Some Extremely Effective Grassroots Protest Methods & Exactly Why They Work

A post by Jamie


Last week, I wrote about an annoyingly pervasive blight of unchecked male privilege at grassroots protests, which is actually angry-making when the protest concerns an attack against women’s rights. But when that attack against women’s rights involves multiple layers of outright racism on top of that (racialized women’s rights being particularly vulnerable already, due to the effects of systemic racism on the upholding/deprivation of justice for women of colour), it’s enough to make me utterly livid. I am referring to men walking up to either a pro-life demonstration being attended by a grassroots pro-choice counter-protest, or to an isolated pro-choice demonstration, and playing the Devil’s advocate on one or both sides (but usually just the pro-life side) for hours and hours of mental masturbation. I call them Philosophy Dudebros and for several reasons, they just don’t mix with grassroots. This post is about (some of) what the grassroots are doing for pro-choice demonstrations and counter-protests, and exactly why they are doing it. Understanding effective pro-choice tactics and the reasons why they work, in addition to an understanding of intersectional influences (such as the effects of racism or colonialism in the dialogue on both sides of the issue), one can easily apply that knowledge to their activism on other social justice issues.

Keyboard Warrior Warning: Cut the shit, Sonny. I don’t have time for another three days of your dudebro-ing. This post is about actual activism. In fact, I don’t think anyone does, and that rather generously includes you too.

Tone Police Warning: I’m not apologizing for profanity, for the manner in which I’ve characterized different groups of people with egregiously harmful political leanings, or how aggressive my tactics are as an activist. Get used to it. Maybe grow a backbone in the interim.

1. Differential Appearances

When there is just myself — or myself plus one or two other people — at a grassroots protest, an absolutely critical component of the success of our actions is how well distinguished we are from the people we are counter-picketing. I have come to the conclusion that this is largely due to the fact that the general public tends to see us there first and read our signs momentarily after the fact, and if we too closely resemble the people we are counter-picketing, we will be mistaken for one of them on sight alone. The monumental feat of successfully differentiating our appearances is especially difficult to overcome in either bad weather (i.e., I’m not going to freeze my tits off by standing in a downpour topless) or when I’m alone or accompanied by just one or two other people. I have tended towards using various costumes, props, and other accessories, and sometimes even public toplessness, to make myself stand apart from the people I’m picketing. Again, this is especially important when I’m all alone out there and standing right next to them (which I have even done topless as well — and perhaps most remarkably, in the rain). All of these tactics have been met with hostility from my opponents, but in all seriousness, they will hurl insults, rape apologetics, bad intentions, blatant lies, and general hostility towards anyone who stands up against them, no matter what they look like doing it. So I just try to make it harder for them to keep that up. Sometimes it’s a clown nose. Sometimes it’s a clown horn, and I honk it until their lips stop moving while yelling “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over all this noise I’m deliberately making!” And sometimes it’s my uniquely beautiful body (which is covered in black and grey tattoos of bats, spiders, skulls, and pentagrams, among other artwork). It won’t stop them from being disgusting hypocrites, but at least I’m having fun making them look like even bigger assholes than they already appear to be.

Other ways that pro-choicers have been successful in distinguishing themselves from the pro-lifers they are counter-picketing is by linking arms (assuming there are enough people present), standing in front of pro-life signs (we’ve done this topless, too), and singing or chanting. And ohhh, the singing really gets under pro-lifers’ skin, in case you were wondering whether or not it’s anatomically possible for anything to get under there. One of my songbird friends once dropped by the site of a weekly counter-demonstration to sing “Keep Your Jesus Off My Penis & Your Bible Off My Balls!” until the pro-lifers left. And it seemed to make the “genocide awareness” group reach the point of flipping their fucking gourds when a group of young women started clapping and singing to the tune of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. Other groups have successfully managed to erect blank banners all the way around the displays in previous years, inviting people from all over the campus to paint messages of solidarity and support for women’s rights. It’s very similar to an anti-Westboro-Baptist-Church tactic called “angel action“, which involves appearing where ever the Westboro Baptist Church is expected, wearing white robes that have been modified to obscure the multiple signs held by each WBC picketer. They link arms or hold hands with their backs to the WBC picketers, and stand in silence until the event is over and the grieving families have returned home. I am also reminded of similar mass-sheet-paintings, which take place every year on February 14th in a “public airing of dirty laundry” as part of a feminist consciousness-raising effort to counter systemic violence against women.

2. Further On Appearances: Identity-Ambiguity And Identity Concealment

Sometimes, knowing that you are going to be filmed and your picture will be taken repeatedly by strangers and other people who won’t ask first and won’t tell you where your picture will appear, you just don’t want your picture to be useful for the opposition, while still being useful for your friendly neighbourhood support. So sometimes, you do things to cover your face or make your identity sufficiently ambiguous that you can continue to appear in these radical grassroots protests without the expectation of future problems in public places long after the fact. Or even in the short term, such as the time I picketed a pro-life group alone, and was stalked by them for a block and into a public washroom (more on that momentarily). One of the ways I have made my identity ambiguous is by presenting as very female-bodied at (some) protests, in sharp contrast to my everyday gender presentation, which is more often than not read variably as androgynous, masculine, or increasingly, male, rather than female or feminine in any way (except sometimes in private). Not everyone can do this, and I am by no means suggesting that cisgendered men start deploying drag as a tactic, because that would be both malappropriative and revolting (unless you are a drag queen, in which case, all the power to you if you should start using this shape-shifting superpower in protests).

A well-known tactic for concealing your identity during a protest is called a Black Bloc. Along with being well-known, this tactic also has a really terrible reputation, thanks to extremist groups such as Earth Liberation Front (i.e., using it while vandalizing public property, burning down major industrial hubs—and thus significantly disrupting the socioeconomic stability of the workers who depended on the income from those jobs—and generally keeping bad company). Vandals and rioters also deployed themselves as a Black Bloc during the city-wide grassroots counter-protest to the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999. But not every group moving about as a Black Bloc is the kind that this tactic is reputed for. Sometimes it’s a temporary strategy being used to gain access to a particular goal or targeted location, as there is a lot more to the Black Bloc than merely dressing in a balaclava and black clothes. For example, a Black Bloc will generally maintain a block formation (hello, namesake!) while generally moving swiftly through dense crowds. This gives them an advantage against police, because they can’t be physically isolated and handcuffed one at a time if they are disciplined in this aspect of their tactic. (Now you know why they aren’t just called anarchists.) Black Blocs also usually carry black flags, which are used to cover camera lenses in multiple directions in order to prevent filming or photographing of what little of their faces is showing. I happen to know people who, to the best of my knowledge, recently used the Black Bloc tactic to move through a flash mob outside a building before being arrested in plain clothes with their faces uncovered and their arms linked together in front of a hearing panel for a proposed pipeline. Now, obviously you wouldn’t cover your face to appear at a community teach-in or to pass out condoms to people in public, but sometimes you need to conceal yourself in grassroots demonstrations. Sometimes other people feel the need to while you don’t. It’s not about cowardice or shit-disturbing. Certainly my gender-ambiguity and identity-concealment has prevented me from losing all reasonable expectations of privacy in between anti-extremist protests.

3. Picking Your Battles

Knowing which battles to engage in, which ones to avoid, and when to walk away is one of the most effective strategies you can ever possibly arm yourself with. With the notable exception of when you should have walked away but didn’t, nothing is as dis-spiriting and demoralising as pouring your personal energy reserves into a battle you don’t know how to fight. Anything that makes you feel like you’re there to start or win a yelling match is a good example of a battle you should stay away from. Aside from the obvious fact that you can actually injure yourself or put yourself at significantly increased risk of antagonizing the wrong person by yelling (if your voice doesn’t wear out before the fight is over), nothing good can be accomplished from just a bunch of shouting. For example, at pro-choice demonstrations, we often pass out free condoms and samples of water-based lube. It actually took some time one day for me to figure out that people feel really uncomfortable taking condoms and lube from anyone who is calling attention to the fact that they are passing out free condoms and lube by shouting it out at top volume. This is true even if that person is clearly identifiable as pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-choice, and thus, not a source of shame. Then there was yelling at Genocide Awareness Project, which feels great to do, but yelling “abortion isn’t genocide!” actually sounds like “abortion is genocide!” when it’s being shouted. We were already occasionally being mistaken for pro-lifers at that point, partly because there were very few of us, and we just looked like a part of the “minority among minorities”, as one guy put it at yelling volume to their faces later that same day. (P.S. I still hate that word and that argument.)

Sometimes, silence is your most effective weapon. Just as you have the right to freedom of speech, you also have a right to silence. Pro-lifers seem to either “forget” this or expect you to. When confronting pro-lifers as a solitary demonstrator or to expose them as a hate group equivalent to the Westboro Baptist Church, my silence has been more effective than any argument I could possibly come up with. The pro-life movement is exactly like virtually every other major hate movement, in that their entire purpose, strategy, and goal is to emotionally antagonize, traumatize, and viscerally offend as many people as inhumanely as possible. Apart from their shock tactics, their only other available tactic is getting you to talk and then twisting your words against you. If you don’t talk, they are powerless. Also, if you don’t talk, it gives you astronomically more time to think and observe everything going on around you (such as when pro-lifers start lurking around the pro-choicers, or an anti-abortion extremist walks up and starts taking everyone’s pictures).

I had an experience with how terrifying a silent opponent is for them when I first used this tactic in a public demonstration in which I was alone and my identity was both ambiguous and unknowable. I was wearing my checkered spandex (see the top of this post) and they were terribly confused about my gender. They showed up late for their own picket, and asked me if I was demonstrating there. The only words they heard me say the entire evening were “No, I’m just here waiting for someone.” I have the distinct advantage of sounding like a dude but not being shaped quite like one (while more and more, not being shaped quite like a woman either). I chose a spot to stand on, and when their first sign came out, so did mine. They went apeshit about it, called me a coward, got mad at me when I kept moving closer to them until the last sign was packed up, and then stalked me into a public washroom a block away, where none of them could guess which washroom I was in (and thus, missed any opportunity to figure out who I was by the time I radically changed my appearance). I brought friends the next time I counter-picketed this same group, and one of my friends was also completely silent and unidentifiable to them. It completely destabilized one pro-lifer, who spent the entire evening yelling and in a complete panic after one of his usually disciplined fellow picketers left him physically isolated next to me. It also left the rest of them completely fucking outraged. They were still furious three months later, at the end of their latest demonstration, where they asked me why I cover my face “all the time” and if I’m “scared”. With my face still covered, I merrily antagonized the short little fucker by getting right up in his face and shouting “OoooOOOoooh! You’re the boogey man!” (See picture below.)

Sometimes the real grassroots wear a fucking mask. And before you challenge my use of the word "real" here, sometimes there actually are fake grassroots.

Sometimes the real grassroots wear a fucking mask. And before anyone challenges my use of the word “real” here, yes, sometimes there actually are fake “grassroots”. It’s called infiltration and it happens in every movement. Often on both sides (e.g., cops).

4. Further On Battle-Picking: Clustering And Collective Decompressing

For all intents and purposes here, clustering is what happens while the picket is still taking place, and collective decompressing is the process of sitting down after the picket is over, letting your façade down if you were using one (e.g., I now treat these pickets more often than not as a sort of stage performance) and venting your frustrations about everything that happened or was said while the picket was still taking place. I mentioned last week that unlike Philosophy Dudebros, when women engage pro-lifers, they tend to cluster around them in groups, and that this is just one of several ways in which pro-choice women differentiate themselves strategically from the lone cisgendered men doing something similar (and who are really only pretending to be their allies for feminist points or a metaphorical cumshot). One of the effects of clustering is that it completely disables that particular pro-lifer from handing out pamphlets, wrangling in one of their “complete strangers” for a pretend conversation in which they air their propaganda unchallenged, calling for help from a fellow picketer, being heard beyond the group clustered around them, or even being seen by passersby — especially those who would take no issue whatsoever in inserting themselves into a conversation between two people in physical isolation (this happens most often when one of the two happens to be visibly identifiable as female). Clustering effectively disables one picketer, and with enough women to cluster around pro-lifers at one of these demonstrations, it can completely disable the entire demonstration (with the notable exception of their abhorrent signs).

But another really, really important effect of clustering is that it becomes a collective teaching and learning exchange for everyone involved on the pro-choice side of the issue. This is of special importance for men, who are not as directly impacted as women are by the mere prospect of stripping away women’s rights. Collective decompressing is equally important, for the same reason. Both are an excellent opportunity for more seasoned activists to listen in while a relatively new (and perhaps even naive) activist gives their very delicately composed argument. A more seasoned activist can momentarily take the reigns while everyone is clustering, to teach them a new manner of giving their argument, or to steer a meandering and pointless debate back to a salient point in the relatively new activist’s argument. It is an equally valuable opportunity for relatively new activists to listen in and learn from the ways in which seasoned activists are engaging the issue and the manner in which they are being engaged. While a new activist may be very attached to a particular argument, they can pick up an entire new collection of additional things to address in a very short time through clustering. And while a seasoned activist is listening, they too can learn about some of the tactics pro-lifers are using to try and take back what little advantage they think they have. A particularly astute listener will be able to exploit this at the right moment, or recognize it next time and exploit it then. These are also the sorts of conversations that take place while people decompress as a collective afterwards. I’ve learned the most about what other people were experiencing while participating in a collective decompression after the fact, because I tend to get very caught up in my own strategies while the picket is ongoing — whether that is taking up the very edge of the sidewalk, watching everyone around me at all times and inserting myself between people who appear to be on the verge of a conflict, or focusing as much as I can on maintaining a silent composure while listening to exactly what is being said so that I can better understand the opposition’s tactics and protocol.

5. Actively Engaging In Anti-Colonial Resistance

I learned a few new things about actively engaging in anti-colonial resistance on the second day of the “genocide awareness” counter-picket. For starters, I learned that on another university campus, an Aboriginal students’ union promised to host a round dance around the GAP displays when a booking was made for the campaign. The pro-lifers responded to this by cancelling their booking. And in case you weren’t sure what exactly a round dance is, it’s also called the friendship dance. It is a tradition from the Plains Nations and some points East. Hand drummers congregate in the middle and sing songs of friendship, harmony, and unity of all peoples, while dancers join hands and side-step in a clockwise motion around them. Anyone who is close enough to observe is encouraged to join in the celebration. In Vancouver, some round dances have taken up entire intersections, and songs specifically celebrating warrior women, women’s strength, and respect for women have been used as well. Sometimes round dances get so large that several concentric circles form around the hand-drummers. So now, if you ever see one or hear about it, you know it’s not only OK to join in, but actively encouraged. A round dance is also an active form of anti-colonial resistance, in that it was once criminalized on account of its relationship to indigenous nationhood, sovereignty, and spirituality — every song and every dance is a prayer, and different nations used different songs, drum beats, and so on. But indigenous people don’t pray to an invisible sky Daddy, and so their spirituality was (and in some respects still is) seen as inferior to the (already long-ago corrupted) religious traditions of Western colonizers. Thus, while round dances clearly were and still are a way of celebrating cultural traditions and one’s ties to them, they are also now an increasingly important way of taking a powerful sense of sovereignty back from a history of systemic oppression and attempted genocide (e.g., a round dance was held on Stephen Harper’s front lawn towards the end of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike).

One pro-choice picketer also approached the scene of an increasingly distressed pro-choice woman trying to wrap her head around the layers upon layers of bigotry endorsed by a pro-lifer, on the second day of the “genocide awareness” campaign. After engaging in a discussion about who exactly is “doing the genocide” if abortion can be described as one, and reaching an impasse with the pro-lifer, said pro-lifer told this (second) pro-choice picketer that she’ll pray for her. The pro-choice picketer, being of Aboriginal descent herself, and thus actually a survivor of genocide (for real), said “I’ll pray for you too.” The pro-lifer lit up and asked if she is Christian, to which the pro-choice picketer said no. The pro-lifer enquired into whether or not she believed in God, and she said no. The pro-lifer’s eyes grew wide as she asked “Then who taught you to pray?” But what this pro-lifer doesn’t understand is what exactly Aboriginal prayer is. It’s not an externalization and personification of a higher power, to which this Aboriginal pro-choicer prays. She may pray to her ancestors, who she may or may not consider immediately among us either in spirit or whenever eagles are circling overhead (as they were multiple times that day), or when spiders weave their webs nearby. She may pray to all of nature (not necessarily personified or anthropomorphized at all), who she may or may not directly identify with as being no different from her. She may pray to the Earth, who she may or may not consider her literal mother, for as much as her blood mother gave birth to her, she is equally as dependent upon the Earth to keep warm and to feed from as all of nature is. In fact, when she prays, she may very well be doing all of these things at once. When we understand how vastly different this form of prayer is from Westernized, colonial notions of prayer, it suddenly brings the power of dancing and singing into a radically expanded conception.

Finally, another pro-choice picketer brought sage to smudge with on the second day of the “genocide awareness” campaign. There are multiple things going on with this practice, not the first of which is the perception on the part of the pro-lifers that this is some sort of Satanic ritual — a manifestation of their completely false narratives about what Satanism is and looks like. Prior to colonization, for instance, many cultures  across the world practised a form of smudging. Generally speaking, it is regarded as a form of spiritual cleansing. But people of the Plains Nations also practised smudging. It is a form of prayer as complex as what I have just finished describing, as well as a form of spiritual cleansing. The goal of the cleansing is to see, hear, and speak in a good way as a result of washing away negative energies, thoughts, or feelings with the smoke of the burning medicines. When one smudges another, it is a symbol of wishing no ill will or harm upon them, of holding no grudges against them, and being together or parting with them in a good way. But nothing freaked the pro-lifers out as much as being smudged at the end of that second day. Their ideas are diametrically opposed to everything that is represented by the act of smudging, whether or not you put any stock into its efficacy or respect into its relationship to a spirituality that holds no distinction between the material and spiritual worlds (which are both believed to exist at the same time). Their ideas are also explicitly colonial, and thus, virtually all of the most effective methods of countering them are going to be rooted in an anti-colonial framework. Under an anti-colonial framework, all oppressions are interdependent and connected. It is to our immediate and long-term benefit to gain a deeper understanding of colonialism and the ways in which it has systemically corrupted a great deal of Western knowledge (and thus, our education, and the perpetuation and evolution of our culture as well). For if we cannot recognize and challenge colonialist structures within our own politics as well as within others’, we are acting complicit with it, and we stand to lose important allies for our choices.

This really isn’t anywhere near a complete list of tactics employed by grassroots, but they are a few of the most important and easily the most effective methods. You may also have noticed that all of these tactics are about non-violent resistance. Violence is a major component of this entire issue, as the pro-life side literally fetishizes it while many on the pro-choice side either take a firm stand against it (and against defining abortion as an act of violence against a fetus) or become completely caught up in competing subjectivities (i.e., whether or not the fetus is capable of subjectivity versus the individual mothers’ rights). It is hardly a coincidence that the pro-life side has such a selective and narrow interpretation of violence that women are for all intents and purposes disposable fetal incubators in their rhetoric, while at the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable to print out propaganda pamphlets made of non-recycled and non-recyclable paper (i.e., perpetrating multiple successions of violent acts against the Earth). I really strongly encourage anyone reading this post to think long and deep about what little of Aboriginal worldviews are described in general terms above, and how even if it is all taken entirely metaphorically, it still means that the pro-life movement explicitly promotes violence against women and the Earth alike. This is the kind of thinking exercise that is involved in decolonizing one’s politics (and thus, making oneself a more effective long-term activist).

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  1. Nepenthe says

    How do you know these methods are effective?

    And it looks like the part where you explain why they’re effective didn’t get posted. Might want to fix that.

  2. says

    Uhhh, why they are effective and how I know they work is explained first under every heading. I don’t write for Seventeen Magazine, so you’ll have to work on your comprehension before I’ll address your concerns seriously.

  3. Nepenthe says

    *rereads post* Yeah, sorry, you never have explained what the goal of “grassroots protest” is to begin with, precluding any comparison of methods. You’ve just presented a bunch of stuff you do. How are we supposed to evaluate this? What pisses off forced birth protesters the most? What engages the most bystanders? What’s the most amusing for pro-choice demonstrators? Without letting us know what on earth you’re attempting to accomplish, leaving it as an exercise to the reader is pretty futile.

    You clearly do not write for Seventeen. They require a much higher standard of cogency.

  4. says

    I’d suggest that if you don’t already understand the function of a grassroots protest (or any form of street activism), then I am not your teacher, guide, instructor, or organizer, and you need to begin elsewhere, because I am not writing for you.

    It’s quite a simple solution to your pretend problem.

  5. Brandon says

    Just to be clear, Aboriginal woo is good, but Christian woo is bad? No, I think I’ll pass on the woo altogether. Pro-choice arguments are very strong and have no need of injecting babble about spirits and mother Earth; in fact, playing on that turf grants validity to religious-based arguments, which is a bad path to go down. Let’s stick to the material world instead, where pro-lifers can’t possibly win on the merits of argument.

  6. Nepenthe says

    I understand. Inserting a sentence along the lines of “Since the goal of this protest is X, doing Y is more effective than doing Z” would be bowing to the colonialist rationalist dogma. Asking for evidence or even a nod to the idea of evidence? On a skeptic blog network? Heavens no. Keep on fighting the man.

  7. Brandon says

    Sticking to criticism of material harms would probably be good then, instead of praising superstition at length.

  8. smrnda says

    Interesting about the smudge stick. Even though I’m an atheist, I realize that public displays of non-Christian spirituality can be subversive and can really disorient and shock the type of people who would tend to be on the other side of an issue than I would be. I observed this once by seeing how shocked, quiet and even threatened some people were when some pagans decided to do their ceremony in a semi-public place. True, I don’t believe in the reality of their gods, but if you want to seize control of a public space, it’s a good tactic. Plus, it sticks it to people who are used to pushing their religion on everybody else.

  9. says

    Sure does shock and stick.

    Whether or not pagans and/or indigenous peoples believe in the existence of gods in a literal sense is dependent upon individual interpretation, and is largely considered no observer’s business because that is between the subject and their higher power (if they even have one is no one else’s business).

    People who honour precolonial spiritual traditions generally don’t police anyone else’s beliefs, and in fact, indigenous people in particular try not to police anyone, as everyone is believed to have internalized a code of honour. If someone doesn’t follow that code of honour, people simply fall away from them until their mistakes are the only thing keeping them company.

  10. says


    I’ve thought about how you are receiving this post for about two minutes, and already it is painfully obvious to me, what the problem is. It’s not that you have poor reading comprehension after all. It’s that you’re angry that I don’t give into your entitled attitude by spoon-feeding you information even if you have zero intent to ever apply it anywhere in the real world, in a format that doesn’t force you to think about it.

    Too bad. Get used to it or get lost.

  11. says


    The fact that you are equally dependent upon this Earth as any tree or tumbleweed doesn’t change, no matter how hard you wish you could think your way out of this very literal relationship.

    You can take this relationship into consideration and view yourself as a dependent, or child, of the Earth, or you can ignore it entirely. The Earth doesn’t care one way or another, if you ally yourself to her (or it if you prefer) or try to stand against her (or it). The Earth will win that argument whether you like it or not.

  12. lirael_abhorsen says

    I’ve spent a fair amount of energy explaining to people that black bloc is not inherently some terrifying evil thing for people who want to blow shit up. I’ve also spent plenty of time as a medic in the black bloc sections of marches and actions – I like working with the black blocs; they tend to need medics more than most protesters, so you can do a lot of good, and they are also appreciative. I will say, though, that one failure mode of black bloc and similar group anonymizing tactics is that it can be easy for agents provocateurs and other infiltrators to hide among the bloc (or even to have their own fake black bloc for a false flag op). Of course, how big a concern that is depends on the general risk of infiltration, which varies. I’ve never been clear how to mitigate that unless it’s a local-community black bloc where people know and recognize each other through the gear and keep an eye out for infiltrators and provocateur behavior.

    One interesting tidbit – a pretty high percentage of street medics, IME, are former black bloc kids (though I am not). As they are often disproportionately targeted by police, they grow to appreciate the medics while they’re doing the black bloc thing, and decide they want to take on that role themselves.

  13. Brandon says

    The fact that you are equally dependent upon this Earth as any tree or tumbleweed doesn’t change, no matter how hard you wish you could think your way out of this very literal relationship.

    You can take this relationship into consideration and view yourself as a dependent, or child, of the Earth, or you can ignore it entirely. The Earth doesn’t care one way or another, if you ally yourself to her (or it if you prefer) or try to stand against her (or it). The Earth will win that argument whether you like it or not.

    This looks a lot like other forms of religious propaganda. Treating the planet as a god might have more pragmatic benefits than imagining a new god from scratch, but it’s still pretty nonsensical.

  14. says

    I think the idea of viewing human beings as being separate from the Earth is far more nonsensical than recognizing that we are part of an interconnected ecological system. Europeans view(ed) the Earth as something to conquer and colonize, whereas aboriginal beliefs emphasize living ‘in harmony with’ the land – in fact, many groups do not recognize a meaningful separation between the people and the land. The latter is, to my eye, a much better and more sustainable and no less accurate view than the former.

  15. kevinkirkpatrick says

    Unfortunately, Nepethne is spot on. What you’re going to have to do is

    1) Define measurable metrics by which the success of your protest might be guaged. For instance, for those people who observe your counter-protest, what is their general sentiment toward your cause (on a scale of 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree), preferably determined by short-term exit polling and long term follow-up surveying. Alternatively (or additionally) what effect does a counter-protest have on the number of protestors over time (does it cut down the duration of the offending protest and/or the volume of individuals who remain a part of it?). Naturally, multiple metrics might be tracked, with an overall score assigned based on some pre-defined weighted input of each. You’ll need a well-trained team that is able to gather this information in a standardized and unbiased manner. In the interest of gathereing the best data possible, an independent third party team should be hired, with funding guaranteed to be independent of overall results.

    2) Establish a placebo-controlled, randomized, double-blinded protocol for a given demonstration/counter-protest technique.
    PLACEBO CONTROLLED: This means you’ll need to vary within those protests whether or not the experimental protesting technique will be used, or whether to conduct a placebo protest, e.g. a protest completely unrelated to the issue at handcoo.
    RANDOMIZED: The decision to use the technique, not use the technique, or run a placebo protest must be randomly determined in advance, and completely independent of any characteristics of any given event.
    DOUBLE-BLINDED: To the greatest extent possible, any polling team must conduct all polling without visibility into the actual protest. For monitoring the impact of a counter=-protest, it might be best to train a film crew to record behavior of the original protestors in a way that makes it impossible to infer whether the experimental technique was used, was not used, or whether a placebo was used. Furthermore, your polling team must determine whether respondents were sufficiently familiar with protesting techniques such that they might be biased in their responses based on their affinity for whether the experimental technique was used.

    3) Get approvals. Given that the experiment is one that will have psychological impacts on participants, who themselves would not have previously consented to participating in an experiment, it’s imperative that appropriate IRB approval be sought and granted. Given that any individual demonstration is unlikely to have a massive, measurable impact on the aforementioned metrics, you’ll need to to ensure a sufficiently large N according to the expected effect size. Consider consulting a well-trained statistician, you don’t want to get this wrong.

    4) Secure funding. Based on the scope of the experiment, you’ll need to secure proper funding to conduct training, purchase materials, etc that your protestors, pollsters and film crews will need. It may behoove you to apply for government grants (of course, if you experience any discrimination in securing that funding, consider a protest using any techniques well-evidenced to be effective).

    4) Conduct the experiment. Based on how large your N needs are, and the availability of resources, this may take months or years.

    5) Publish your results. Write a blog post summarizing how effective the technique was. Revel in the full satisfaction that comes with knowing that you now have provided skeptics such as Nepethne with all the evidence they needs, such that if they should ever decide to actually support your cause, thye can do so knowing that they’re using techniques with solid evidence of efficacy.

    Speaking for myself, I’m finding the advice that you’ve given, based on extesnive experience, to be invaluable. Thanks, and good luck with your upcoming career-like devotion to convincing those like Nepethne that you actually know what you’re talking about. Who knows, you do this thing right, and 5 or 10 years from now, you may actually see someone like Nepethne join a pro-choice protest that happens to be in his neighborhood at a convenient hour for him to give up an hour of his day.

  16. says

    Nepenthe is not male-identified. I believe xe is female-identified, but wouldn’t want to misgender hir.

    Personally, I’m just glad that I’m not the only one who views street protest, when done effectively, as a form of theater. I joined a marching brass band for a while whose explicit aim was to provide a fun, energetic, LOUD support to political protesters, and since the formation of the band coincided with OWS, we ended up doing a lot of that, but also marched and played in support of the local SlutWalk, workers’ rights, immigration rights, and more. Effective protesting is attention-grabbing and confrontational, but also festive. IMHO. I know that for me, going to a protest means having a bit of fun in addition to perhaps getting confronted by unpleasant folks, and the festiveness and the celebration really helps counterbalance that potential for unpleasantness. I really like the idea of the circle dances.

  17. debbaasseerr says

    Oh hay look, reply #19 missed this part of the post:

    “Keyboard Warrior Warning: Cut the shit, Sonny. I don’t have time for another three days of your dudebro-ing. This post is about actual activism. In fact, I don’t think anyone does, and that rather generously includes you too.”

    Does he think grassroots activism is a kind of medical research? Placebo protest?

  18. kevinkirkpatrick says

    Thank you Sally for pointing that out. Nepenthe, I apologize for making an ignorant assumption about your gender. That is a habit I’ve long been trying to break.

    Debbaasseerr, (and others) I apologize for not adding tags around my post (meta-question, what does it say about dude-broing that even my placebo-protest and IRB references left the point in a grey enough area as to fall victim to Poe’s Law). Anyway, please consider rereading it as it wasa intended: as a parody of the position that Nepenthe has been expressing (and again, please accept my apology for wasting your time on writing a counter to it).

    HaifischGeweint, I apologize if #19, as an honest effort to mock what struck me as dudebro/JAQing off, did itself constitute a form of dudebro’ing. I won’t derail further, and thanks again for the great articles.

  19. says

    Great post!

    These techniques come down to manipulating the normal tribalistic tendencies that we humans have for political benefit. These are morally neutral instincts and can be expressed badly or not.
    A cognitive handicap of religious fundamentalists and knee-jerk conservatives (using the definition to just say “resisting change”) of all stripes is that they don’t tend to accept the most recent, science and the brain science that I read is pretty consistent with what HaifischGeweint is describing. They are so used to their insular communities that they don’t know haw to deal with real difference among other humans.

    1. Differential Appearances
    Standing out against the norms of the group you are opposing is precisely how you create the visual and cultural dichotomy for anyone viewing the action. This is much more critical when your group is smaller, though I wonder how the effect scales? Have you thought much about what kinds of things create a desired impression in the general public vs. reporters. vs. authorities…?

    2. Further On Appearances: Identity-Ambiguity And Identity Concealment
    From a general perspective the value of this is to make you more of a force in the mind of your opposition and the public than a collection of individuals. That makes the whole thing focused on the issue more than the personalities if done right. It really bothers some people when they can’t figure out who you are (that is one reason why some people get obsessed with the identities of people they disagree with online. If the can’t win on arguments they will want to attack your person or reputation in some way). A moving group of people that can be individually identified? Not only can that be used for purposes of being memorable in a specific way, but think about fish in schools and law enforcement as a predator. It might make you harder to catch as a group as well as the authorities spend more critical moments choosing an individual to go after.

    Aside from all of that there is of course the issue of hiding your identity when you don’t want authorities to know for reasons both legitimate and non.

    3. Picking Your Battles
    This is the most important reason for the post on philosophy dudebros in my mind. If it does not work as a strategy (you are really supporting a persons right to bodily autonomy right?), you stop doing it. You have to think beyond that short term emotional thrill that you might get from arguing with someone and focus on the goal. If you just showed up to argue, you get the anger from the counter-protestors that you deserve.
    This is very cultural as well and tactics should be collected and compared among people as far as what was effective and what was not for countries, states, regions, cities… like it or not we are not simple and the simple-mindedness of some people who want to create change can get frustrating.

    I like that silence example. I need to remember to use that first if I get into anything active and use the time to judge what I should do. The way it made the other side go bonkers can’t look good for cameras and passers by.

    4. Further On Battle-Picking: Clustering And Collective Decompressing
    This one confused me a bit. I get Decompressing. The group is essentially winding down emotionally, socializing and thinking about the experience.
    So clustering is just your group choices on arrangement while the protest is going on? I imagine that is very sensitive to local laws, but the advantage of diluting the visibility of the other group would be wonderful.

    But you made clustering sound much more dynamic than so I was wondering if you could say more about how it works in practice? I sounded very intuitive about how the decisions and actions were made with respect to experienced and inexperienced protestors.

    5. Actively Engaging In Anti-Colonial Resistance
    I see this in more general terms as breaking any social norms that keep an undesired, more dominant social structure in place. The examples you gave all had to do with people who are normally sealed into socially isolated communities getting lessons in just how different other people can be. So many people just assume that what they are used to is what all people are like. This “norm-expectation breaking” is something I would like to read more about. Do you have any examples?

    Thanks for writing this!

    I really don’t know what to say except that you are not even trying to understand from my perspective. There are plenty of areas in the post where she (pronoun?) specifically says what kinds of reactions each kind of technique tends to get. You can disagree with the techniques, but that requires specifically quoting them from the piece and explaining yourself. All I can do is summon my teacher skills and say, stop being lazy and actually read for comprehension. Like it or not that is an ability that does not come naturally to human beings and has to be grown in the brain through effort and training. I can provide citations if you wish and hopefully you are younger because that is a harder skill to work on if you are older.

  20. debbaasseerr says

    damn Damn DAMN! Trolled so hard I’ll be shitting hooks. Sorry kevinkirkpatrick – I was so eager to join in and score points, I failed step two of the “read – comprehend – post” procedure.

  21. says

    Clustering really is a dynamic phenomenon. First of all, there needs to actually be enough people for a cluster to form, and secondly, they seem to form and disperse again pretty spontaneously. I focused in the article on when clustering happens around pro-lifers who are demonstrating.

    Sometimes a plant or actual passerby will walk up and engage someone who is physically isolated from the group, for instance. That margin of isolation may only be a couple of feet, but it’s a huge vulnerability in any street protest of more than about 3 people. More on where that number comes from momentarily. Someone like myself may observe that one individual being physically isolated from the rest of the group by that plant/passerby, and walk over to them to make sure they are safe. Especially when said plant/passerby makes sure the isolated individual can’t make eye contact with anyone else, by standing with their back turned to the rest of the protest while they attempt to engage them. When other people see someone like myself walk over there and not immediately walk away, they come too. Now we’re clustering. This may be intimidating to a plant/passerby, and it may result in that person walking away (let’s call this Clustering Situation 1). It has occasionally resulted in that person’s hostility spontaneously emerging in a very disruptive outburst, and THEN walking away (let’s call this Clustering Situation 2). It may also result in that person trying rather desperately or persistently to defend whatever it is they were doing (let’s call this Clustering Situation 3).

    Clustering Situation 1 tends to happen when there are 3 or more people in a street protest, and everyone seems to be in good spirits. I remember many occasions when multiple pro-choice protesters were in partial or complete clown costumes, and a legit passerby who had an opinion and just needed for whatever reason to hurl it at an isolated picketer appeared on the scene of the demonstration. As soon as a cluster started to form, that person lost interest.

    Cluster Situation 2 tends to happen when there are at least a dozen people in a street protest, and people are in a state of mixed spirits (which can actually be a product of unchecked privilege among people on the “same side”, but can also be a product of just one person not knowing which battle is worth choosing that day). On several dozens of occasions, a plant/passerby appears with the express intent of baiting a vulnerable picketer into an altercation, and a shouting match erupts very quickly. The entire demonstration responds by clustering pretty much instantly, and some of us used noisemakers on at least a couple of occasions to fight back against all the yelling and shouting without contributing to the yelling and shouting ourselves. These are the incidents in which I and other demonstrators have been spat on, verbally gay-bashed, verbally trans-bashed, accosted by pro-lifers, and threatened with serious bodily harm. I’ve personally had to call 9-1-1 twice in relation to incidents like these.

    Cluster Situation 3 tends to happen when there are 3 or more people in a street protest, and people are of mixed needs in relation to an issue such as having their pictures repeatedly taken by a stranger without being asked first. Though the camera guy pretty much becomes swarmed in a matter of minutes, he will often engage in a disingenuous debate about what he’s doing instead of walking away. One such camera guy was a well-reputed individual who has published open letters calling for lynch mobs (his words, not mine) to go after all pro-choicers to stop “mass murder” (see also: irony) — this man has also cracked a man’s skull, repeatedly assaulted abortion clinic staff, battered community volunteers who were escorting women in and out of the clinic before bubble zone laws, and I personally know two people who were being systematically harassed by him in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

    Basically, clustering can be as much about group safety as it is a learning and teaching exchange, but most of the time, it precipitates when a lone woman starts becoming visibly upset by arguing with a pro-lifer.

    And about where that number 3 comes from: it’s absolutely remarkable that I get no trouble at all when it’s me plus one other person, but I’ve been stalked when I’ve shown up alone, and all the other trouble I’ve experienced has precipitated when there were at least 3 people present — but especially so when one of those 3 has their own ideas about what they are supposed to be doing there and how to do it.

    Let me know if that helps radically expand any understanding, or if that just made it a hella lot more complicated.

  22. says

    In regards to the “norm-expectation breaking”, I write a lot on my personal blog about decolonizing my thought processes and politics. In fact, I’ve set up an entire page about decolonization from a white person’s perspective, a link to which appears at the top of every page on the site.

    It helps to understand where those norms come from, and as a general rule, I feel comfortable saying it’s a colonial mindset. That insight also helps how to “break” them without simply inverting these power structures (a superficial gesture that can actually reinforce what you’re trying to “break”).

    Here’s an example I wrote recently, in which I revisit a piece of writing I wrote last year about a phenomenon known as “white guilt” — — though I don’t know how exactly relevant it is to this particular issue, except to say that it can be useful to begin to understand why a deeper analysis is more powerful over the long-term.

    Again, let me know if that just complicates everything, or if it’s helping.

  23. smrnda says

    I spent some time doing psychology research, so I know that the evidence that something works requires controlled experiments and observations and a lot of other things. However, in life we don’t always have that option. Let’s take military tactics. We don’t have the ability to ‘test’ strategies of war the way we might ‘test’ what study techniques result in higher rates of recall. You have to go through history and find examples and learn from them, as best as possible, and try to abstract lessons for what works.

    I see protests the same way – we don’t have the option to do these types of controlled experiments, so we have to go with what works from our own experiences.

    Now, I *could* set up all the types of controlled experiments that were suggested by kevinkikrpatrick, and then everybody would point out that my controlled studies don’t match reality. And the proposed studies are infeasible.

    So what, do we decide we can never know anything, or just go with what we observe?

  24. says

    kevinkirkpatrick, thank you for not only having the spoons to explain what was wrong, but for doing so in such an awesome and blatant way.

    because, seriously, I’ve had it up to here with the demands that we talk to the hate groups in hopes of convincing one or two people from the hate group, rather than just pointing out that the hate group is a hate group.

  25. Holms says

    Brandon and especially Nepenthe, it is hard to muster the motivation to reply to your shit. Suffice to say that you are engaging in precisely the philosophy dudebro intellectual wank outlined in Jaime’s previous post. My suggestion is that you read that before commenting here again.

    Brandon, I hope you step back from your insistence that every social situation involving people or causes of a secular nature must always (and any thread written about such) must exclude all religious people or ideas. This post is particularly concerned with real world protest methods, and takes it as granted that there are people of different philosophies arguing for the same goals.

    Nepenthe, I hold little hope for you at all.

  26. says

    These “Pit-stereotype” posters are tricky. It’s hard to figure out what kind of background they are coming from so you can respond to them best. I find it most useful to pay attention to what they avoid addressing in each post or comment that they respond to. They may in fact be dishonest and malevolent individuals, or they might be limited by their own life experience.

    I see most arguments as working like the martial art “Grappling”. There are real world objects that both people want to control, and both parties have their own sets of meanings associated with those objects. If you are lucky you find someone willing to trade symbols with you so that both individuals at least understand what they other person really believes. But too often you find people who take a combat stance with their text. Then it’s time to use textual equivalents of joint-locks, redirects, strikes, fake-outs and more.

    Are they simple limited by their life-experience and social position? Or are they actually really bad people? They will try to shove their meanings and symbols over yours while trying to draw attention from the fact that they don’t really get around to addressing anything you said in a substantive way. They misrepresent the objects with facsimiles of reality counting on the fact that few will read a link, and the fact that many others will speak up on their side. Logical fallacies exist for a reason, I call it “primate chess”.


    Thanks! That really gives me a better perspective on the kind of social reality that these kinds of protests look like. I have a good idea about why you need to treat different stereotyped situations in different fashion to make sure everything gives you maximum safety and advantage. Clustering makes much more sense. I am always interested in these kinds of social reality since there are a lot of situations that I avoid because I have impulse control issues. I have not really trusted myself with a protest yet.

    As far as your second link is concerned I will let you know. I am always interested in any little way to dismantle shared concepts of a more dominant picture of reality. I’m a person with Tourette Syndrome and I have spent the last several years obsessed with teaching myself neurobiology as best as I can while I read up on everything I can related to TS and associated brain structures and functions. I’ve ended up seeing how lots of common problems like ADHD, TS, autism, schizophrenia, OCD and other things are like stereotyped ends on normal human behavioral spectra. I’m in the middle of my own system of dismantling what I thought I knew about reality and society. These kinds of stories are very valuable to me.


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