When Protests Get Weird

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In September of 2015, farmers across Europe were fed up. Dairy prices had been steadily dropping for months, down by more than 25 percent in the United Kingdom and dipping further and further beneath the cost of production in countries like Belgium, France, and Germany. The crisis was so serious, in fact, that it led to a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels to address the damage and offer a solution.

The ministers came up with a $407 million aid package to the industry, a response invigorated by protests in the streets of Brussels that involved 4,800 farmers using tractors to block roadways and spraying fresh milk on riot police.

You read that correctly—protesting farmers literally doused the streets with dairy. The September solution was swift, but apparently not enough to put a stopper to the market’s decline, as another meeting of EU agriculture ministers earlier this year was met with similar protests. This time around, farmers “put up animal pens and filled them with cows and pigs, rowed tractors down the streets, and sprayed milk at buildings.” The demonstrating farmers “also distributed free milk and sandwiches to passers-by, hoping to get support for their campaign for more market regulations.”

If the picture galleries that captured the chaos are any indication, the milk movement was a sight to behold. The protests garnered enough media attention to serve as fodder for online clickbait, but as radical—and frankly, odd—as the demonstrators’ methods may have been, they wouldn’t have served a purpose without a clearly defined adversary and cause for action.

“A protest is really something that serves as a strategy to deal with a problem that people are no longer willing to be passive about,” explains Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. “So you have to think not so much about the nature of the tactic, but the purpose of the tactic. Once you think about that, there’s a logic to what people are doing.”

Spraying milk at police and penning pigs and cows along city streets seems utterly ridiculous on its face, but it serves the greater purpose of subverting the adversary—in this case, the agriculture ministers, whose lack of market regulation was blamed by farmers for the ghastly price drops.

“The ultimate purpose of these tactics are to basically look at the adversary and its power base, and to try and undermine that power base,” Ackerman says.

There’s no doubt that unorthodox protest techniques can be effective. Ackerman, who produced the PBS-TV documentary “Bringing Down a Dictator” about the fall of Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, recalls members of the Otpor! movement throwing birthday parties in the middle of the street. During General Pinochet’s rule in Chile, citizens would bang pots and pans at a certain time each night to express discontent with their conditions.

These methods may come off as unconventional to the way we view protests—hundreds of people in the streets, signs held high, chanting against a particular injustice—but were nonetheless effective in disrupting their respective adversaries. It’s not just about being unorthodox, though—there must be a greater, deeper significance behind the protests.

“To be effective, a protest has to have cultural and other kinds of specificity peculiar to the conflict at hand,” Ackerman explains.

The dairy protests in Brussels recall elements of the Boston Tea Party—an extreme measure at the time that garnered international attention for its cleverness. Though the blowback was swift, the Tea Party introduced a new means of protest against British rule in the American colonies.

In an age of digital media that pervades every waking moment of our lives, uncanny tactics designed to grab media attention can be extremely useful. But as Ackerman explains, without the context and purpose, they will fall on deaf ears and fail to move the existing power. The bigger key, he says, is to attack the loyalty structure of the adversary.

“Part of your audience may be the general public or the international media, but that’s less important than the response by the adversarial leadership in discovering that not all members of the leadership are equally loyal,” Ackerman says. He cites the 2009 Green Movement protests in Iran as a perfect example, where leaders at the very top of the country’s political food chain were taken aback by the amount of sympathy the protests received from previously perceived loyalists.

“It all comes down to inducing defections,” Ackerman says.

Of course, there is a point at which a protest becomes so odd or unclear that the action itself may overshadow the message it’s trying to get across—think about the early stages of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. That’s a dangerous area to wade into, as once connection between the protest, its adversary, and the context behind it become fractured, it loses meaning.

Perhaps the preeminent factor in a successful protest is keeping things nonviolent. There are quotations and philosophers throughout time who insist that no real progress can be accomplished without violent insurrection, but there is data to suggest that simply isn’t true.

In the 2011 book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan looked at 323 different insurrections between 1900 and 2006 and discovered that nonviolent protests were successful 53 percent of the time, compared to a 26 percent success rate for violent ones. Though the nonviolent protests were a much smaller sample size—just 100 out of the 323 protests explored—the doubled success rate is still striking.

“People on the outside who don’t understand how these conflicts work tend to underestimate their significance, when historically they’ve been amazingly important,” Ackerman says. “If they’re linked sequentially into a strategy, these protests can be far more important and effective than violent insurrection.”

So no matter how weird a protest gets—from cow’s milk to adult diapers—if its adversary, cultural connection, and core tenets are defined, it’s a forced to be reckoned with.