Repertoires of Contention
Every social activist group has a bag of tricks that they draw upon to use in their protests and actions. They may include but are not limited by:
• creation of associations and coalitions
• public meetings
• solemn processions
• petition drives
• statements to and in public media
According to renowned sociologist Charles Tilly, who invented the term repertoires of contention, not only does this repertoire provide an array of possible tactics, it also limits activists, as “people generally turn to familiar routines and innovate within them, even when in principle some unfamiliar form of action would serve their interests much better.”
In other words, activists keep using the same tactics and methods they have always used in the past, even if these methods are ineffective. This concept echoes the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, who suggested that “when faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
So what does this all mean for our movement? According to Nicolas de Zamaróczy, from his seminar Finding Ways to Creatively Dissent: “The key attribute of successful protest movements is that they involve creative and novel protest tactics. In other words, successful activism requires changing the repertoire of contention—the set of actions most individuals in society recognize as protest tactics.” In one of his last published pieces, Dr. King wrote at length about the importance for black protesters to become creative dissenters.
One of the most innovative protests at the Art Gallery in Vancouver was led by local comedian Alexander Lasarev, who conducted a silent march using the slogans from the movie They Live. Words can’t do it justice, so watch it here:
Other forms of protest include setting yourself on fire. This isn’t highly recommended, though it was the catalyst for the Arab Spring in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi wished to make a statement about economic injustice in Tunisia and committed suicide by fire. The ensuing protest resulted in the president stepping down from power after 23 years of dictatorship.
If the majority of the population repeatedly witnesses deeply motivated and self-sacrificing activists engaging in novel forms of protest, they can be persuaded to withdraw their support from the established political class. The general population follows courage, sincerity and deep conviction. If your protest movement is full of egos, in-fighting and selfishness, there is little hope you will succeed or have any impact on society.
One of the key ingredients for success is getting our protests and activism broadcast on the mainstream media outlets. We have to capture the imagination of the average street reporter to make that happen. This is a big challenge when the media is twisting and spinning everything we say and do, but we don’t have to win over the executives who run the media outlets. We just have to win over a few of the journalists.
The reporters are not our enemy; they just do what they are told to do and repeat the narrative they are told to repeat. We have to talk to them politely and individually and ask them to give us a fair shake. I have personally done this on occasion. I talked to one of the reporters at the beginning of one of our big rallies and asked him for a fair, objective report and he actually did give us fair treatment. Yelling at the reporters and venting our hostility at them is not going to win them over any day soon.
There were several studies done recently by sociologists and activists to discover whether online activism is effective or not. Without getting into a lot of statistics and analysis, the bottom line is that online activism is not as effective as traditional activism. The strength of online activism is in the numbers. Thousands of people commenting on government or media outlet posts creates a wall of contention that confronts the normies and the false narratives about the so-called pandemic.
The internet and social media are great for networking, fundraising, organizing and sharing information but there is no substitute for face-to-face activism. Going to city hall in person or doing a sit-in at an MP’s office is far more effective and direct. Our so-called leaders need to be confronted and held accountable in person. Justice is personal.