'The history of social change is also a history of disruption': experts

'The history of social change is also a history of disruption': experts
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 07: Police make arrests as Just Stop Oil protesters walk down Shaftesbury Avenue on June 07, 2023 in London, England. Protest group Just Stop Oil is campaigning to persuade the British government to commit to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production by holding Go Slow Walking protests in major cities across the UK. The Government is introducing new legislation by the end of June that will allow the police to intervene to prevent this form of protest. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

When two campaigners with the climate protest group Just Stop Oil threw confetti onto a tennis court at the Wimbledon championship in London on Wednesday, the action—like others by Just Stop Oil in recent months—sparked a renewed debate about the effectiveness of disruptive demonstrations.

"As always, Just Stop Oil's actions have done nothing to further their cause," claimed one public affairs consultant.

A new survey of 120 experts on social movements, however, found on Friday that nearly seven in 10 academics say disruptive protest tactics are "at least quite important" to the success of a movement, particularly if the protesters' demands—in the case of Just Stop Oil, climate action—already have widespread support.

Although interrupted tennis matches; stalled traffic caused by Just Stop Oil's "slow march" through London, which is now in its 12th week; and soup cans thrown at glass-covered art as in another high-profile protest by the group last year have befuddled and frustrated observers, the study by Apollo Surveys and the protest think tank Social Change Lab found that disruptive tactics do not, by and large, harm a group's ability to effect change.

"We were really struck by the contradiction between what the public and media say about disruptive protests and what academics said," James Özden, director of Social Change Lab, told The Guardian. "The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement's success."

A poll by YouGov in February—four months after Just Stop Oil garnered international attention, including outrage, for its soup can protest—found that 78% of British people believed disruptive demonstrations make it less likely that protesters will be successful in their cause.

The new survey of experts shows that "we shouldn't take people's first reactions as the indicator of an effective protest," Özden told The Guardian.

The experts were also asked about factors that harm protests movements. More than 70% said that internal conflicts and infighting can hinder a group's ability to achieve its goals, and 67% said a lack of clear political objectives can harm the movement.

Only 36% said that objectives deemed "too radical" are harmful to a group's success, and 44% said an unwillingness to compromise can stand in the way of protesters' agenda.

"Whether we like it or not, the history of social change is also a history of political contestation and disruption," said Bart Cammaerts, a professor of politics and communication at the London School of Economics, in response to the survey. "Disruption of everyday life is often the best way to receive media attention, generate visibility for a cause, and above all to push political and economic elites to compromise and accept change, if only to protect their own interests."

The results suggested that a multi-pronged effort to effect change—including letter-writing campaigns, legal protests that have the approval of law enforcement, and disruptive protests like those of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion—are needed to push for climate action and other policy changes.

Both legal protests and disruptive actions were rated highly by the experts as tactics that have a positive effect on "movement-building" and sparking "higher salience in public discourse."

In response to the survey results, Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam recalled an interaction he had with an official at Kings College after he staged a disruptive protest to pressure the institution to divest from fossil fuels.

Others pointed out that highly-regarded, historic protest movements such as the fight for women's voting rights and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s had their own disruptive elements.

"There are two strands to civil resistance," James Skeet, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, toldThe Guardian. "One is disruption and the next is dialogue. Time and again, we see that public disruption is necessary to spark the conversations that result in much needed political pressure."

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