Many people have protested against Covid control measures. How can their efforts be made more effective? Should they be?
Covid protest, Melbourne, 2020
After the first major Australian public protests against lockdowns, everywhere I looked there was condemnation. Media stories highlighted violent incidents and reported that right-wing extremists were involved. Many protesters were not wearing masks, so the danger of Covid transmission was emphasised. Some prominent left-wing figures criticised the protesters, siding with the police for a change.
I thought, “Not so quick.” It is standard for media reports to focus on the negative aspects of protests, especially violence. I was reminded of protests against nuclear war back in the 1980s. Opponents dismissed the protesters as uninformed and as tools of the Soviet Union. Didn’t they know nuclear weapons are there to protect us?
Here I’m going to present some ideas from research on protest movement strategy and comment about how these ideas can apply to resistance to Covid control measures. For those who oppose Covid protests, there are a few suggestions at the end.
Why would I want to suggest ways for Covid protests to be more effective? Most importantly, if people are going to protest, I think it’s better for all of us when they use nonviolent methods — whether or not you or I agree with their goals. Many of those involved are first-time protesters, and it would be good if they developed their understanding and skills. You never know when you might want them on your side.
Governments around the world have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with a variety of control measures, including distancing, quarantining, masking, lockdowns and promotion of vaccination. Many governments have used Covid as a justification for restrictions on civil liberties. In many places, there has been resistance to these measures, including massive protests.
In Australia, government leaders have condemned the protests and the protesters, while mass media have mostly ignored or condemned them. A common response is to say that control measures are to protect the public from a dangerous disease and that protesters are being irresponsible: they are threatening public health. My impression is that the same sort of response to protests occurs in many other countries.
My personal background is relevant to this issue in two ways. Since the late 1970s, I’ve been studying scientific controversies, including the ones over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation, the origin of AIDS — and vaccination.
Also since the late 1970s, I’ve been involved with social movements, including the movement against nuclear power and the peace movement. Related to this, I’ve studied nonviolent action, which refers to methods like rallies, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. As well, I compiled a collection of resources for resisting repression in Australia.
Covid protest rallies fit the usual model of protest: people have a grievance or a social concern and join together to express their feelings in the hope of promoting change in policies or practices. The strange thing is that so many activists from other movements seem to have stayed away, and furthermore to condemn the protesters. They hear about Covid protesters who are linked to right-wing extremists, or who have weird ideas, and dismiss the protesters as dangerous and ignorant.
Concerning Covid, most governments and health authorities have adopted a standard view, that the pandemic is a major threat to public health warranting extreme measures to control the threat. However, the standard view has been contested by some researchers and doctors. This is a typical public scientific controversy, similar in many ways to others I have studied. There is disagreement about technical matters and the technical disagreements are mixed in with differences about ethics and decision-making.
There are actually several Covid controversies. One is over the origin of Covid: wet markets or lab leak. Others are over the seriousness of Covid, treatments for the disease, vaccination, masks and lockdowns.
As with many other controversies, such as over climate change, genetic modification and fluoridation, those on the side of scientific orthodoxy say critics are ill-informed, ignorant and dangerous, and that governments and the public should trust the experts. They assume there is only one rational response and that anyone who disagrees is “anti-science.” This obscures the role of differences in values. In disputes over Covid control measures, there are differences in values placed on controlling Covid versus freedom of movement and assembly.
Here I’m going to offer some ideas about Covid protests drawn from the theory and practice of nonviolent action. These ideas are fairly general because I haven’t participated in any protests and because there is so much variation in experiences from place to place, worldwide and even within Australia. Those opposed to Covid protests can skip to my remarks in the final section.
Getting the message out
Rallies and civil disobedience are good for showing passion, commitment and breadth of concern, but they are not so good for communicating the reasons people are protesting. Media coverage, if there is any, is usually more about the events than the issues. Protesters can carry placards and banners, but these are too brief to communicate much about the evidence and arguments.
A social movement needs a communication strategy. One important aspect is self-education. Participants need to learn about the issue, including facts and arguments, and how to counter contrary viewpoints. Just because people join together on the streets doesn’t mean they have a deep understanding of the issues. This is nothing new. It has been true of many other movements.
A few members are highly knowledgeable. They know about all sorts of scientific research, about ethical arguments and much else. The challenge is for others in the movement to learn from them. In anti-war movements of yore, one technique was the teach-in, in which knowledgeable speakers would explain issues. These days, this can be done online. It’s like a classroom, with a priority on interactive learning.
The ideal, which can never be reached, is for every person at a rally to be knowledgeable enough so that they can give a good account to a journalist or an observer. This will seldom be possible, so those who have a better grasp of the issues or are more articulate need to take the lead in talking with others.
At a rally, speakers usually try to fire up the crowd with powerful rhetoric. This is good for building a sense of a common cause but not for educating the public. It is speaking to the converted. This needs to be supplemented by a strategy to reach those who are neutral or sceptical.
There are various options, such as going door to door inviting conversations, holding information meetings (online or face to face) and circulating leaflets and links. This doesn’t sound exciting. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of joining a rally, but it is the foundation of any effort to change people’s views.
A crucial part of a communication strategy is to show to others that campaigners, and people with concerns, are human, ordinary people. Given the rhetoric that anyone sceptical of the official Covid line is some sort of lunatic who doesn’t care about others’ health and welfare, it is vital that campaigners come across as sensible, reasonable, considerate and, when possible, just like other people. Messages are most persuasive when the sender is similar to the receiver in age, occupation and other characteristics.
Gene Sharp in his classic book The Politics of Nonviolent Action presents the “dynamics of nonviolent action,” which is a series of stages or features of nonviolent campaigns. He developed this framework by studying numerous campaigns, such as the Indian independence struggle and the US civil rights movement. It’s worth considering how Sharp’s dynamics framework applies to campaigning against Covid control measures.
Sharp calls the first stage “laying the groundwork.” It involves communicating with supporters, building organisations and networks, developing skills and preparing for action. Laying the groundwork is a vital part of any campaign, done before taking strong action. Without sufficient preparation, movements are more likely to fade away after the initial excitement.
Covid protester organisers, however, seem to have put in relatively little effort in laying the groundwork. Instead, they have gone straight to action, calling rallies before there has been time to build the capacity of the movement. This has been possible due to social media, which enables rapid mobilisation, unlike what was possible just a few decades ago. Zeynep Tufekci in her book Twitter and Tear Gas describes the problems that can arise from mobilisation with relatively little preparation, for example in Turkey and Egypt: often there is a big impact in a short time, but without the foundations of trust and decision-making processes, the movement is susceptible to pushback from authorities, and some early gains are lost, as in Egypt after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Sharp’s second stage is “challenge brings repression.” When the movement takes action against authorities, this often leads to police attacks on activists, for example beatings, arrests and shootings.
In some countries, police have been heavy-handed in shutting down Covid protests. More commonly, though, protests have been tolerated with not so much repression. The reason is that, in many countries, rallies are a regular and accepted method of protest and, in Sharp’s terms, do not constitute nonviolent action. However, when gathering in public places is banned, as with lockdown rules, a public protest is indeed a challenge to authorities and may be met with harsh measures.
What sort of action is most effective?
A challenge to authorities may bring repression, but there’s a prior question: what sort of challenge is most effective? Movements around the world have used mass rallies to challenge dictatorial rulers, and because such mass events are so visually striking, they can be seen as the essence of social action. However, rallies alone are usually not enough to bring about significant change. Also needed are other methods, and there are a lot of them, ranging from vigils to strikes to alternative economic systems.
In deciding what action to take, there are several considerations. One is to enable participation by as many people as possible, from different walks of life. This builds the movement. Another consideration is to make the action as meaningful and empowering as possible for participants. This also builds the movement. Thirdly, ideally the methods used in the action should be ones compatible with the goal being sought. There are other considerations too. How will members of the public react? How will the police react? Choosing the right action is not a simple matter.
In the age of Covid, many people are deeply frightened of catching the disease. Therefore, when they see large crowds of people protesting, not wearing masks and not keeping distance, they are frightened. The crowds may be outside, where the risk of transmitting an infection is far less than indoors, but that doesn’t do much to reduce the fear. So what about other actions? What about a silent march, single file, wearing masks and carrying candles? This would be less threatening, many people can join in and it might be more moving for those involved.
It’s useful to think of two sorts of actions: those that resist injustice and those that help build an alternative world. Imagine a stall in which activists pass out free vitamin D capsules. Vitamin D is cheap and not patentable, and some research suggests it reduces the risk of contracting Covid. This sort of action could generate attention to alternatives to control measures.
There is one other vital consideration: not using violence. The third element in Sharp’s dynamics of nonviolent action is “solidarity and discipline to fight repression.” The key is to “maintain nonviolent discipline”. By this, Sharp means not using physical violence against police or other authorities. If there’s a rally of a thousand people and two of them throw bricks through shop windows and try to fight police, their behaviour can discredit the whole protest and become a pretext for police violence against the entire group.
Here’s the situation. When no one protesting uses any violence, then if police attack, it can be seen by many observers as unfair, and this can generate sympathy for the protesters. However, if any protesters use violence, this turns the engagement into a contest – a violent confrontation – and the police have all the advantages.
Experienced nonviolent campaigners try to ensure nonviolent discipline by announcing publicly that they are committed to remaining peaceful and by arranging for participants to go through some preparation beforehand so they don’t react to provocations.
In 1960 in Nashville, Tennessee, Black activists in the US civil rights movement wanted to challenge segregation and made plans to sit at lunch counters. They knew they would be attacked, so they spent months preparing, including being able to sit while whites yelled insults and police made arrests. Their preparations paid off, leading to the ending of restaurant segregation in the city.
Lunch-counter protesters attacked in Nashville, 1960
For many Covid protests, there is no preparation at all. People show up with no experience. It’s amazing that so many rallies have been completely peaceful. Preparation would help to reduce the risk of being discredited due to the violence of a few.
Even yelling abuse at the police or politicians can be counterproductive. Being aggressive in any way signals to observers that the protesters are unruly, inconsiderate, even dangerous. Furthermore, it scares away potential participants, for example ones with children.
Then there are opponents of Covid measures who send abuse to prominent figures such as Anthony Fauci. Some send death threats. This is disastrously counterproductive. These opponents sound tough but in practice serve to alienate potential supporters.
Sensible campaigners should publicly condemn abuse and threats targeted against those on the other side, and exclude anyone who they know uses abuse and threats. If there’s one thing that will discredit a movement, especially one with fewer numbers, it’s being abusive and threatening.
When movements start to become strong, and remain nonviolent, one thing police often do is use agents, who pretend to be activists, to encourage the use of violence. There was one incident in Australia, in 2016, in which pro-vaccination campaigners apparently tried to fake Twitter messages to appear like abuse from vaccine critics.
This all ties in with Sharp’s next stage, political jiu-jitsu. When police attack peaceful protesters — ones who maintain nonviolent discipline in spite of provocations — this can often lead to greater support for the movement. There are famous instances, for example in India in 1930, South Africa in 1960, East Timor in 1991. A similar process occurred in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd, triggering a massive expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement. This process of political jiu-jitsu can be observed, on a small scale, in the mobilising impact of videos showing police abusing Covid protesters.
Aftermath of Sharpeville massacre, South Africa, 1960
However, police brutality doesn’t always lead to political jiu-jitsu. Police have regular ways of reducing public outrage. Activists need to learn how to counter police tactics of outrage management.
There are more stages in Sharp’s dynamics and more I could say about making campaigns effective, but this is enough for now. There is a lot of writing about how to build social movements, including Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan and Mark and Paul Engler’s book This Is an Uprising. There are many experienced nonviolent activists in a range of movements, for example climate campaigners. My advice would be to make contact with experienced activists, get their advice and learn from them. Some may not be willing to help Covid protesters, but some will. Some may be sympathetic to protest goals, and some may think, “I don’t agree with your goals but if you’re going to protest it’s better to do it following nonviolence principles.”
One last point: prepare for a long struggle. When people first join a rally or a protest group, they come with enthusiasm that success is not far away. After all, they know they have justice on their side and all that’s needed is to help others to see the truth. This isn’t the way it works. Your truths may be heresy to others. Many campaigns go on for decades. Think of nuclear power, fluoridation, animal rights and climate change. Covid struggles might be with us for a very long time. Maybe not, but it’s better to prepare for a long struggle, indeed for one in which things get worse before they get better.
Covid protest, Washington state, USA
The other side
What if you think Covid protesters are deluded and dangerous? What’s the best way to respond?
- Discourage attacks. Every time police are heavy-handed with a protester, there’s a chance of turning the protester into a martyr. Remember political jiu-jitsu.
- Oppose mandates, such as vaccination mandates, and coercive measures. These are likely to foster greater resentment and resistance.
- Encourage responsible protest. If people are going to protest, it’s better if they do so with less risk to public health and less danger to police and bystanders.
- Engage in respectful conversations with people who have contrary views. Learn about their concerns and suggest ways forward.
- Search for common interests. Most people are concerned about wellbeing but they may have different ideas about how to achieve it. For example, it may be possible to agree on encouraging exercise, which can improve health and the immune system, even while disagreeing about lockdowns or vaccinations.
Running protest against racial injustice, USA
These methods won’t end the divisions and the conflict, but at least they won’t make things worse. Remember, Covid conflicts may be with us for a long time, so it’s worth finding ways to manage the conflict that bring out the better side of human nature.
For valuable comments, thanks to Paula Arvela, Anneleis Humphries, Julia LeMonde, Monika Onken and others who prefer not to be named.