Phoenix Rising: What makes a protest work



City Council members, clerks and attorneys discussed specifics of the proposed Roosevelt business improvement district. (Briana Bradley/DD)
City Council members, clerks and attorneys discussed specifics of the proposed Roosevelt business improvement district. (Briana Bradley/DD)

The sights and sounds of protests have become a common occurrence for downtown Phoenix, but why are some more effective than others?

Effective protests get a few simple things right, including mobilizing local people to hold their elected officials to demands that those officials have the power to decide.

Oftentimes, protests are tools of last resort when people are being excluded from the decision-making process. In a democracy, it doesn’t matter if it is a national issue like the #NODAPL or local issues like sanctuary city status for Phoenix or contesting the proposed land reuse around Sky Harbor Airport — the purpose of a protest is to show your cause’s local strength.

Public officials, from the citizen volunteers on your local Village Planning Committee up to the President of the United States, have numerous reasons such as ideology, systematic constraints on their authority and sometimes even personality differences as to why they act the way they do. However, all public officials in a representative democracy have an ultimate responsibility to voters who express their judgment of politicians at elections held practically every year.

To do this, make sure you and other protest participants know who represents them, and make contact with your elected officials (and their staffs) early and often so they physically see you. If the protest is the first time they have ever heard of you or your cause, it can be a step in the right direction that they are at least aware of you. But it will not get you very far. You can be blown off easily, as public officials may assume you are out of their districts or not organized and enthusiastic enough to impact their prospects of reelection or reappointment.

Once you have a band of locals together, your next step should always be to figure out who has the power to get what you want.

Not all politicians are created equal, and not all politicians are persuaded the same way. Protesting a United States senator over a bill in the Arizona State Legislature that limits local discretion will not likely gain you much because Senators McCain and Flake do not have a vote in the State Legislature. Alternatively, challenging the Central City Village Planning Committee to take a stand on the Dakota Access Pipeline will also have no effect, as your downtown village has no say over a federal decision.

When you protest outside the wrong public officials’ offices, it doesn’t speak to your strength and will not create much change, as insiders will often remark it is a waste of your time.

Further, you should make sure you know what your public officials think about your issue of choice and frame your arguments in language that makes sense to them. Some public officials just simply will never agree with your position and you may need to use your protests to showcase why their constituents disagree with them. Other public officials may want to help you, but are tied by their political party’s stances, in which case you should make it clear that they can be both faithful to their party and their constituents (or that they should be more faithful to their constituents).

There are a lot of demands on the time availability for public officials being lobbied from all angles, and for your own protesters, who may have to take time off of work to stand in the sun, so don’t let communication barriers be the death of a great idea.

Protesting is a difficult and often underappreciated starting point for larger movements. Persistence is key, and the only way you get bigger and better as a movement is to act, as oftentimes the greatest benefit of a protest is actually organizing more people so they can act in future elections and other protests.

Perhaps most importantly, never forget that politics is an art of communication. Protest is a language of the unheard, so that they can reach the table and move mountains just as much as any of the established interests by just picking up a phone.

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