We are living in an era of unprecedented protest.
There have been more than 20,000 protests since President Trump took office, according to data from the Crowd Counting Consortium, involving close to 21 million people total from nearly every part of the country. In absolute terms, that likely surpasses the amount of activity we saw even at the height of the Vietnam War.
But what difference has all this made? Are these movements putting real pressure on the Trump administration? Does the so-called “resistance” have the right strategy?
L.A. Kauffman has spent more than 30 years immersed in protest movements, as an organizer, strategist, journalist, and observer. She helped coordinate the mass demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2004 and has been actively involved in the various anti-Trump protests since 2017.
Her new book, How to Read a Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance, focuses on the 2017 Women’s March and all the movements it helped spawn. It’s an interesting look at how protests work in this new digital era, and why so many of our conventional views of protests are just wrong.
I called her to talk about the misconceptions we have about protest movements and what she thinks the anti-Trump resistance can do to meaningfully change our political reality.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You open your book by saying that protests work, but not the way people think they do. What is the biggest misconception people have about protest movements?
There are two big misconceptions, and they’re related. The first one is that protests are primarily a short-term pressure tactic and should be evaluated as such. So a million people marched for gun control all over the country, but the Republicans control Congress and there hasn’t been immediate gun reform. So the protest must’ve failed, right? This idea that protests are first and foremost designed to create short-term policy or legislative change and should be assessed based on how well they did that is just wrong.
The second misconception is that all protests are more or less the same thing. People tend to look at protests or read about protests and there’s very little nuance about what kind of protest it was, who organized it, what the aims were, how it came together, and what it was seeking to achieve. And so there’s a sort of a flattening that happens a lot of times in the reporting about protests that contributes to that first misunderstanding.
Let’s try to clear up that first misconception. In the book, you argue that it’s a mistake to view protests as a direct means to change, and that instead, we should see protests as events that alter the climate and make possible all the other kinds of organizing that are necessary for change. Can you say a bit about that?
The way that social, cultural, and institutional change happens is very complex, and it unfolds over long periods of time. For instance, if you’re talking about going from a state where homophobia is just the baseline condition of our culture to a moment where gay marriage is legalized and gay relationships are widely accepted — that’s a long, slow change.
And it’s very difficult to pinpoint how any particular protest works. You have moments where you have very focused protests that are looking for a specific remedy or protesting a very specific injustice. And those could work very well as pressure tactics, but a lot of what is happening is more like movement-building, which is what changes the terms of the conversation.
It’s absolutely critical to reframe the public debate around an issue. Creating a sense of possibility that certain kinds of reforms that were once considered unthinkable are now possible. Protests, especially mass protests of the sort we saw in 2017 with the Women’s March, help to do this, and it’s an essential part of their success. It gives people a sense of their own collective power.
You mentioned the Women’s March — I’m curious what you think about its overall significance. There are some who thought it was a purely symbolic victory, that because it wasn’t tied to specific policy goals, it didn’t accomplish anything. I take it you disagree with this view?
I think the Women’s Marches proved extraordinarily consequential. We’re having this conversation on the eve of a midterm election, so we don’t know what the election results are going to be on Tuesday. But there are times when these protests do seem like they’re a moment when people get out and express their views and maybe influence public opinion, but then they just go home and it doesn’t build to something more.
What was so striking about the Women’s Marches was how much they contributed to the creation of this massive, sprawling, decentralized grassroots resistance to Trump. In the period after the Women’s March, 6,000 new locally based resistance groups formed.
Most of them were led by women volunteers and populated overwhelmingly by women, and they were located all across the country. One of the things that was really different about the 2017 Women’s Marches from other national protest mobilizations we’ve seen in the past was just the geographic spread. We haven’t seen anything quite like that in the history of this country.
There are still at least 5,000 of those groups active. And that’s where a lot of the grassroots mobilization around the midterms is coming from. It’s not coming from the Democratic Party apparatus — it’s coming from all of these independent, decentralized, locally based groups, in many cases. That’s hugely important and stems directly from the Women’s March.
What do you make of the broader resistance to Trump right now? Is it succeeding? And if not, how should people who are alarmed by Trump’s behavior respond?
The most powerful way for people to protest Trump is by not focusing on him. I wish the marchers in New York, instead of going to Trump Tower, would go to [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer’s office and hold him accountable for the ways in which he has been a really very weak leader for the resistance.
I think the Democratic Party is clearly not going to save us from this authoritarian onslaught. It’s going to be grassroots mobilizing, forcing Democrats to take bolder positions than they would otherwise, and keeping the heat up on the Trump administration as well. But there’s a certain point at which protesting outside Trump Tower is just shouting into the wind.
It’s very hard to measure the impact of a protest movement in real time, for reasons you’ve already outlined, but you seem to think the resistance to Trump is having a real impact.
I think it has. When you’re talking about protests over a major phenomenon like a Trump presidency, it’s hard to pin down because we will never know what might have happened if we hadn’t been out protesting. We will never know how much worse things would have been. There could have been many more egregious policies that would’ve been adopted if we weren’t out there protesting. The Trump administration would have felt much more emboldened had there not been this enormous opposition.
I often hear people complain about the disruptive nature of protests — that they’re too aggressive or that they inconvenience the very people protesters are seeking to persuade. But disruption is precisely the point of protesting; it’s about making the status quo uncomfortable and unsustainable. How do you respond to these sorts of complaints?
Well, this goes back to something I was saying early on about there being many different forms of protest in America. There are disruptive protests that bring the disruption directly to whoever is doing the harm. If you’re having a sit-in in Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) office — that’s disrupting business in Lindsey Graham’s office, and I can do nothing but applaud that.
There are other kinds of disruptive protests where people, say, block traffic on a bridge or a major thoroughfare. People usually call those “direct action” protests, and they can be very powerful. But that is a tactic that I think needs to be used very sparingly, because the people that are inconvenienced are not necessarily people who are part of creating whatever the problem is that you’re looking to address.
I always prefer a disruption that interrupts the business of those who are enacting the policy that you want to see change rather than interrupting daily life for ordinary folks who may in fact agree with you; but there are moments in which that kind of protest is one of the most powerful ways of conveying a sense of a state of emergency around an issue.
How has social media and the internet changed the dynamics of organizing and protesting?
That’s a key question. I’m old enough that I was doing mass mobilizing before we really had the internet, so I’m less inclined than some people to see the internet as having been this magical advance that makes it so much easier to get the word out. But there’s no doubt that it helps facilitate grassroots organizing.
I think the internet has really helped people who are in communities that are small and maybe not predominantly liberal or progressive find each other connect and do organizing work. We had lots of ways of connecting and mobilizing before the internet, but the internet has radically improved our ability to connect and organize and spread information.
But I continue to believe that one of the most important facets of protesting is getting people together in the same physical space. Having people together where they don’t belong normally, even if it’s an orderly protest that’s not blocking traffic, matters. And getting people together in a room matters.
I want to pull on that thread a bit. Why is it so powerful to put your body on the line with other people in defense of a common cause? What is the psychological significance of that?
It’s similar to why people come together in physical spaces in houses of worship. There is a bodily experience of community and of connection that is transformative. There are people who can go to a march and just feel bored and annoyed and go home. But we’re not just disembodied lives, and we don’t just form our views through what we read and see.
We also are people who live in a community, and there’s something about the way in which a protest reinforces the sense of the collective and gives people a palpable, bodily sense of collective power that really matters and really has lasting consequences.
What do you say to people who think that rallying or marching is too passive or too gradual and that more direct action like sit-ins or street blockades is necessary? In other words, what’s your advice to those who are tempted to take more extreme measures?
I wouldn’t use the word “extreme” for nonviolent direct action.
That’s totally fair. Maybe “escalate” is a better word, but in any case, you get my point.
Of course. So my first book was called Direct Action, and it came out during the initial response to Trump. We saw massive numbers of people in the street and actually almost no direct action at all.
This new book is coming out when we still have mass mobilizing, but what we have been seeing — and we saw it with the family separation policy and then the Brett Kavanaugh fight — is a steady increase in the numbers of people engaging in nonviolent direct action. Mass marches usually do not work as pressure tactics. Well-crafted campaigns of strategic, nonviolent direct action often do.
Right now, everyone is sort of putting everything on hold to focus on the midterms, and rightly so. But I think with whatever outcome we have, nonviolent direct action is going to become an increasingly important and prominent tool used by the resistance going forward. It’s going to be one of our most powerful ways of trying to leverage power to turn around some of the damage of the last two years and hopefully lay the foundation for really major change.
Looking forward, is there some constitutional red line that might be crossed — like, say, Trump firing Robert Mueller — that would change the dynamics such that a different sort of protest action would be justified?
Yes, there are red lines which, if crossed, would justify bringing everything to a halt with our bodies in the streets. And there are an extraordinary number of communities poised to take action. If [special counsel Robert] Mueller is fired, there are something like 900 communities where there are people poised to react. Those protests are planned as legal rallies at this point.
But part of what has made the resistance to Trump so powerful is that people haven’t waited for permission to form their own resistance groups, haven’t waited for permission or direction from a specific leader to just dig in and do the work and figure out where they can be most effective.
And if those red lines are crossed, I hope to see people recognizing that we’re in another moment where people will have to think big and step up and nonviolently interfere with business as usual, or risk calamity.