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The art of protest: What works in raising public awareness?

Insulate Britain infuriated the nation with their direct action. But were their tactics effective? PETER TATCHELL, the pioneer of modern protests, explains what works and what doesn't.

Angry motorists confront Insulate Britain protestors blocking a slip road at Junction 25 of the M25, near Enfield. Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images.

All the social gains we’ve won down the centuries began with protests against the status quo: from the Chartists and the suffragettes through to the campaigns against the poll tax and for LGBT+ rights.

Today’s protests by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are in the same tradition. All have used varying forms of protest to successfully raise public awareness and press for reform.

Indeed, there would be no social change without protest. But what works and what doesn’t?

Insulate Britain is a current example of the pros and cons of protest tactics. Its blockading of motorways has been criticised, even by some supporters of the cause, for disrupting ordinary people’s lives and alienating public opinion. But is that a fair criticism?

The activists who halt the traffic argue that while they don’t want to inconvenience people, there can be no “business as usual” given the climate emergency, so dramatic action is justified to secure the radical policies needed to cut carbon emissions.

They argue that any harm caused by their wholly non-violent methods pales into insignificance compared with the industrial-scale existential violence being done to our planet by the fossil fuel industry. It is destroying the biosphere on which all life depends. On this point they are right.

Some protests work better than others. Demonstrators calling for a second referendum on Brexit in October 2019 didn’t win over the public or politicians. Photo: Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty

Although critics say that Insulate Britain is making a mistake in targeting ordinary motorists, car use is contributing to climate destruction. This means that many drivers have some personal responsibility for the ecological crisis, unless they are undertaking genuinely essential and unavoidable journeys. Nevertheless, motorists don’t run the government departments, big industries and energy suppliers that are the real climate culprits.

Surely, more deserving protest targets are government ministers who are not acting fast enough to switch to a green economy and who are instead greenlighting the new coal mine in Cumbria and the Cambo oil field in Scotland.

And what about the coal, gas and oil extraction companies, the dirty industries that create many times more carbon dioxide than individual consumers, and the banks and pension funds that invest in these carbon monsters?

Effective protests target the main villains, not the general public, and they use methods that are calculated to win hearts and minds. To defeat the climate slayers, we need to mobilise popular opinion against them, not turn the public against the activist canaries in the mine.

While Insulate Britain has had some success creating greater awareness about the unfolding climate disaster, its provocative tactics have also shifted the public debate away from their just cause to a heated debate about their tactics.

Their far-sighted domestic insulation proposal – which would ensure warm homes, improve health, lower fuel bills and reduce climate damage – is being sidelined in the process.

Pro-Remain campaigner Steve Bray protests on Brighton Beach during the Labour Party conference in September. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

I speak as someone who’s been involved in 3,000 protests over the past 54 years, on issues including anti-austerity, nuclear disarmament, electoral reform, racial equality, abortion rights, economic democracy and free speech.

But I am best known for my work for LGBT+ liberation, with defiant, colourful, dramatic and sometimes confrontational, quirky and humorous protests that have contributed to changing both laws and attitudes towards homosexuality.  

My activism has been inspired by masters of change-making protest such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve adapted their methods of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience.

For me, successful protests are based on six principles:

First, the protest message needs to be presented in ways that open up the possibility of creating a wider coalition for social change. Way back in the 1980s, when everyone else was advocating “LGBT+ rights”, I switched to speaking out for “LGBT+ human rights”.

My aim was to increase public receptiveness to the LGBT+ cause by getting away from the idea that LGBT+ rights were special and separate from other rights; and by placing them in the heart of the broader human rights movement. From that repositioning, we were better able to build alliances with other human rights organisations. Giving and receiving mutual support made us all stronger.

Second: a protest needs to relate to ordinary people. While I was a strong Remain supporter, the campaign messaging was often aloof. A common perception was that it was mostly the pro-EU and anti-EU elites talking to each other, not to the wider British public.

Much of the discourse was about the EU’s effects on business rather than on ordinary employees. The Remain side did not do enough to promote the practical every-day benefits of EU membership for the average person, such as cleaner beaches, employment protection and no mobile roaming charges when holidaying in EU countries. Equally, there was insufficient mention of the potential negative impact of Brexit for the person in the street, such as: job losses in some sectors, higher prices in the shops.

Greenpeace campaigners stage a stunning protest against the dumping of nuclear waste in the Atlantic in 1981. Photo: Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty

Having said all this, protests don’t always work when there are other countervailing forces at play. The Remain campaign took place against the backdrop of a backlash against the political establishment and the desire by many “left behinds” to give mainstream politicians a kicking. They saw Remain as a mainstream establishment cause. The failure to counter this misperception was our undoing.

Third, the methods of protest should be consistent with the goals of the protest. If you aspire to a gentler, kinder and more caring society, your tactics should be congruent with that goal. The commitment of animal liberationists to end the suffering of other species is ethically unassailable.
But when a minority resort to violence against vivisectionists they inflict suffering on a human animal, the scientist who experiments on non-human animals.

Isn’t that a moral inconsistency and doesn’t it thereby undermine public support? When protesters decide the ends justify the means, that a just cause requires any method necessary to achieve it, this is usually a slippery slope to doing and excusing bad things in the name of some greater good.
Fourth, stick to non-violence. In a democratic society, where there is the possibility of peaceful change, violence cannot be justified. It also has negative practical consequences; deflecting attention from the cause to the method and turning public opinion against ideas that might otherwise win popular approval.

The non-violent campaign against anti-Catholic discrimination by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the 1960s won public support, whereas the IRA’s terror campaign turned public opinion against the republican cause. Moreover, Sinn Fein’s ballot box strategy has yielded more progress than IRA bombs. 

Equally, the poll tax was not defeated by violent street riots, which only served to fuel the Conservative’s repressive law and order policies. The hated, unfair tax was primarily overturned by a combination of peaceful mass protests and, especially, the financial leverage of mass non-payment and deliberately delayed payment.

These tactics rendered it economically unviable. Conversely, the absence of this monetary leverage was one reason why the protests against the Iraq War failed, despite their immense size and the unpopularity of the war. The same applies to the pro-EU and People’s Vote rallies. No financial clout meant these protests could be brushed aside. 

Protesters march through London in February 2003, in opposition to the proposed war in Iraq. Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty

Fifth, minimise public inconvenience and alienation. Demonstrations often disrupt traffic, but usually for a short time.

While a degree of inconvenience, even annoyance, may be inevitable with many protests, they are best minimised. The average person in the street is not the enemy and antagonising them is bound to diminish support for a cause. Having public opinion on your side is crucial for success.

In the 1990s, protests for LGBT+ rights by the direct action group OutRage! received masses of media coverage. This raised public awareness about the scale of homophobic discrimination and, through subsequent TV and radio debates, helped change public opinion. Armed with polls that showed majority support for LGBT+ law reform, we were able to convince nervous MPs to vote for equality.

There are, however, some instances where peaceful but provocative and confrontational protests may be a justified and necessary catalyst for social change, even if in the short term they provoke a public backlash.

When, in 1994, OutRage! outed 10 Anglican bishops and called on them to “tell the truth” about their sexuality, we were targeting their hypocrisy and collusion with a homophobic faith.

The Church, media, politicians and much of the public denounced our “homosexual terrorism” and “gay fascism”. I was deluged with death threats and violent assaults. But the short-term damage was outweighed by the long-term gains.

None of those bishops subsequently said anything homophobic, the House of Bishops condemned anti-LGBT+ discrimination and the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a senior cleric to debate with LGBT+ Christians for the first time.

Sixth: use fresh and creative methods. Protests are two-a-penny. The traditional march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square has been done thousands of times. It is rarely news unless there are in excess of 100,000 people, like some of the Remain protests were. While these mega outpourings with media coverage helped generate popular awareness of the pro-EU cause, they did not sufficiently move the dial on public opinion, let alone provoke a change in government policy.

What makes a bigger impact is often much smaller protests that are imaginative, daring or witty, such as a tiny Greenpeace rubber dingy blocking the navigation of a gigantic nuclear submarine.

Likewise, the lesbians abseiling into the House of Lords to protest Section 28 in 1988 and the OutRage! mass kiss-in in two years later against the arrest of same-sex couples for public affection. The latter was a joyous carnival-style celebration that was media-savvy and orchestrated to win maximum public sympathy and approval.

Police restrain Peter Tatchell during protests against a visit to London by Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe. Photo: Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images.

The resultant press coverage helped turn public opinion against the police harassment of our community and eventually led to the them switching from persecution to protection.

Effective protest is the lifeblood of democracy. It helps hold the rich and powerful to account and acts as a much-needed counter-balance to the frequent arrogance, self-interest and elitism of governments, political parties and politicians. Protest is power to the people!

A potted history of Peter Tatchell protests

Pub Bars
In the 1970s, he organised sit-ins of pubs that refused to serve gay people. With others, he helped organise Britain’s first Gay Pride march in 1972

Storming of a sermon
In 1998, he and others disrupted an Easter sermon by George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with Tatchell mounting the pulpit to denounce what he claimed was Carey’s opposition to legal equality for lesbian and gay people

Taking on Tyson
In 2002, Tatchell confronted the boxer outside his gym in Memphis and demanded he stop using homophobic language. The activist also staged a long campaign against Jamaican dancehall artists he accused of glorifying violence, including murder, towards lesbians and gay men

Ambushing Tony Blair 
Tatchell tried to arrest the then PM in protest against the Iraq War by running out in front of his motorcade as it drove through the West End in 2003

Attempted arrests of Robert Mugabe
In 1999 and again in 2001, Tatchell tried to perform a citizen’s arrest on Zimbabwe’s president, on charges of torture. He was badly beaten by Mugabe’s bodyguards the second time

Fighting for gay rights in Russia
He has often travelled to Russia to campaign for equality there. In 2007, he was attacked and almost knocked unconscious. On other occasions he has been arrested

Interrupting the Olympic Torch relay
In 2008, Tatchell attempted to disrupt the Olympic torch as it was taken though London on a bus. As a protest against China’s human rights record he stood in front of the vehicle on Oxford Street while carrying a placard

  • Peter Tatchell is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. The documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell, about his 54 years of human rights protests, is available now on Netflix

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