Movement power: action and tactics

Saavedra observes that there is very often a fear of escalation in structure-tradition organisations, and a fear of polarisation. “Holy crap, is the public going to like what we do?” There is of course also bad polarisation. This is most obvious when the membership itself becomes alienated from a campaign. He explains: “Some people are going to move against the movement. We need to make sure we can get the majority of the people to support us. At the same time, the movement must build and deepen its base support.” 

Polarisation can be achieved using those four factors: the demand; levels of sacrifice; movement ambassadors; and public relations. We will describe each briefly in turn.  


Cesar Chavez, the American labour and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, would say: “We have another kind of power that comes from the justice of our cause.”

The first major concept of polarisation is framing of the goal, setting a clear and achievable demand. People associate with the movement first and foremost because they identify with the cause. Activists supported Occupy Wall Street because it was fighting for the rights of the 99 per cent, and for equality. Most Latinos in the United States were in favour of the DREAM Act, as the benefits to millions within these communities were straightforward and obvious. 

Polling allows you to see whether the public is going to support the cause. The question needs also be asked how deeply they support the cause. Frank Luntz, a right wing strategist, uses “micropolling”, which measures attitudes of people within the base, the middle and the opposition to the campaign. Engler concludes: “You need to measure support, but you also have to measure how deeply they support you.” 

Activists should not abandon causes where there is little public support. Engler states: “The anti-war movement was actually unpopular and was under attack, for example for being unpatriotic. The public also likes spending money on the military. What you can do, even on such issues, is pick specific things that the public will support – for example, a campaign against waste or corruption in the military industrial complex. You can take an unpopular goal and break it down into demands that will be more popular.”


“Full effort is full victory,” Mahatma Gandhi said. Engler interprets Gandhi’s message as “With an endless capacity to suffer, victory is inevitable.” High sacrifice is, in the Gandhian school of nonviolence, one of the most important tools at the disposal of the activist. “What we sacrifice for, we elevate.” 

When people make deep sacrifices and they suffer – being beaten up or going to prison – they will gain popular support. In the civil rights movement, it was when people were being beaten by the police and this was being reported globally that people related to it. “If I go to prison, my mom instantly becomes an activist for the cause,” argues Engler.  

The grounding assumption is that every time the participants in the movement are seen to make sacrifices for the cause, more people will want to join the movement. This is seen as an inevitable positive feedback loop. The aim of the action is to demonstrate high levels of sacrifice, or, as in the teachings of Martin Luther King, to “create a moral crisis”. This also feeds the media appetite for drama: “If it bleeds, it leads.” 

High disruption can force an issue onto the public agenda, and indeed force powerful actors in society to meet the demands of the campaign. However, it can also have an adverse effect on the campaign strategy of gaining active popular support. The key claim here is that “you can only have high levels of disruption if you have high levels of support for the demand, and you demonstrate high levels of sacrifice.”

A lesson that Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil would need to confront a decade later was already being addressed by Saavedra and Engler in their training videos: “If you disrupt people’s lives, a lot of times they are not going to empathise with you.” 

An example given at the time was a public transit strike to protect pensions: “The strike created huge disruption and was pretty easy and people hated that.” This observation would have its echo almost a decade later when activists climbed on top of a train at Canning Town tube station in London with significant negative consequences. 

An action can be low or high sacrifice. But it can also be low or high disruption for the general public – including those who do not actively choose to become engaged with the campaign and its issue of concern. This results in four possible modes of action: low sacrifice and low disruption, low sacrifice and high disruption, high sacrifice and low disruption, and finally high sacrifice and high disruption.

The advantage of low sacrifice and low disruption actions is that such activism can be adopted by many people. However, they are unlikely to have much direct impact or gain much media attention. For example, petitions tend to have few results even when they are a useful first step onto the ladder of engagement. 

Even a high sacrifice act such as a short term hunger strike can lose its impact over time. “That action has been repeated so many times that no-one believes it’s really sacrificial,” Saavedra notes. There are actions that will create high disruption: a strike action or a protest closing down a highway will get the attention of the public, as it impacts their lives.


The movement needs representatives to take the message to the public, often through the media. A classic communications approach is to have ‘ambassadors’ from each demographic who can bring the campaign and its values to their own communities. For example, white people might be better placed to assure people in a majority white population that immigration is ethically right and also brings benefits. 

Likewise, Extinction Rebellion has made extensive use of the fact that scientists are trusted by the general public and are self-evidently the right people to communicate on climate science. Saavedra and Engler advise on using “sympathetic people” to represent the movement. “Nurses presenting your arguments that will extend the reach of your message.”

People are generally empathic. “There are a lot of physiological studies about how people have what are called mirror neurons, in which they naturally empathise when they witness suffering, without them even choosing to do so.” Empathy is, for better and worse, easier when you identify with a person or community. “If they can ‘other’ that person, then the mind shuts off their ability to empathise. The power of Fox News is the enormous efforts it invests in ‘othering’ people as terrorists, communists, and hippies.” 

Engler argues: “Rosa Parks was a very well respected person within the Montgomery community in the 1950s and a secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for a number of years when the bus protests started. Another young woman aged 16 was arrested for not giving up her seat, but it did not have the same impact.”

The corollary to the ambassador approach is to ensure that your opposition – those who refuse to make the change you are campaigning for, or are lobbying in the opposite direction – are presented as unsympathetically as possible. A venal, self-interested politician might cave to your demands rather than fight you and be exposed as venal to their electorate. “People hated Wall Street, so they were likely to support Occupy Wall Street.”


All movements today need to have a clear public relations strategy. Therefore sufficient capacity and training should be made available from the very beginning. Areas of focus will be a) framing; b)relations with the mainstream media; c) capacity to create and distribute own (social) media. There are whole university departments talking about public relations. How can we change the way the media and the press relate to us, and to our demand? How can we distribute our message? 

Do the movement and its representatives use the language of our movement or the left, or the language that most people understand? George Lakoff, a cognitive theorist, claims that people have frames about how they understand politics, and the actors and the movements within that. If the PR team does not have the right strategy then there is not a lot that they can do with that. 

Engler recalls: “The healthcare campaign in the US had a debate about ‘single payer’ insurance, but no-one understood the policy or the language. Most people don’t know how to relate to it. We framed it as ‘Medicare for All’, because US citizens know Medicare. We had to go further because the media convinced people there was only public healthcare and private healthcare.”

Gaining mainstream media coverage, and therefore raising the profile of the campaign among the general public, is always a core activity for momentum tradition organisations. This can be achieved through “high levels of sacrifice and disruption”. Engler makes the point: “If you can get a couple of thousand people arrested, I can guarantee you are going to get front page newspaper coverage.” 

However, this level of dedication can only be achieved if the founders of the movement assume or act as though it will happen. Escalating to high levels of sacrifice and disruption is how you get media attention. “If we do not think about building to get there from the beginning, we’re never going to get there.” Campaigns with millions of dollars never escalate to high levels of sacrifice and disruption, because they are risk averse and, as a result, “they never get a moment of the whirlwind.”

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Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist online.


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