Through this blog, on a couple of occasions, I have been able to help organise street level activism. Each time, it has been immensely valuable to the project, but it is not easy.
When Andy Janes had the idea of opposing the occupation of the London Stock Exchange by OccupyLSX, I helped drum up supporters to come and join us, I printed leaflets, marshalled Andy’s open letter onto the blog and wrote to several newspaper newsdesks. City AM picked up the story – if only on the funny page – and my twitter feed went nuts. Through that action, several of the libertarian movement’s more active members got to know Libertarian Home and they got to know each other. The movement got stronger and readers of City AM got to know that not everyone feels the same way about bankers, and they heard a word “libertarian” that many will have understood to mean “ally”.
When the Open Rights Group and the Pirate Party organised a protest outside the EU’s London office against the ACTA directive I appealed for help again and a small team gathered to give out another round of leaflets and improvise some dodgy Ayn Rand themed banners in support of the protesters objectives. We met a few more new faces, and collaborated over blog posts and speaking engagements. The movement got stronger once again, although we did not get much press on that occasion.
The point is that getting out and being seen is not just about who sees your banner and is persuaded by the witty slogan you came up with. It’s about talking to different people, understanding why they agree or disagree, and getting to know each other and new allies as well. It is worth doing even when people do not notice.
Now consider what happens when protests are noticed. UK Uncut fundamentally reshaped the debate over taxation, bringing legal avoidance right to the top of the agenda and changing the moral status of tax avoidance to be identical with that of tax evasion. They did that by demanding that the media explain their point of view, they caused a stir that became a story.
When someone decides to step up and organise a protest, stunt or other activity, people like UKUncut set an expectation about what a protest looks like. That expectation includes a group of people that is large enough to be difficult to count (which might mean 30, or 30,000), it includes banners and leaflets and lots of noise. Failing to meet that expectation can earn you derision from your opponents, leading to a risk that your efforts are counter productive.
Smaller numbers of people can perform a stunt (I like this example from Michigan). Everyone remembers who and what we mean by “bottler brown” because an agency dressed people up as bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale the day that Gordon Brown decided not to call an election. Costumes are a great force multiplier but it is harder to find people willing to take part, and paid actors are of course insincere by default.
So how does someone with an idea for a stunt or protest get his idea off the ground? The obvious modern answer is to stick it on social media and invite your friends to take part. However, if you fail to get critical mass, having invited all your friends, you can still look like a bit of a plank.
One approach I have seen still involves social media, generally Facebook, but your friends are invited selectively and privately. Once momentum is achieved, you make your event public and start to really market it hard. This is intuitively sound, of course, but there are constraints. Firstly, the context of your action may limit your options. For example, you may feel that the best time for a protest is during Prime Ministers Questions, but that is held on a weekday lunch time when most people are struggling to hold down jobs, not to mention eat.
People do not often share third party events with their friends on Facebook, so viral spread starts slow. I believe the same disincentive to not be involved in promoting a flop applies to that too. Also, the very notion of having to be selective means you keep your invite list counterproductively short. Perhaps there is someone influential you want to contact, who might help, but surely it is better to contact them when you already have momentum? Such questions have no easy answer.
That is why I am looking to put together a list of people who are keen to take to the streets. You will be someone who is enthusiastic about getting a message out, and happy to work with others to do so. You will not be overly fussy, and you probably do not have small children (although I have seen that too). Most of all, you are aware that protest organisation is a difficult art with many constraints and unusual incentives. You will not mind being contacted about ideas that do not pan out.
If this sounds like you. Look for the big fat yellow button labelled “Take to the Streets” and use it to sign up to receive notifications about what people have planned. It just might help someone to change the way an issue is talked about.