When Emptying The Streets Is Safer Than Filling Them

| Strategize!

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Although it’s tempting to call for the people to “take to the streets,” sometimes it’s safer, more powerful and just as effective for them to stay home.

In the United States, street protests are a go-to method for expressing dissent. They’re familiar, frequent, and they make great photo-ops for news networks — especially compared to other, less flashy types of nonviolent action. (It’s hard to take a picture of a boycott.) But their notoriety means that many of us don’t know our other options, and if the riot police come out in force — as has happened in numerous campaigns from the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage to labor struggle — it’s helpful to have other, safer types of actions up your sleeve.

There are over 300 methods of nonviolent action. Some are concentrated, meaning that they require bodies to be put on the line. Marches, demonstrations, rallies, blockades, sit-ins, lock-downs, occupations, and tree-sits are examples of these. Other types of action are “dispersed,” meaning that the people are scattered around town or even the globe. Dispersed actions are hard for police and other forces to repress using physical violence. It’s difficult to tear gas thousands of LGBTQ boycotters sitting at home refusing to buy take-out from Chick-fil-A, for example. Other types of dispersed actions include call-in-sick strikes, stay-at-home strikes, covert refusal to serve, divestments, cacerolazos (pots and pans banging protests done by leaning out the window), withholding dues or payments, withdrawal from institutions and organizations and much more.

Why does this matter? Because, when the streets get heated, it’s important to be able to shift tactics away from those that can easily be repressed while still maintaining movement pressure on traditional power holders. Versatility and flexibility are key for sustainability. Changing tactics keeps your movement one step ahead of those who are trying to stop it.

It can also help keep you safe. A recent article in Waging Nonviolencehighlighted how Chilean activists have been shifting tactics as government repression increases. One tactic involved “flash protests” that were mobile and quick. If the police came, they could simply run away. Shifting away from the traditional street barricades of previous months, artist collectives helped citizens maintain the protest movement with what they call “scenic barricades”. These consist of blocking traffic for no more than five minutes while performing a short theatrical piece. The first scenic barricade was done by a 93-year-old grandmother who set up a table and folding chair to drink a cup of tea in protest of the deplorable conditions elders face.

Organizing several tactical approaches allows a movement to put multi-pronged pressure on opponents. During the Standing Rock encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a dispersed campaign popped up to get people to move their money out of the corporate banks financing the pipeline. Hundreds of actions nationwide and around the world took place. So much money moved out of the banks that several investing institutions divested from the DAPL pipeline. After the Standing Rock struggle, the effort towards divestment has continued to pick up steam, including pressure banks to ditch fossil fuels.

The third reason to build multi-pronged campaigns using a broad array of tactics is that you can mobilize greater participation. Not everyone can risk arrest, or travel to a distant location. Not everyone can go on strike. But perhaps those who can’t risk arrest can hang public banners or organize a boycott. This is what the Montgomery Bus Boycott did. While Rosa Parks was arrested for civil disobedience on a segregated bus, thousands more refused to ride the buses. Some people even drove a fleet of carpool vehicles to support the boycott. By pairing tactics wisely, you can mobilize everyone into doing something.

There is no “one action fits all” to nonviolent struggle. Creativity and mobility are our allies as movement organizers. And, though mainstream news over-reports on street protests, as the editor of Nonviolence News, I see a wide mixture of dispersed and concentrated actions taking place in the world. In this week’s newsalone, concentrated actions included: Venice residents holding a boat protest against cruise ships, thousands of people swarming the atrium of the U.S. Senate building to demand impeachment, parents demonstrated against bullying outside their kids’ school, and 180+ people were arrested protesting fossil fuels during a car show in Belgium.

Alternatively, dispersed actions in last week’s Nonviolence News included: a boycott of U.S. companies backing India’s anti-Muslim policies, the British Medical Journal divesting from fossil fuels and calling on other medical journals and practitioners to do the same for “health of people and planet”, a trending #WeWantWitnesseshashtag over U.S. impeachment proceedings, and more.

So, although it’s tempting to call for the people to “take to the streets,” sometimes it’s safer, more powerful and just as effective for them to stay home and empty the streets. Shut down businesses, stop shopping, cancel public events, don’t show up for meetings — taking a day off withholds money and work en masse, and if the riot police show up, there’s no one for them to strike.

  • eight.of.wands

    An additional wonderfully productive action to be undertaken is what all of us here are doing right now, in this very space, all along…..talking, debating, learning, thinking, asking, alerting and diverting the unrelenting sewer pipe of false narratives….so toss another log on the fire, unplug the telly, grab the young’uns and gather round, the more the merrier….this brilliant article i’ve just read is EXACTLY the kind of outside-the-park grand slam epiphany which ALL of us can implement in a thousand different and effective ways…

    Petitions, rallies, phone calls, sit-ins, even 500,000 ppl marching around the White House with signs have been losing much of their former impact for years now, ignored and even mocked by those in power…..remember those New York financiers drinkin champagne on balconies in 2011, laughing down at the Occupiers, instead of cringing in guilt and shame at Wall Street’s criminal complicity in wrecking the world economy?….those mthrfckng high-rise vipers were celebrating the warm comfort of knowing that bastard Barack would soon be unleashing the cops to crack heads in Zucotti Park…

    Rivera Sun has arisen to cast light upon avenues of smart new thinking for next generation strategies of protest and disruption…..although to be fair, everything old is new again….it’s all circling back to a particular book in high school Amer. Lit. that changed me forever on the spot….the world’s very first and finest self help book, by the world’s original counterculture freak who turned on and tuned in (to nature and the Universe) then dropped out…..let us join him, shall we?

  • eight.of.wands
  • jemcgloin

    Very smart article.

    Since people seem to think the whole point of priest is to fight with police.

    The real point is to communicate with the bridge public and win their hearts and minds.

    Find creative ways to communicate with the pubic.

    See the Yes Men movies for inspiration. They were very creative at using corporate mass media against itself.

  • voza0db

    Good luck with that! I’ve been, for many YEARS, saying that! I even send emails to Unions and other organizations saying precisely that: “Stay home, enjoy one or more days of pleasure. During those days STOP CONSUMING all that isn’t required for living and enjoy life!”

    Until today ZERO modern dumb slaves have made such PROTESTS!

  • rgaura

    Flash mobs are also great ways to lift spirits, open hearts, and inform. I love the work of Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop shopping! Singing and dancing together is always more uplifting than just a litany of woes. We have wonderful solutions to almost every social problem, its not like the 60´s when everyone’s commune failed because they didn’t know about permaculture!

  • Jon

    Good to see this positive energy. For even more, read Rivera’s novels (several) and her Maine Farm Poetry (Skylandia). My favorite novel of hers is “The Dandelion Insurrection.” It is about the times we live in now.

  • eight.of.wands

    had no idea, never heard of this writer’s name before….see, that’s why we’re all here!….to raise a glass (or two) this Valentine’s Day to all our fellow travelers united and committed to doing our best to make things worse for those who are truly making things worse….

  • Jon

    Glad to be of service. Try putting her name and Amazon together in a search engine and revel in her creativity and what others have said. She is a 38 year dynamo activist as well.

  • eight.of.wands

    Will do!!

    Amazon and dic pic Bezos of course are COLOSSAL dystopian players, like the putrid Waltons and Walmart of prior brick & mortar infamy….so for years now my strategy has been to research and take advantage of the Amazonian grid, then make n take my decisions elsewhere, anywhere but there!….even if it costs a nickel or dime or dollar more, i’ll go and buy a band’s new album from them, off their merch table at the next show…..money is today’s muskets, we gotta spend locally and independently and consciously, to not feed the fckn elephants in the room…..even eBay has devolved into quicksand (i believe a subsidiary of Amazon) so study sellers’ profiles verrrry carefully to differentiate actual human from corporatized listings……vigilance vigilance vigilance, my friends…

  • eight.of.wands

    so YEAH everyone, i just discovered that the author of this inspiring article has a KICKIN website!!….i’ll be doing all of my purchases right there, by cracky…

  • Jon

    LOL I was about to give you her P.O. Box to order, but you have beaten me to it.

  • eight.of.wands

    my mantra, kemosahbee…..Keep far enough ahead that you’re coming up from behind… https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cbe36a69c3ffc6481e6e1d4b0cb133a97122e079b49cb7185d3c9a15243f18e3.jpg

  • John Cook

    One to 20 people on a committed till death hunger strike is 1-20 committing suicide by ego. 100 to 1000 people committed to a hunger strike under a tent in public with doctors and nurses and media forced to document the action is a protest movement.
    You have to wonder if a Bernie Sanders type candidate was an “honest politician” and knew he/she was the change we need now, even more than we did in 2016, neither party would ever think to allow any kind of socialist in as President and disrupt their criminal activities brought out by their uncontrolled greed and their thirst for exceptionalism. What if a Bernie like said that on Memorial Day this year starting at midnight on the furthest eastern coast that supports Bernie or Bust, committed 24 hours to shutting it all down this year along with staying home and fasting in silence, on our reality of the continuous insanity of repeating everything over and over again expecting different results. We have options but without a loud enough voice leading us we’ll always be the 1 to 20 people committing an act of suicide brought about by ego..

  • Rivera Sun

    I am rarely a fan of hunger strikes. Gandhi felt they should be used with extreme caution, reminding people that that tactic works when the intended audience has a direct relationship to the hunger striker. For example, Gandhi went on hunger strike to quell Hindu-Muslim violence and rioting. He suspected that his people would rather see him live than continue to kill each other. He was right in that case. He did not, however, use a personal hunger strike to demand that the British leave India. At that time, the British would not have minded Gandhi’s debilitation. See the distinction? I personally think a non-essentials shopping strike would have a greater impact in our situation than a hunger strike.

  • Rivera Sun

    I agree. Flash mobs are good. They are also quite mobile, which can sometimes allow them to avoid repression. I also 100% agree with you that the prevalence of solutions is good news for us. Many of those solutions have 30+ years of experimentation and refinement under their belts, too.

  • Rivera Sun

    There does seem to be organizational resistance to using tactics other than protests. It’s a common problem. I think it’s shifting, however, by necessity.

  • Rivera Sun

    Thank you. I’m glad you appreciated the article. I think the point of using nonviolent action is not just to sway hearts and minds, but to withdraw consent and support from a system of injustice. We have a responsibility to challenge and transform destructive and unjust systems with boycotts, strikes, even blockades and other types of intervention. Ultimately, an unfair CEO may never agree with my demand for fair wages – but they may HAVE to respond to my strike with higher pay.

  • Rivera Sun

    You two make me smile. Thank you for your kind words. And yes, thank you for using my website instead of the giant corporations.

    None of what I write about is new – I draw from hundreds of years of human history and practice in applying nonviolent tactics. We have an opportunity at present to learn from the past and apply it in new and powerful ways to the challenges we face.

  • voza0db

    It seems to be a very motionless shift!

  • eight.of.wands

    always happy to see my literary and literal ramblings can reach destinations i dint expect, by way of i dunno wut, on missions as much a surprise to me as everyone else….thanks, Rivera, it’s kinda funny that we never know the reason that ppl always say everything happens for…..card zero in the deck is misconstrued as some poor unfortunate on the verge of tumbling off a cliff….not so…..simply learning to fly… https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2d176131f2bcb5d0152238e7bae380e6ce75246470788878575c3542171dfe46.jpg