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What Makes a Successful Protest?

From throwing soup on van Gogh to trucking a convoy to Ottawa, there’s a difference between loud and effective activism.

Jacob Boon 20 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

Jacob Boon is The Tyee’s newsletter editor.

Protests don’t have to win the hearts and minds of the masses to be worthwhile — but they probably should have a better target than Vincent van Gogh.

Two cans of tomato soup were thrown at van Gogh’s Sunflowers last week by activists who then glued their hands to the wall of London’s National Gallery. It wasn’t a statement about post-impressionism versus Warhol’s pop art. This was — somehow — a climate change protest.

“What is worth more? Art or life?” one of the activists with the group Just Stop Oil shouted during the protest. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

Sunflowers, painted in 1888 and valued around US$80 million, wasn’t harmed thanks to a protective covering.

It’s not the only shock tactic used by climate activists. Over the past several months protesters have glued themselves to a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in London, Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera in Florence and Picasso’s Massacre in Korea in Melbourne. Just Stop Oil recently blocked traffic in the middle of London after 20 activists glued themselves to the pavement of a major roundabout during rush hour.

None of those efforts drew anywhere near the online attention that came from an action that cost $1.78 worth of soup and a couple of museum tickets.

It only took a few hours for the soup stunt to race across the internet. Videos of the splash racked up millions of views, the story was at the top of Reddit, and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic (and both sides of the political compass) were publishing widely shared hot takes — virtually all of them condemning the activists.

The Sunflowers stunt was meant to coincide with a new round of oil and gas licensing, the first for the United Kingdom since 2019, which is intended to lessen U.K. dependency on Russian oil. Some said it was also in protest of the National Gallery receiving funds from British Petroleum, though that financial partnership was already set to end.

According to the Guardian, a Just Stop Oil spokesperson at the scene told reporters that alienating potential supporters was a concern, but worth the risk.

“We are not trying to make friends here,” said Alex De Koning. “We are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.”

Is it though?

Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies protests, told the Washington Post that the soup stunt could just as easily turn support away from the climate movement.

“Research shows that this kind of tactic doesn’t work to change minds and hearts,” she said. “It’s working to get attention… But to what end?”

In Canada, direct action meant to shock the public or disrupt everyday activities has a long history in activism. Pipeline blockades regularly bring up a debate about “appropriate” forms of protest, but at least also have the practical impact of slowing down pipeline construction.

Meanwhile, Save Old Growth spent 20 years blocking highways and roads in B.C., to the ire of motorists. The organization announced earlier this year that it was moving away from highway disruptions. More recently, a group of eco-avengers called the Tyre Extinguishers have been letting the air out of SUV tires to try and ban gas guzzlers in urban areas.

Annoying? Sure. But convincing others isn’t the only goal that matters. As L.A. Kauffman, journalist and author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism points out, activists often aren’t trying to gain popular approval — just attention.

The unfortunate truth is that the public can get accustomed to certain forms of “polite” protest, such as marches. In turn, media outlets become less interested in covering those events.

Peaceful protests don’t always win people over, either. From the Iraq War to Occupy Wall Street, one doesn’t have to look too hard for examples of protests that failed, even with the support of millions.

Likewise, a small protest with a questionable goal can still be effective, so long as it’s loud (and white) enough. Just look at the so-called “freedom” convoy.

A few hundred protesters overran Ottawa with obnoxious behaviour, conspiracy theories and white supremacy symbols, making outlandish demands aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government.

Yes, the prime minister eventually responded by invoking the Emergencies Act. But Canada has also spent the past several months removing virtually all of its COVID restrictions, despite the pandemic being nowhere near over.

The fact is, political scientists and community organizers have spent decades trying to figure out what makes a protest land and what makes it sink like a tin soup can. The secret recipe is still elusive, owing as much to external factors like media coverage as to the actual event itself. For the truckers’ convoy, it certainly didn’t hurt that the protesters were overwhelmingly middle-class white folks whose goals aligned with those of most major corporations.

Just Stop Oil’s soup dousing was loud enough to be heard all over the internet, but it still failed — because theatrics need to be coupled with a clarity of mission. This was an activism non-sequitur, all sound and fury signifying… something?

The stunt quickly birthed a conspiracy theory that Just Stop Oil is being funded by fossil fuel interests to paint climate activists as inherently absurd. Suffice to say, if the people who are supposed to be on your side reach the conclusion that you're a false flag, your protest didn’t have the impact you were hoping for.

“I recognize that it looks like a slightly ridiculous action,” Phoebe Plummer, one of the soup throwers, said upon being released. “I agree it is ridiculous, but we're not asking the question, ‘Should everybody be throwing soup on paintings?’ What we're doing is getting the conversation going so that we can ask the questions that matter.”

A noble effort, but right now everyone’s still talking about soup instead of oil.  [Tyee]

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