Protests are a frequently used intervention in animal advocacy. We estimate that between 40 and 80 animal advocacy protests occur each week in the U.S. alone. Despite their prevalence, the purpose and effects of protests are poorly understood. One common misconception is that protests are intended to change public opinion; in fact, organizers often report that protests are intended to disrupt existing states of affairs in order to spur more systemic change.
Evaluating the effectiveness of protesting as an animal advocacy intervention is a complicated task, particularly because protests vary widely in implementation and context. Our report focuses on paradigmatic gatherings of activists that are disruptive1 and nonviolent, but even these comprise a heterogeneous group. Because there is little empirical research on the effects of protests in animal advocacy, we draw from research on the effects of protests in other social movements. Our conclusions are inevitably uncertain, as questions remain about whether or to what extent evidence from other social movements generalizes to the animal advocacy context.
Overall, we would like to see the animal advocacy movement invest slightly more heavily in protests. Protests currently receive a tiny portion of the movement’s resources and, given the limited evidence we do have, it’s plausible they are at least as cost-effective as interventions that receive much more of the movement’s resources, such as leafleting. Moreover, we think that the use of protests contributes to the diversity of tactics in the movement, which can help attract a greater number and variety of activists to the cause and thereby increase our chances of success.
In part because protesters employ a wide range of strategies, some protests are likely more effective than others. Of course, we believe that more resources should be devoted to more effective protests and fewer resources should be devoted to less effective protests. We have some uncertainty regarding which kinds of protests are most effective, but we do provide some provisional, evidence-based advice for organizing effective protests. For example:
- Take a compassionate, rather than a shaming tone at protests, and target institutions rather than individuals
- Contact the press to notify them of the protest and follow up with them afterwards
- Consider using protests in conjunction with other interventions, such as petitions, phone calls, leafleting, and email campaigns
- Consider organizing a series of protests, since protests and other activist challenges to corporations are likely more successful when repeated (both within a given campaign and in subsequent campaigns) at the same corporation
- Because some types of protests can pose a higher risk for protesters who have marginalized identities, organizers should:
- Understand and communicate the risks of protests to all activists
- Consider recruiting protesters with relatively privileged identities to engage in riskier activities
- Ensure that there are safe ways for activists to participate if they can’t or don’t want to attend a protest
Much of our general advice about supporting other movements is highly relevant for protesters. (For example: “Do not advocate for your issue in ways that are racist, sexist, heterosexist, cissexist, sizeist, ableist, ageist, classist, etc.”)
Our 2018 protest intervention report is guided by our recently updated intervention evaluation process, which provides a new framework for using multiple sources of evidence to evaluate an intervention’s effectiveness. The report includes, among other things:
- A rough estimate of the numbers and costs of animal advocacy protests in the U.S.
- A theory of change for protests, supported by a literature search
- A discussion of various questions that have a bearing on the effectiveness of protests in different contexts
- A case study analysis of The Humane League’s use of protests
- Conversations with various activists and organizers who have experience with protests
- A discussion of the variation of protest effectiveness in different contexts, with evidence-based tips for using protests effectively
We encourage readers to refer to the full report for a fuller explanation of ACE’s current views and reasoning about the effectiveness of animal advocacy protests.