A tactic is a tactic

Greenpeace is innovating new tactics, an excellent piece by Kim Murphy in the weekend LA Times reports, developing a style of performance that is  a departure from blocking whalers in port.  We’ll come back to this, but first let’s talk about tactics:

People who are unhappy with a policy do something to try to advance their cause, undermining support for the current situation and/or building impetus for preferred remedies.   What do they do?  Oh so many things:  march silently, throw rocks, self-immolate, provoke arrest, hold signs, spit, sing, pray, trespass, block access to something, make a speech.  This can go on and on.

The tactic activists employ is an instrumental choice, something people engage because they think it will help them get their message out.  A good choice reflects judgments about the amount of space activists have to operate, the likely responses of opponents and authorities, and the imagined responses of audiences.   Will others join in?  Will people be sympathetic?

An effective tactic inspires supporters, threatens opponents, and creates a space for discussing issues.  What works on one day may not be so effective later on.  The tactic, be it a sit-in or  a speak-out, is a tool, a means to a larger end.  Everyone isn’t always deliberate and calculating, but effective organizers respond to their environments.

For example: Democracy activists in Russia, now facing severe fines for engaging in protest (up to $9,000), are less likely to stage public demonstrations, and more likely to take their concerns indoors somewhere.

PETA, always looking for ways to generate attention for itself–and its issues–has established a porn site.  Just the announcement of this approach has generated a great deal of attention.  But is it helpful to the animal rights movement?  Be sure that animal rights activists are arguing about this.

Although an activist or group can develop an inappropriate fixation on a particular set of tactics, blockades or vigils, for example, people concerned with being effective will respond to the world around them.

So when Shell Oil succeeded in getting an injunction against Greepeace, enjoining it from coming within a kilometer of its drilling rigs, depriving it of good pictures and threatening much larger fines, the environmental group had to innovate.  Kim Murphy reports:

The upshot is that while Greenpeace may once have faced a trespassing charge or some minor equivalent for harassing Shell’s drilling fleet, the organization now faces the much harsher penalties associated with violating a federal injunction if activists stray past the boundaries.

“Certainly this injunction we are faced with demanded some new thinking, and I guess the tactics needed to counter an international oil campaign have to be creative,” Greenpeace USA spokesman James Turner said. “Social media offers us the opportunity to use humor and inventiveness to reach people in a way that hopefully entertains and engages them, while making a serious point at the same time.”

Greenpeace’s current responses include episodes of guerrilla theater, such as staging a fake Shell reception at which an ice sculpture doused a guest with Diet Coke, while others rushed to help her by wiping up the spillage with stuffed teddy bears.  Certainly no more subtle than other Greenpeace displays, and very clear on the political points.  It’s all in the service of producing a video which went viral (660,000 + hits at this moment).

It’s less costly and less risky than confronting Shell at sea.  The questions: is it easier to ignore?  Does it raise the issue of off-shore drilling or just make Greenpeace look silly?

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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3 Responses to A tactic is a tactic

  1. Chema says:

    Interesting post. I am currently reading “beautiful trouble” a good reconciliation of tactics, principles and examples. If you have not read it yet it might be worthy reding. It goes vey much on the line you are following here analyzing tactics and then underlying the strong and the weak points.

  2. Pingback: Politics Outdoors

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