When thinking about the recent protest and subsequent arrest of four Williams students in Washington, D.C., it is important to keep in mind that all forms of direct action are not created equal. To be successful and have the potential to enact systemic change, direct action and protest movements must have certain characteristics. These characteristics combine to help shape protest movements into mainstream groups with the potential to enact large-scale social change. Without certain characteristics, these groups might be considered counter-cultural oddities.
Presented in no particular order, the ability of Williams activists to adapt their goals and willpower to these criteria should be a good indicator of whether or not their vision of enacting change will actually occur. While these criteria are important in light of the most recent protest by Williams students, they are also more generally applicable to all organizations on campus that seek to enact change through direct action and social protest. These criteria are as follows:
1) Uniqueness: A social protest movement needs to fulfill a unique need or speak to a specific issue in society. While adopting the tactics of direct non-violent protest is a precursor for uniqueness in and of itself, activists must articulate the uniqueness of their message in ways besides their methods of protest in order to stand out from other similar protest organizations.
2) Organization: Protests cannot solely be the work of a small group of dedicated activists. Without further resources, the ability for sustained action decreases drastically over time. Through networking with similar organizations and like-minded individuals, the movement can become self-sustaining, both financially and in terms of motivation and commitment to a diverse array of protest activities.
3) Visibility: Protests must be undertaken with a large media presence. This presence must be maintained so that it becomes sustainable. A brief burst of media coverage followed by no coverage at all causes the movement to become irrelevant and quickly forgotten. Visibility can be increased by networking with media organizations and self-promoting the actions and ideology of the protest organization.
4) Moderation: Protest movements must move towards the mainstream to gain acceptance and the ability to enact social change. In doing so, clear ideological positions and goals must be articulated that avoid millenarian, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist or other radical positions. While the shock value of radical organizations might be great, those that fail to move mainstream become footnotes and afterthoughts at the negotiating table. The idea that it is possible to enact change solely through shock, fear or visibility in a democracy such as the United States is profoundly misguided. Social protest movements must be ready to meet at the negotiating table and work within the system in order to enact any real change.
5) Humility: While it is impossible to ignore the impact of figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi on modern forms of social activism and protest, it is imperative to also recognize the differences between contemporary and historical movements. Attempting to appropriate the legacy of these individuals appears to the outsider to be elitist and misguided. It is difficult for strongly committed ideologues to distance themselves from their goals and look critically at the way in which their movement is perceived from the outside. Adopting a humble outlook serves to limit the potential negative effects of this ideological bias.
These criteria are in no way intended to represent a complete list of the necessary components for successful direct action and protest movements. They do, however, highlight some of the crucial shortcomings in recent protest actions undertaken by Williams students. While I generally agree ideologically with the content of protests by Williams students, I often disagree with the means employed. Such disagreement does not stem from a distaste for direct action or protests in general. Rather, I see the need to revaluate both the goals and plans of Williams activists from a structural standpoint in order to further the goals of their respective movements while also limiting the negative consequences for those involved.