Do radical protest movements actually work?



Tarn is a freelance content writer exploring how to create a thriving, just future worth living for.

As world leaders boarded their private jets home from Sharm El Sheikh, noticeably absent among them was youth activist Greta Thunberg, who in an interview before the conference accused world leaders and people in power of using the whole affair to grab attention, “using many different types of greenwashing.”

Reading her words, I couldn’t help but think about a group of protestors who last month grabbed the world’s attention in a more radical way than world leaders showing their faces at COP. I’m talking about SoupGate, MashedPotatoGate, and all the other protest actions that were sparked by Just Stop Oil protesters throwing a tin of tomato soup over Van Gogh’s sunflower painting in London.

In many respects the protest was a roaring success, generating international media coverage and making the front page of the New York Times. The video has been viewed almost 50 million times on Twitter alone.

On social media, people did not hold back their outrage. “This is not activism — this is a crime against humanity,” said one tweet. Personally, when I first heard about the protest, I felt like the meme of the confused woman doing math: climate activism = good, but public art also = good? It seemed to violate something sacred. It was a lot for my brain to comprehend at once.

Political activist Angela Davis once said that “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” This makes me think of a plant suspended between pots, precariously dangling in mid-air, roots exposed, like things might never be the same again. And that’s the thing about radical protest: it’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Comfortable is business as usual.

The most common objection to SoupGate is that this kind of protest is not going to win anyone over, that it alienates the very same people it’s trying to appeal to. However, research from the Social Change Lab suggests that history tells us otherwise. In a literature review on the factors behind protest success, they discovered that radical nonviolent protest can actually have a positive effect on furthering the aims of the protest group, mostly by increasing the level of support for more moderate groups.

In effect, according to the study, radical climate protests are successful because they serve to make the demands of moderate groups seem more reasonable, therefore shifting the needle on an issue that previously seemed extreme. People might like Just Stop Oil less as a group, or find climate activists very annoying, but this doesn’t necessarily harm the climate movement in general — it could even benefit it.

In a blog post, James Ozden, one of the authors of the study, cites the example of a 1960 poll that found that 63% of people had an unfavorable view of Martin Luther King Jr. “What does one take away from this?” he writes. “Probably that humans are quick to get annoyed when they encounter disruptive activists, but after periods of moral progress, they suddenly view those same pesky activists as moral heroes.”

Similarly, although Extinction Rebellion has low public support in the UK, evidence shows that the disruptive actions have still boosted concern for the environment and climate. Likewise in Germany, groups such as Letzte Generation have been referred to disparagingly as Öko-Extremisten (“eco-extremists”), yet in a survey 51% of Germans said they see climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing the country today.

The most recent Emissions Gap Report reminded us, again, that the climate commitments made by world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow fall far, far short of what is needed to meet the 1.5°C Paris goal. Contrary to the incremental changes favored by world leaders, the UN report does not shy away from a radical perspective when it urges for a “rapid transformation” of our societies. Commenting on the report Inger Anderson, executive director of the UNEP, used another horticultural metaphor: “only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”

Given these sobering warnings, the desperate measures of Just Stop Oil really don’t seem so extreme after all. In fact, in the face of ecosystemic collapse and a lack of concerted political action, they start to appear quite sane.

Only time will tell how SoupGate will be perceived in generations to come, but if the reported lack of urgency inside the formal negotiations at COP27 tells us anything, it’s that Greta is right; activism is needed now more than ever.

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