvey.1 The strategic levels are:2

  • Grand strategy
  • Strategy
  • Tactics
  • Methods

Grand Strategy3

Grand strategy4 is the 30,000 foot view of your campaign—the master plan. It provides a broad overview of how you will conduct the struggle and answers basic questions like:

  • What is your goal?
  • Are you strong enough to prevail?
  • What are your adversary’s pillars of support?5
  • How can your strengths be used to attack the adversary’s vulnerabilities?
  • Should there be smaller sub-campaigns and if so, how will they fit together to bring about victory?
  • How will success be achieved?6
  • Once you’ve achieved victory, how can your gains be preserved?

Strategy

If grand strategy represents an overview of the war, strategy dictates how individual battles will be fought. It is more concrete than the grand strategy, filling in the particulars of how the broader plan will be executed.

Developing a strategy helps you understand what problems might occur and anticipate how to solve them before the struggle begins.7 A strategy may assign tasks to groups, allocate resources and coordinate the deployment of various tactics. It specifies which battles to fight and when to fight them.

It’s important to have a sound strategy and adhere to it. Good tactics and methods will not make up for a weak strategy.

Tactics

Tactics are the means to achieve limited objectives within the larger overall strategy. The focus is on the actual fighting, dictating how weapons (methods) are applied. Only tactics that will advance the strategy should be chosen. Tactics are more flexible than strategy and can be changed when conditions dictate.8

Methods

Methods are the means of action. The difference between tactics and methods can be confusing. Think of a tactic as a skirmish within a larger battle, while methods are the weapons used.

To execute a tactic, more than one method may be used. For example, in order to force some concession from a corporation, your tactic might be to deprive it of workers. So the method you choose might be a strike, and to support the strike you might also use other methods such as picketing, protest marches or fasts.

Sharp has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action.9 There are many others. Often activists will begin their campaign by choosing a method without first developing a strategic plan. This is a bad idea.

Why levels?

Using levels of planning helps keep events that occur during your campaign in context. It provides a framework to clearly evaluate the effectiveness of your methods and how the campaign is proceeding.

Strategic planning is all about seeing the forest and the trees, but taking care to differentiate between the two. Separating strategy and tactics helps you determine the significance of events like victories and defeats. If an outcome is merely tactical, it may not matter that much. Confusing tactical and strategic events can lead to bad decisions, like employing inappropriate sanctions or applying them at the wrong time. It may also prompt you to declare victory or admit defeat prematurely.10

Disclaimers

Obviously all these strategic levels will not apply to all nonviolent campaigns. If you want the local government to install a traffic light in your neighborhood, your planning will be much simpler than if you are trying to overthrow a dictator. But the same basic principles should apply: assess the situation objectively, map out your campaign carefully and differentiate among levels of planning.

Please note: these definitions are cursory and tentative—a starting point. Sharp and Helvey are not activists. We all know that real life is a lot more messy and unpredictable than theory.

In future posts we will try to see how these ideas might be used by activists in the real world. We hope to look at specific campaigns to find out what kind of strategic planning is being done (if any) and what types of preparations are most likely to lead to success.

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Footnotes

  1. See: Gene Sharp, Sharp’s Dictionary Of Power And Struggle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

    See also: Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship To Democracy (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2010) (http://www.aeinstein.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/FDTD.pdf)

    See also: Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle (Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2007)

    See also: Robert L. Helvey, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2004) (http://www.aeinstein.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/OSNC.pdf)

  2. In their 1994 book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler identify five levels of strategic planning based on military doctrine. They are: policy, operational planning, strategy, tactics and logistics.
  3. Before deciding on a strategic plan, you should first write a strategic estimate to evaluate the social environment where your campaign will take place. The strategic estimate is a kind of intelligence report—an dispassionate compilation of all factors that might have a bearing on the conflict. Most importantly, this document should assess the strengths and weaknesses of your group as well as those of your adversary. For more on this, see Robert L. Helvey, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution 2004), 47–65 (http://www.aeinstein.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/OSNC.pdf)
  4. In Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, Ackerman & Kruegler refer to grand strategy as “policy”.
  5. For a good explanation of “pillars of support” see Robert L. Helvey, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution 2004), 9–18 (http://www.aeinstein.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/OSNC.pdf)
  6. Sharp cites four ways victory can occur: conversion, accommodation, coercion or disintegration of the adversary’s power base. For a fuller description of these mechanisms, see Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle (Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2007), 415–21
  7. War Resisters’ International, Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns (2009 – 1st edition), 146
  8. Ernesto Ché Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (New York: BN Publishing, 2007), 15
  9. See http://www.aeinstein.org/nonviolentaction/198-methods-of-nonviolent-action/
  10. Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994), 47–48

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