Zach Groff was1 an organizer with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). He spoke with ACE Researcher Toni Adleberg on February 15, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
What can protests accomplish?
Protests are, unfortunately, a “black box;” although most Researchers seem to agree that they can play a major role in effecting social change, the mechanisms by which they create change are unclear. Given the complexity of the social sciences, this ambiguity is not surprising.
Despite the lack of specifics, there are four major effects that protests can achieve.
The first is that protests can result in a spillover effect, in which people are mobilized to go out and speak with friends, family members, and co-workers about the protest, which can bring in more members to a movement and generate more interest in a cause. A joint study conducted in 2011 by Harvard University and Stockholm University examined the impact of political protests held by the Tea Party movement, and demonstrated that a major source of social impact from these protests was the motivation of protesters to become more politically active and to encourage others to become so as well.
Furthermore, Professor Erica Chenoweth, in her book Why Civil Resistance Works, writes that a major effect of protest movements is that they can result in “elite defections,” which occur when someone within a target institution joins a cause. As more people continue to join a movement, it becomes exceedingly likely that a member of an institution—such as a farm or a city council—might be encouraged to join by a member they know. This can then function to weaken an institution or to change it from within.
The second is that protests can have multiple impacts on institutions. Certain protests, such as worker strikes, can be disruptive enough that employers simply have to concede to the demands of the strikers in order to avoid further economic losses and other disruptions. In regards to a political institution, protests can act to incite voters against the institution or certain members within it. They could exhibit preferences held by the voting public that were previously unknown to or ignored by the government. A paper written by the Italian sociologist Mario Diani supports this idea; he found that protests can mediate public support.
Additionally, politicians or other members of institutions might just be irrational—conceding to the protesters because they are uncomfortable with the destruction of the protests, even if this destruction does not actually threaten their own material interests. The Austrian activist Martin Balluch has said that protests are effective because they create chaos; because politicians cannot have chaos, they work to resolve whatever conflict caused the protest.
The third is that protests can work to grab people’s attention. Although an individual may not be persuaded to join the movement in the moment, protests can act to generate conversations on more effective, person-to-person levels, which can encourage individuals to change their minds.
Shifting social norms
Another possible mechanism by which protests work is by shifting social norms. When observers witness a large group of protesters who both (i) endorse a certain position and (ii) disapprove of the alternative position, the observers may be influenced toward the protesters’ positions by both the desire to conform and the desire to avoid social sanctions.
What are the features of successful protests?
There is a great deal of evidence that indicates that violent protests are not effective. Chenoweth’s book, for example, highlights the effectiveness of nonviolent movements and suggests a causal relationship between nonviolence and success. In addition, two instrumental variable studies, one conducted on urban riots in the 1960s by Professor Omar Wasow, and the other conducted on protests in France by Professor Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, found that violent protests led to less policy success than nonviolent protests.
The use of violence can delegitimize a movement. The violence that took place in February during the protests at the University of California, Berkeley over the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos was given a great deal of media attention, and can be contrasted with the peaceful Women’s March that had taken place just a few days earlier.
The Occupy Wall Street movement that took place in Oakland originally had a very large impact and had many members; however, when these protesters burned the American flag, it largely destroyed the movement. Their actions were perceived by some to be an act of violence; any form of property damage is often perceived as such. Singling out and verbally or otherwise attacking individuals can also hurt a movement by decreasing legitimacy.
Energizing and motivating activists
It is also an indication of the success of a protest when the protesters leave the protest energized and excited for change, rather than exhausted or otherwise disempowered because protests are generally quite removed from their effects. Inspiring activists to return home and begin conversations about the protest with their friends ensures that the movement continues after the protest ends.
Another potential measurement of success is whether or not institutions are being impacted; changes in their policies, mistakes, and other responses can demonstrate whether the protest effectively impacted the institution(s) it sought to change.
Another, often neglected, measure of success is whether or not a protest gained attention. Attention (in particular, media attention) is most effective when it draws attention to the issue being protested, rather than to the protesters themselves.
A given observer may not be persuaded in the moment, but they still could be persuaded later on through conversations that are sparked by the protests. Person-to-person activism—a staple method of animal advocacy—can work to counteract the “backfire effect,” which occurs when individuals become even more ingrained in their own views when countered with new information.
DxE’s Biggest Victories
DxE considers its protests around the Bernie Sanders campaign to be one of its biggest successes. DxE disrupted several campaign rallies. Their protests were controversial within the animal advocacy community, as many animal rights activists favored Sanders over the other Presidential candidates. However, these protests received a response from the campaign and also received a great deal of media attention. Much of this media attention was notable for its intellectually engaged coverage, which highlighted the relationship between progressivism and animals, as well as the senator’s relationship with animal agriculture.
In general, bigger protests tend to be the most effective. Every year in May, DxE hosts a Forum where hundreds of activists come together. During the forum, numerous dramatic public demonstrations are held. These function to both energize participants and grab people’s attention, and other chapters have shown major growth after their organizers returned from the DxE Forum. DxE’s rally inside the Berkeley city council effectively achieved its goals; when the city attorney tried to evict the Animal Rights Center, he was forced to cease his attempts.
In addition, the degree to which DxE has sustained their campaigns—particularly those against Costco and Whole Foods—has also been successful. They have received responses from the organizations; they forced a Costco store to shut down for a day and caused Whole Foods to make changes in their marketing strategies.
Over the past year, DxE has investigated the effects of protests. Based on the existing academic literature, they think that their effects largely emerge by means of movement building and institutional effects.
DxE plans to survey their activists; while their primary focus will be in the Bay Area—where movement growth can happen organically with set structures in place and with a favorable social and political environment—they will also include activists on an international level. DxE is designing and will administer a survey to these groups, which will ask questions about activists’ diets and attitudes, as well as the diets and attitudes of activists’ friends and family. Although this data will not be sufficient for establishing causality, it will provide insight into the positive spillover effects that may occur from activists to their social circles. Groff has experienced such effects himself; much of his immediate family, as well as members of his more distant social circle, have become vegetarian and/or stronger supporters of animal rights as a result of his advocacy.
DxE will begin to conduct this project after completing an ACE-funded study examining the effects of different outreach appeals. These two projects can then be tied together. This could provide insight into more complex relationships; notably, it could show whether certain outreach appeals have larger or smaller motivational effects on viewers—which in turn could affect the influence that these individuals have on their friends and family.2
Do protests provide an avenue for intersectional activism?
Protests can provide a means to connect with various social movements—given that protesting is an intervention employed by many causes—and because anyone can participate in protests. Groff became involved in protests because he wanted to be more involved in animal rights activism, but was typically only provided with the option of leafleting—which is an independent and somewhat lonely intervention. Protesting allows individuals to become more involved in a cause and can also strengthen their identity as a member of a movement.
Protests may not be significantly more inclusive than other kinds of activism. Other interventions, like leafleting, can also cover multiple issues. Protests do often involve people who are interested in intersectionality and radical change, and who frame things more in terms of institutional justice rather than individual choices. It’s possible that intersectionality itself might not be particularly effective; although providing affirmative support to other movements can be beneficial, protests that cover seemingly unconnected issues may be viewed as being sloppy.
Animal Activism in the Current Political Climate
There are various ways in which the recent rise of high-profile demonstrations may affect animal activism. Animal rights protests may be drowned out by the numerous other ongoing protests, and people might move away from animal rights to other causes.
However, today’s political climate also affords animal activists opportunities to tie animal rights issues to other narratives. For example, the removal of animal welfare records from the USDA website provides the opportunity to connect animal rights to the narrative of Trump being oppressive. Groff participates in protests for causes other than animal rights, but brings a sign or some other indicator of his support as an animal activist.
The rise in the number of high-profile protests may also normalize protesting. Although this may undercut protests by making them appear to be less efficient, it may also result in more people becoming willing to protest. Professor Sidney Tarrow wrote about “cycles of contention,” which refers to different protest movements occurring at the same time and shortly after one another. The increase in high-profile demonstrations may also cause more instability in the institutional system as a result of a high number of demonstrations, which in turn would result in a higher likelihood for change within these systems.
Witness Reactions to Protests
There are multiple and varying reactions that witnesses might have to protests. The most frequent reactions are apathy and amazement, followed by anger. At smaller events apathetic reactions are typically more common, while at larger events, reactions such as amazement or anger become more common. Leafleting during protests provides the opportunity for person-to-person interactions, and Groff notes that reactions are often 3:1 in favor of positive reactions. He notes that only about 10% of witnesses display anger.
Common Misconceptions About Protests
There are many misconceptions about protests. One common misconception is that the main focus of a protest is the effects on—and reactions of—witnesses. Although witness reactions are important to take into account, focusing on this aspect can lead to “straw man” arguments. It is important to look at other effects of protests, such as their contribution to policy changes. Additionally, it’s important to note that making protesters popular or making onlookers comfortable is not the purpose of protesting. Many of the arguments against protesting are based in misconceptions, and therefore when further examined they quickly fall apart.