Why some protests are effective and others aren’t

From The Atlantic

On April 22, scientists and science enthusiasts will gather in Washington, D.C. and 480 other cities to march for science. Their numbers will likely be large and their signs will undoubtedly be nerdy. Much has been written about the march—whether it’s a good idea or a terrible one, whether it will rally people or distance them, whether it’s goals are acceptably varied or too diffuse, whether it cares too little or too much about matters of diversity, and whether it will be a cathartic flash-in-the-pan or the seed for something more.

But these are all empirical questions, and there are indeed scientists who study political movements. Hahrie Han at the University of California, Santa Barbara is one of them. She studies the ways in which civic organizations get people involved in activism and build power for political change—and she’s written three books on the subject. I talked to her about the March for Science and what might happen afterwards.

Ed Yong: How do you see the march?

Hahrie Han: In thinking about the science of activism or social movements, there are two categories of questions that interest me. One is what does science tell us about what strategies are most effective with engaging people in different forms of activism? The second is this: Even if the organizers are able to get the people out in large numbers, how do you translate that into political power? If we can get a million scientists out to D. C., how does that actually turn into a kind of political voice?

Yong: It seems like the march is successfully attracting large numbers, so I want to focus on that second question about what happens afterwards. What do we know about that?

Han: It’s hard to provide generalized lessons because a lot of the answers are so context-dependent. It’s not like in every case where a march turns into political influence, the same things are happening. But a couple of things come to mind.

First, the research says that it’s not just about what you have but how you use what you have. A lot of times, people look at protests and movements and catalogue how much money they raised, or how many people they turned out into the street. The numbers are a proxy for political influence. But we can think of examples throughout history where you have movements with few people and that generate lots of influence, or ones with a lot of people and little influence.

This is a little controversial, but take the Arab Spring. They turned out hundreds of thousands of people into Tahrir Square and brought down Mubarak, but they couldn’t keep the military out of power in the long-term. The Occupy movement was able to get a lot of people to occupy public spaces for a long period of time, and while they did really important work in changing the conversation about inequality, we didn’t see tangible policy gains that ameliorated the inequalities that triggered those movements. And in the current moment, the Women’s March got 3.5 million people out—an amazing number. But will it translate into improvements? It might, but it’s a valid question. Having the numbers on your side doesn’t mean you’ll have political influence if there’s no clear pathway from what you have to what you want.

Yong: Is there a better proxy, besides numbers?

Han: It really depends on the ways in which organizations, and whoever is leading this coalition, can strategically translate the resources they have into relationships and political influence with people who are decision-makers. With the March for Science, given the initial resistance of the people in the movement to politicize it, and the newness of these groups in thinking about their work in political terms, it’ll be a challenge to develop those strategic capacities. It’s like a muscle. You need to practice it over time. The fact that they’re new to it could be a disadvantage in that they don’t have experience. The upside is that they are new, so they might have creativity and new ideas that can jostle up the system.

Yong: You mentioned leaders, and I’m curious about whether that’s important. It seems like several movements like the Tea Party and the new Indivisible group formed from the ground-up, and are successful despite being pretty decentralized. Does the leadership matter?

Han: When we think about leadership, that’s different to whether authority is centralized. The work that the Indivisible movement is doing is very distributed, in that you have a lot of local activists taking control of resistance activities in their own communities. But what made Indivisible take off was a very centralized strategy. The founders put together that guide book and they wrote an op-ed in The New York Times to say: Here’s what you need to do lefties. And all these people who were hungry said: Hey, that makes sense. So there is leadership.

Read the full article at The Atlantic.


Photo credit: By NYyankees51 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons