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Why Protests Work and How to Use Them to Win The Transportation Outcomes You Want

An advocacy trainer explores you should take to the streets for better streets — and how to do it right.

Photo: TransitAlliance Miami|

Miami residents protest the unsafe conditions on Biscayne Boulevard.

From the autumn of 2021 to the end of 2022, I helped organize, promote, and lead over 20 protests across California. The events ranged from a few thousand people flooding the areas around government buildings to a few dozen people protesting outside a strategic location. It was a very busy year, and the protests were a powerful tool for shaping political outcomes and focusing the attention of decision makers, media, and the public. 

on the stage at the big “Stop the Solar” tax rally in SF in January ‘22 before we marched to the CPUC building.Photo: Carter Lavin

Though protests are one of the most visible parts of activism, the mountain of work that goes into them and the impacts they have are often overlooked or misunderstood by the general public. Let’s take a look at why protests work, what makes a good protest, and how you can use them to win the transit, bike or other changes you want in your community. 

Why protests work

Protests send a signal to elected officials that:

1) People care about the issue 

2) People care so much about the issue that they are taking time out of their regular lives to do something about it

3) The organizers of the protest can mobilize voters to impact elections and are willing to flex that power

In short, a good protest flexes political muscle and shows the target that the protesters are worth appeasing.

At the same time, the messaging of the protest and at the protest itself demonstrates the demands of the movement, injecting their message into the public discourse. It shifts what the public and media are talking about and the “Overton window” of what is considered possible and/or reasonable.

When it comes to transportation issues, you might feel that your community doesn't care about improving transit or bike safety. But if you get people to show up for a pointed protest demanding that your local elected officials step up their support for transit or bike infrastructure, you will shift the collective conversation and make the issue a higher priority for the elected officials. You probably won't make it their highest priority, but your protest will push your issue higher up on their to-do list.

Another nice power of a good protest is that it acts as a bit of a pep rally helping participants build community, strengthening their sense of identity around the issue, and giving them an opportunity to deepen their engagement.  

What makes a good protest

A good protest consists of a few ingredients:

  1. A specific demand. What do you want? What is the thing that if you had it already you would have stayed home in the first place? The demand you have should be something specific and actionable. It doesn't have to be super detailed; something like "more funding for transit" or "safe bike routes to schools" is enough.
  2. A relevant target. Who or what has the power to make your demand a reality? That's your target. The more pointed the demand and target are, the better your protest is. If your protest has a wide range of demands and lots of targets, then you will need to have a pretty big protest for it to work. 
  3. A compelling and coherent story. Protests should tell an interesting story through the combination of their timing, location, targets, demands, participants and the activity of the protest. Your protest should have a clear answer to the questions of "what are you doing", "why are you doing it there", "why are you doing it then", and "why are YOU the one doing it." So, if you wanted to organize a protest demanding the city build bus islands, a simple thing to do would be to have it be a petition delivery (what) to the Mayor (target) at City Hall (where) before some relevant vote (why then), and the petition is delivered by you and various petition signers (why you). As long as most of the story is really compelling, it is ok if one aspect is a little less strong. For example, sometimes it can be hard to make your protest timely – but if you have a lot of people doing it or have a really interesting hook then you create the timely-ness yourself. Or if you can’t get a lot of people to protest, your protest can still be compelling if you get an interesting coalition of people there or if the location or timing is special. 
  4. Visibility for outsiders. If a protest happens in the woods but no one is there to report on it, did it make a sound? Most people in your community won't see your protest as it happens so you need to make sure they hear about it after the fact. Invite the media to come out, take lots of photos and potentially stream your protest on social media so that your action reverberates! If you can't get media to attend, send them the photos, videos, story and quotes afterwards and you might still get a write up. Also, make sure to tell your networks about how the protest went. 

How to make protests fit into your campaign for transportation changes

Protests are a tool, and like every other tool you have as an activist, it is most effective when used in concert with other tools as part of an overarching campaign strategy. Protests (almost always) don’t just happen. They are the visible mushrooms popping up from the network of underground mycelium that is your campaigning and organizing. They are not the beginning or the end of your campaign, but rather an accent point along the way. Take the bus island petition delivery protest example I mentioned earlier: protest isn’t the start of the end of that campaign. It is the culmination of one era of the campaign, in this case the creation and circulation of the petition. 

Here’s an example of where a protest can fit into your campaign; please bear with me since you might have to stretch your imagination for this.

Imagine you want better bus service in your community, that you are not a leader of an existing pro-transit group, and that you have never launched or led a campaign for improving transit in your community before. Still with me? Ok, here’s where a protest would fit in:

Step 1) You need to articulate your vision & demand (“bus islands on Main Street”) 

Step 2) Create something where others can demonstrate their support of your demand (the petition and/or coalition letter demanding bus islands on Main Street)

Step 3) Get a bunch of other people on board (get people to sign the petition!)

Step 4) Now you have a bunch of people to invite to a protest, organize a protest where you deliver the petition signatures and/or coalition letter to the decision maker. Do a bunch of community outreach and media promotion before and after.

Step 5) If you’ve got time before the final vote, keep campaigning! Otherwise, see how the vote goes and depending on if you won or lost do some follow up.

While “petition delivery event” is a fairly standard type of protest, there are any number of other kinds of protests that could be useful in your campaign and each one comes with its own unique requirements and flavor. Depending on what you’re fighting for, you could do a media stunt at the location you want to fix as a way of generating attention, or some street theater, or a sit-in, or a die-in, or a traffic blockade – there are LOTS of options out there and maybe you can invent something new!

Whatever you do, make your protest tell a compelling story that reinforces and expands on what you're trying to do, and you'll get a lot more from it.

This article originally appeared on CarterLavin.com and is republished with permission.

Carter Lavin is a climate activist in Oakland, California who helps organizations and individuals build political power, hone strategy, and win campaigns on the local, regional, and state level.

On 11/8 @ 5:30pm PT, join him for a free online training: “A beginner's guide to getting better bus service in your community." Learn more and register here.

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