When emptying the streets is safer than filling them

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.
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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 Nonviolence highlighted 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 news alone, 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 #WeWantWitnesses hashtag 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.

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence


We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

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