Activist Strategies and Tactics

What is Activism?

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” — Alice Walker

Activism is quite simply taking action to effect social, political, economic, or environmental change. This can occur in a many of ways and can take a variety of forms. It can be done by individuals, but is often done collectively through social movements.

Who is an Activist?

Everyone can be an activist. Anyone can take action to effect change, even if they don’t call themselves “activists”.  Activism is not about identifying as an activist; it’s about doing activism; it’s about working to to make the world better.

Three Strategies

“Strategy” refers to the big picture goals, whereas “tactics” refers to the nuts and bolts decisions to achieve the strategic goals. There are three basic activist strategies. Much of the confusion and conflict among activists arises from disagreement over strategy. Sometimes the strategies can overlap, and activist groups can employ multiple strategies at the same time, working on multiple “levels” at once.

1. Reform

One activist strategy is to demand solutions to contemporary problems through the taking of oppositional stances to mainstream policies. Reformist strategies are demand-driven, with the aim often being a change in leadership or a change in existing law or policy.

2. Transformation

The second activist strategy is the creation of alternatives to the dominant system through the construction of new, alternative ways of life. Transformative strategies are often concerned with alternative ways of living and new ways of meeting people’s basic needs, such as food, housing, and education.

3. Revolution

“It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967)

“The God of our fathers is a God of revolution.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christian Movement in a Revolutionary Age” (1965)

The third activist strategy is a fundamental change of society and its major institutions. Revolutionary strategies seek to fundamentally change the dominant system or way of life.

Three Tactics

Marchers make their way across Central Park South during the People’s Climate March on September 21 2014, in New York before the United Nations climate change summit

Once again, “tactics” refers to the nuts and bolts decisions to achieve the strategic goals. Below are three common activist tactics. There are others, like education and organizing.

These tactics may be used separately or in conjection with one another. Strategy should dictated tactics. But any of these tactics may be used to achieve any of the strategic goals above.

1. Public Demonstrations

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand.” — Frederick Douglass (1857)

“Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.” — Barbara Ehrenreich

Public demonstrations include protests, rallies, and marches. They are Constitutionally-protected forms of expression. Demonstrations bypass institutional forms of communication, such as voting. Public demonstrations may be legal (i.e., non-violent, permit issued) or illegal (violent, no permit).

Generally, the goal of demonstrations is to influence a public official, to raise public awareness, or simply to express opposition or support for a public person or policy. Critics are wrong to say that symbolic action like marches doesn’t accomplish anything. Even when such actions don’t achieve concrete goals in the short term, marching and protesting raises awareness, focuses energy, and fosters solidarity.

May Boeve, 350.org director, arrested outside the White House in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline

2. Civil Disobedience

“The defiance of established authority, religious and secular, social and political, as a world-wide phenomenon may well one day be accounted the outstanding event of the last decade.” — Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience” (1969)

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Civil disobedience occurs when a person intentionally breaks a law to place themselves in an “arrestable” situation.  The purpose of civil disobedience is to make a symbolic statement.  The form civil disobedience takes may have only an indirect connection or even no connection to the issue being protested, such as when activists block traffic to protest racial injustice. Civil disobedience relies upon state actors, like police and courts, to work.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. explained, the purpose of sit ins, marches and so forth is “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, blocking access to a gas pump at an ExxonMobil station

3. Direct Action

Direct Action is a narrow term that is often overapplied. Most protests, rallies, and marches are not forms of direct action. As the term implies, direct action involves attempting to achieve a goal through direct, rather than indirect or symbolic action. Examples direct action include strikes, blockades, and boycotts. A recent notable example is that of the “Valve Turners”, five activists who together shut down 15% of the oil flowing into the U.S. in one day.

Direct action is distinquishable from civil disobedience, though both may lead to arrest. Like civil dispobedience, direct action may help raise public awareness, but that is not the primary goal of the action. Unlike civil disobedience, the goal of direct action isn’t to get arrested, although that may happen. Unlike civil disobedience, direct action seeks to circumvent state actors.

Anyone can participate in direct action.  But those who enjoy certain privileges, like being able-bodied and being able to afford a legal defense, should consider that direct action as one of the ways they can use their privileges to effect change.

Non-Violence

“Non-violent resistance implies the very opposite of weakness. Defiance combined with non-retaliatory acceptance of repression from one’s opponents is active, not passive. It requires strength.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Any of the tactics above may be either violent or nonviolent.  350.org is is committed to nonviolent tactics. That means we do not intentionally cause physical harm to others and we do not engage in property damage.