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How To Protest Effectively

Jun 22, 2013
Originally published on June 22, 2013 4:18 pm
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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

From Brazil to the streets of Bulgaria; from Istanbul's Taksim Square to the boulevards of Paris - these recent protests come from a long line of demonstrations throughout history.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We shall overcome one day...

LYDEN: That's the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" sung at the start of the unrest in the 1960s in Northern Ireland. Protests are both old and new, which got us thinking, what makes an effective modern protest? How does it start? How does it adapt?

So we talked to Bibi van der Zee. She's a writer for The Guardian and author of "Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor's Handbook." She reminded us that Britain has a long tradition of colorful protest.

BIBI VAN DER ZEE: A very small protest can be very important. Some of the most terrifying and electrifying moments in the suffrage movement, for example, when Emily Davison ran underneath the king's horse at the race course and was killed. That's one person's protest, but it becomes something that generates a gigantic response.

LYDEN: An American example that comes to mind would be the lunch counter protests, which were quite small.

ZEE: Rosa Parks. You know, quieter from where you have a single person at the core that, you know, generates a spark. The fire has already been set.

LYDEN: It's a model we've seen throughout the 20th century - popular passions harnessed and amplified by dynamic leaders whose names become synonymous with entire movements: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. But other protests against the war in Iraq, Occupy Wall Street and the demonstrations this week across Brazil emerge without their own figureheads. We asked van der Zee if a movement needs a leader to be successful.

ZEE: It's not that you need a leader, but you do need a strategist. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both extraordinary strategists.

LYDEN: She says that what made them remarkable was their ability to use small and focused protests to gain traction for a broader movement. There are endless strategies protesters can use to bring attention to their cause. The demonstrations in Taksim Square are a perfect example, she says.

ZEE: One of the tactics they've used has been a standing protest where one man began standing and staring at the flags and just staying in place for a long period of time. And other protesters around him have started to imitate that. And something like the standing protest is brilliant because they can't use violence against that because they're immediately putting themselves on a morally inferior position. And this is actually extremely important in protests because the protesters then gain support.

LYDEN: Innovative tactics, check; widespread passion, check. But there's also something else in the Istanbul protester's tool kit: humor.

ZEE: They've taken quite a jokey approach. The president called them looters, and they've doctored this as one of their names. They now call themselves the looters. And there was one sign apparently saying: Enough, I'm calling the police, which I liked very much.

LYDEN: But choreographed scenes or spontaneous actions, grand plan or no plan, on the presence of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones has meant that more and more people are seeing scenes from these embattled streets. Those tweets and videos maintain the visibility of the issues, and Van der Zee says that's what keeps protests, like those in Istanbul, alive.

ZEE: One of the things about ideas like the standing protest is that that provides new food for the press, because the press will keep it going. So if the press loses interest and starts to go away, quite often, the protest does as well.

LYDEN: Bibi van der Zee is the author of "Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor's Handbook." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.