With the latest statements by President Trump about the protests that have been occurring prior to National Football League (NFL) games many things are on my mind. However, first and foremost amongst them are the purpose of protest and what makes it effective. As I read comments for and against the protests, I am reminded of what I learned to be the purpose and nature of protest and what makes them succeed. Let’s take a closer look at this situation to try to understand it better.
By their nature, protests are unpopular and controversial. Why? Because, as Wolf states, they are bringing up an issue or problem that is real for some and is being ignored or not given enough attention by others. The protests started by then San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick sought to call attention to police brutality and racial inequality. This was an issue that, for him and others, was simply not getting addressed adequately.
The purpose of a protest is to call attention to an issue. But what then? If a protest is successful, then protestors get a seat at the table in order to fix the problem. In other words, the end goal of a protest is to negotiate a better scenario related to the issue in question. This is exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. did with then President Lyndon B. Johnson when it came to the Civil Rights movement.
What makes an effective protest?
There are four components to a strategic, non-violent protest. First, a clear issue or problem is identified. Second, a symbol of some kind is used to shine a bright light on the issue and to galvanize support. Third, the protest is conducted peaceably. And fourth, the issue and the proposed solution are communicated clearly (i.e. what the protestors want and how to get it). Using the prism of the current NFL protest, let’s look at each of these in a little more detail to determine its effectiveness.
First, a clear issue or problem is identified.
If you listen to what the protestors are saying, their message is clear. They are protesting police brutality toward African-Americans and racial inequality. That message, however, has been confounded by those opposed to the protests as you will understand in the next paragraph.
Second, a symbol of some kind is used to shine a bright light on the issue and to galvanize support.
The symbols that Kaepernick and other NFL players are using are the American flag and the national anthem. In protest, they have refused to stand which is the customary ritual. Given that patriotism runs deep in America, this is an extremely powerful symbol to choose to draw attention to their cause. In that sense, it was a very effective choice. The problem the protestors are experiencing is the interpretation of the protest by those opposed to it. The opposition has taken that same symbol and claimed that those who are protesting are un-American and/or disrespectful to those who have served in the military. That is where the people opposed to the protest have focused their attention and not on the issue Kaepernick and others sought to address. This is where the situation has become most contentious.
Third, the protest is conducted peaceably.
I don’t think there is any question that this aspect of the protest is happening. The players are taking a knee and respectfully waiting until the end of the anthem. The peaceful nature of the protest has made it harder to criticize them – particularly because they are exercising a right granted to them under the constitution.
Fourth and finally, a successful protest has a clear articulation of how to solve the problem (i.e. what the protestors want and how to get there).
One could argue that what the protestors want is obvious -- an end to police brutality and racial equality. However, those are very big issues and require a plan for how to achieve such an arduous task. Make no mistake, it can be done, but the clear articulation of how is still to be detailed. Of course, the protests have not made it through the stage of getting the issue fully and clearly on the table so the how is not yet relevant. If the protestors are to get a seat at the table it will behoove them to have thought clearly about how to achieve the end state for which they are protesting.