This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark Engler and Paul Engler
Book about the mechanics and strategies of protests: a common misconception that protests and uprisings are spontaneous, but in reality they involve careful planning. The book studies the strategy behind successful nonviolent protests and what makes them successful. Gene Sharp was an early author in nonviolent protests and authored one of the first books on this subject, and his work has been studied by numerous protest leaders over the years.
The first case study is on Martin Luther King. Initially, during the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, he did not have much strategic planning and it was largely accidental. But by 1963 in Birmingham, the movement had become a lot more strategic. At one point, a decision was made for him to voluntarily go to jail to incite further protests. This was a risky bet that the jail could not have capacity for all the protestors, if there were not enough protestors, then they could all be arrested and the movement would end in failure.
Two schools of thought on how to structure a protest: Alinsky believed it is best to start with specific goals and smaller issues in the community issues, gradually building up support over time. On the other hand, Piven believed that poor people must mass mobilize, since they have little access to structural change. The problem with mass efforts is they often fizzle out when they have no clear objective. In practice, Alinsky himself is more flexible than his theory dictates: in one instance, when mass mobilization occurred unexpectedly, he was willing to capitalize on it.
The next case study was how Otpor defeated the Milosevic regime in Serbia. Their strategy centered on non-violence, as they knew that any violent protests would quickly be suppressed. Instead, they engaged in playful acts of defiance that ridiculed the regime but couldn’t easily lead to their arrest. This approach caught the public’s attention and their movement started gaining traction. Otpor had a clear goal of overthrowing Milosevic, while adopting a decentralized strategy. They established a training program to impart these goals to new recruits, allowing their numbers to multiply exponentially. They continuously invented innovative forms of protest that authorities couldn’t predict or counteract. As their momentum grew, they reached a point where arrests became impractical, and the pressure eventually forced Milosevic to step down. However, after successfully achieving their goal, the group lacked a well-defined purpose and eventually disbanded.
One way to conceptualize how protests lead to societal change is through the metaphor of pillars — this framework applies to both toppling a dictator and driving social changes like legalizing same-sex marriage. Distinct pillars fall one by one to the rebels’ side under the pressure of the movement: typically, the first pillars to fall are independent media, pop culture, and intellectuals. The final pillar is when the police and army refuse to execute orders, signifying the regime’s downfall. Similarly, passing the gay marriage act marks the final step in a sequence of incremental victories, with the pillars falling one by one. In the end, merely around 3% of the population actively participating in the movement is sufficient to make change nearly inevitable.
The PR of a movement is crucial: movements must project an impression of forward progress, regardless of the circumstances. A good strategy is to frame any partial progress as a victory to the public. Even if the actual gains are limited, the best strategy is declare it a victory to gain momentum, and figure out the specifics later. Loss of momentum and negative media portrayal would otherwise lead to inevitable defeat. For example, one of Gandhi’s initial concessions was allowing Indians to freely gather salt from the sea. In the broader context, this is a minor detail, but it was significant enough to be portrayed as a substantial step forward against British rule.
The following playbook can help a movement grow and outmaneuver the state. First, the movement should be disruptive, and members should be willing to sacrifice personally for the goal. The disruption gains attention from the media while the sacrifice gains sympathy from the public, and creates a no-win situation for the authorities, who face a tough choice: either shut down the movement or let it continue, neither of which look good. To prevent stagnation, the movement needs to gradually escalate so it doesn’t lose momentum. The Occupy Wall Street movement excelled at causing disruption. However, it wasn’t clear about the change it wanted or how to achieve it, causing it to eventually fizzle out.
In many cases, a movement suddenly gains popularity due to a seemingly random event. In reality, numerous such events might occur, but most get forgotten, and it takes the a combination of the right circumstances for one to gain traction. For instance, many black women before Rosa Parks protested in the same way, refusing to give up their bus seats, but they didn’t receive widespread attention for various reasons. After an attention spike, interest inevitably wanes, which can demoralize organizers as they witness a decline in attention.
Polarizing strategies can sometimes be beneficial for a movement: for instance, the Act Up group against AIDS took actions that many in their community didn’t like, but they decided these bold moves were a good idea because they captured the media’s attention. As long as the reception is not overwhelmingly bad, the net effect is positive — indifference is the true enemy; when people stop caring, the movement dies.
However, if the public overwhelmingly perceives an action as negative, it can detract from the movement’s goals. For example, an environmentalist group Earth First spiked trees with nails to harm logging workers, but they faced a PR disaster after a worker got seriously injured. Violence is almost always a poor strategy because it alienates many people, and provides the state an easy justification to retaliate with violence and arrests. It limits the group to stay small, and a small group of extremist protesters cannot hope to overpower the state with violence. Their only advantage is to grow large enough to put the state in an awkward position. Therefore, non-violence is the superior strategy: it welcomes more moderate people and facilitates growth. The public defines what’s considered violent; even if no one is hurt, property damage or significant disruptions can turn public opinion against a cause. Negative attention harms the movement when it is perceived as terrorism and few people want to associate with it. As a group expands, it must strictly adhere to non-violence norms, and not allow a minority within to drive it towards violence.
One challenge movements face after gaining momentum is deciding what to do next, and in many cases, they fail to maintain the change. For instance, in Egypt’s Mubarak era, the movement succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak but ended up replacing him with another equally oppressive dictator. The most successful movements change societal norms, like those on segregation or gay marriage, and shift what was once a fringe viewpoint into the mainstream.
Overall, this book provides an insightful analysis of the strategies and dynamics of protests and movements. There’s are many commonalities between uprisings and marketing, like framing issues in ways that make people care and support the cause. Movements largely rely on creating and sustaining momentum: the success condition is growing to a point where the state struggles to manage it, while the failure condition is losing momentum — when this happens, either the organizers give up, or their numbers are so few that they make no significant impact and the government easily addresses them. At the same time, having a long-term strategy is crucial: many movements achieve initial success but fizzle out after gaining momentum, because they lack a clear objective.