The Basics of Effective Protest Strategy


sas protest2{The following is a chapter from my book, “The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook,” which I wrote to teach Black student activists how to organize on college campuses. The information addresses college protest movements but can be applied to community organizations as well.}


The Anatomy of a Movement

By “movement,” I’m referring to a sustained and organized struggle on behalf of a group that demands concessions from an agency/institution. This assumes an adversarial or contentious relationship between two parties like the BSU (Black Student Union) and the university for example. The BSU wants a certain thing or set of things which the university can provide but refuses to for any number of reasons. Therefore the BSU launches a movement or campaign to get the concessions it wants.

I began this book expressing disappointment with those BSUs around the country that have become social clubs rather than the agents of resistance and empowerment they were founded to be on college campuses. My hope is that this book will inspire a return to that original BSU spirit. This chapter will equip your organization to take its rightful place in the tradition of BSUs by acquainting you with the “anatomy” so to speak, of a protest movement.

We might say that a campaign is composed of 8 general parts: Irreconcilable Discontent, Research, Propaganda, A Call to action, Presentation of demands, Outreach & Alliance Building, Confrontation, and Negotiation.

Irreconcilable Discontent: This refers to a mentality or psychological state which leads people to create a movement to confront the university or any other power structure. People may experience discontent with a situation for several years but never do anything to resolve their conflicts because they have “made peace” with it in one way or another. They might rationalize that this “is just the way things are,” or that “we can’t win” or refuse to seriously address the issue out of fear or personal discomfort.

But irreconcilable discontent takes place when an incident occurs that is so egregious, so blatantly insulting or oppressive that people overcome their fears and skepticism and feel compelled to respond in organized fashion. For example, Black people have resented the ominous presence and brutal activities of police in our communities for decades. We detest police harassing Black motorists, stopping and frisking our youth, and shooting us down in the streets. We know this is unjust and criminal; we know that the officers responsible go free and resume their presence on the police force.

Yet despite our discontent we reconcile with such practices, telling ourselves to “let the system do its job,” or that “God will punish them.” As demonstrated in our response to Trayvon Martin’s murder on February 26, 2012, and his murderer’s subsequent exoneration, we participate in a few marches or petition drives, hold some press conferences and rallies, and eventually go back to business as usual.

Irreconcilable discontent means “the straw has broken the camel’s back,” we come to the realization that “Enough is enough,” and we are compelled to act in an assertive manner (even to the point of breaking oppressive rules/laws and refusing to cooperate with societal convention).

In Montgomery, Alabama, Black people in the 1950s were accustomed to sitting in the segregated section of the bus. We were accustomed to paying our fare, then exiting to board the bus via the back door. Often the bus drivers pulled off with us standing there. We didn’t like this mistreatment. We were discontent for sure, but we mumbled under our breath, accepting that this obvious form of injustice was “just the way things were” at that time. Of course some individuals refused to comply with these laws, but Blacks did not collectively wage a movement.

But when innocent and well-respected seamstress and longtime activist Rosa Parks was roughly taken off the bus and arrested for not complying with the law, Blacks in Montgomery became irreconcilably discontented. And this sense of outrage led to a 381 day bus boycott that nearly brought the bus company to bankruptcy and led to a court decision banning bus segregation.

Successful campaigns or movements almost always begin when our people feel a sense of outrage so intense that they are ready and willing to take action. Astute leaders recognize such moments and begin organizing this widespread anger and frustration into a sustained and organized movement for social or political change.

Research: At some point, organizers and activists begin researching to determine who is responsible for resolving the issue, methods they can take to bring attention to the issue, and what specific demands they will make to the parties that have the power to resolve the issue.

Call to Action: Having defined the issues, and “opposition force” responsible for resolving them, the organizers and activists issue a call to action to the masses, directly calling upon them to move beyond discontent and into organized action. During this early phase of your movement, you will hold meetings with your group to effectively explain how this issue affects your members, why they should be outraged, and give them a sense of their power to resolve the issue.

Presentation of Demands: After concluding your research to clarify the issues involved and party responsible, you formally present your grievances and demands to the responsible party. You can do this in several ways, including a petition, letter, or verbally at a meeting with the person you identify as the responsible party. This is obviously the main goal of your movement, namely to get your demands satisfied. In the best case, the opposition agrees to your demands in writing on its official letterhead. This is not very likely to happen immediately however, as powerful organizations tend to underestimate your seriousness or validity of your cause and do not respond well to changing their policies or practices.

Outreach & Alliance Building: Anticipating a long struggle, your organization contacts other groups and leaders for support and resources to aid in your movement. This lends greater numbers and therefore strength to your cause. You want to identify campus and community organizations to support you. If you’ve been building relations with these people in advance (as I suggested earlier) this step will prove easier and more successful.

Propaganda: In an effort to heighten and dramatize the tension surrounding the issue, organizers use propaganda. Through informational fliers, press conferences and rallies, they use colorful language and imagery to expose the contradictions involved, highlight the specific injustice(s), and call for the responsible parties to take corrective action. Your propaganda should powerfully describe and detail the injustice, identify your grievances and demands, and explain how and why your demands went unmet.

During this phase it’s important that the organization identify an individual as their opposition or responsible party. A corporation, university or other institution might be responsible, but you must put a face on that institution, as people cannot effectively confront an abstract “company.” Your research should have discovered one person (a CEO, university president, or elected official who is representative of the organization you’re going to confront). During this phase, you’ll want to write editorials in your college, organization and community newspapers and give press conferences detailing your issue. You want everyone to clearly understand what you’re fighting for and how it impacts you and others.

Confrontation: In this phase of the movement or campaign the disgruntled organization directly confronts the individual (representative of the institution) believed to be responsible for creating or at least resolving the issue. Naturally, this only occurs if your grievances and demands are initially unmet. To encourage sympathy from outside observers and to develop proper momentum, you should begin with simple, less intense and more “respectable” tactics (petitions, meetings, rallies, newspaper articles) and if necessary, become increasingly more intense, dramatic and aggressive.

If the opposition does not respond to these tactics and you’re compelled to engage in more assertive measures, other people not involved in your movement will more likely understand and support your cause as being fair and reasonable. They will also be more likely to view your opposition as being unreasonable and unfair. This perception and sympathy may come in handy later in your campaign when you need all the outside support you can get. When your tactics become more aggressive, the court of public opinion will be more sensitive to your cause. If you conduct your most assertive action too early in the campaign, and the opposition does not flinch, your campaign loses momentum and it may be close to impossible to regain it.

Confrontations typically consist of specific tactics. These may include petitions, letter-writing campaigns, rallies, building takeovers, marches, and mass phone calls of complaint/concern to the individual/institution, demonstrations and protests.

Petitions are concise letters that clearly specify the issues involved, your grievances and demands, and the person/institution you deem responsible for addressing your issue. These letters have space at the bottom for your supporters to sign in agreement with your petition demands.

The strength of a petition lies in the number of people that sign it. It shows that your organization has a large and diverse base of support, and puts pressure on the opposition to take your matter seriously and to resolve it. Because each person that signs your petition reads it first, a petition is also an excellent way to inform the public about your organization and the issue you’re fighting for. Petition drives often result in people joining or becoming supportive of your organization. A petition puts the opposition on notice that you are in disagreement with a policy, procedure or situation so that they cannot claim ignorance later. It also creates a documented record of your dispute. A well orchestrated petition drive will often lead to a meeting with the opposition and in the best case, concessions from the opposition. Online petitions which you can create for free on websites like,, or are powerful petition tools, because people can “sign” them with a click of a button and you can arrange it so that every time a person signs, a copy of the petition is emailed to the person you designate.

Letter-writing campaigns constitute another good tactic because they get people involved in your movement and demonstrate your wide base of support. With this tactic, you provide people with a sample of the issues, injustice involved, and your grievance/demands and allow them to craft a brief letter supporting your cause. These days, you would most likely use email to accomplish this.

Rallies are (usually) outdoor meetings held in a high-traffic area on campus or in the community. You have various leaders and activists from your group and others speak on your movement and what you’re fighting for. Your primary goal is to educate the public and generate support. For added effectiveness, you can have tables at your rally site where people sign your petitions or receive more information about your organization. These types of events tend to attract media coverage which promotes your movement to people who know little to nothing about it. You’ll want to invite powerful and informed speakers who are respected by the community and list their names on your fliers promoting the event. Their followers and supporters will come to hear them speak which helps you gain even more supporters. Effective rallies are informative and dynamic. The audience should be encouraged to chant (i.e. “No justice, no peace!” “A people united will never be defeated”) sing protest songs hold signs and applaud loudly.

Building Takeovers are forms of protest that are very dramatic, controversial, attention-grabbing, and usually illegal. But because this involves disrupting a place of business and because it is intimidating to workers in the building, this tactic is risky. It can create enemies among innocent workers who may not understand or agree with your issue, brand your organization as violent or coercive, and lead to destruction of property or even minor injuries. Takeovers are generally banned by institutions so you face the very real likelihood of arrests. This tactic MUST be well-organized and you must clearly communicate dos and don’ts for your participants or this can backfire in very negative ways for your movement.

Marches involve a large number of people walking in unison to a designated place where an organization usually holds a rally. Marches are accompanied by colorful signs with headlines that dramatize your issue. You can organize singing and chanting as people march or do a silent march. These are excellent for generating media coverage and attracting the attention of passers-by who wonder what all the commotion is about. Because they involve large audiences, march conveners should make sure the event is well-organized. You must inform participants beforehand what route they will use, what the destination is and what the issue is. Also, you should have a spokesperson on hand to speak with reporters and answer questions.

Mass phone calls are self-explanatory. You provide hundreds of people with the work phone number of your opposition figure (calling their home or cell phone might be seen as a form of harassment) and a few basic scripts to read when the person (or their assistant) answers. Each person calls and explains his/her concern about your issue. Then they ask what this person plan to do about it. This is a legal and completely easy way to disrupt the individual’s work day while reinforcing your issue. When done correctly, this tactic ties up your opposition’s phone lines and makes it difficult for them to conduct business as usual. Even if no one answers, your callers can leave a message. This pressure tactic demonstrates your strength and wide base of support. It also subtly pressures them to resolve your issue. I like to call this tactic ‘Holding the phone lines hostage.”

Demonstrations represent another dramatic tactic which draw media coverage for your issue and involve great fun. You can think of a demonstration as social theater. People using this tactic dramatize the said issue in very creative and engaging ways designed to describe (in exaggerated fashion) exactly why and how the institution, policy or practice is oppressive, exploitive or simply unfair.
Students protesting a tuition hike might stage a demonstration in which a college class has a professor lecturing to only three students who happen to be wealthy and pampered. This is designed to illustrate the organization’s belief that the proposed tuition increase will significantly reduce the student population and make the college affordable only to affluent students.
A BSU protesting a policy that ends affirmative action on their campus might stage a funeral scene. Pallbearers solemnly carry a casket marked “Black Students at this university.” Once inside the mock funeral home, the preacher begins to deliver a moving eulogy for Black students on campus, noting that the removal of affirmative action “killed” the presence of Blacks on campus. Nearby, in a mock court scene, we see a prosecutor grilling the university president and accusing him of “murdering” affirmative action. A Black-student jury pronounces him guilty and the university president is led out of court in handcuffs. As you might imagine, these demonstrations dramatize the perceived injustices involved in ways that are more fun and sensational than would be the case in a rally or petition. They also guarantee media coverage and depict the opposition in a negative light. By definition, demonstrations involve the skillful use of propaganda.

Negotiation: Usually the last phase of a successful campaign involves a series of meetings between a BSU representative (usually the president and a Vice President) and a representative of the opposition. At this point, the institution has suffered great embarrassment in the media and tremendous pressure from the BSU and its supporters. In an effort to continue operating normally and end its public embarrassment and increasingly aggressive BSU protests and demonstrations, the opposing institution is now compelled to sit with your organization to bring the movement to an end by making concessions.

In most cases, the negotiating phase involves some degree of compromise and flexibility from the protesting organization. Sometimes budgetary considerations or other realities make some demands untenable or impractical. In these cases, the BSU will have to determine which demands are most important and non-negotiable. After these meetings, all agreements made verbally must be put in writing and signed by a person with the authority to grant the requests and the BSU official. It is important to establish reasonable dates by which these changes will be implemented, or the university has wiggle room to renege on their agreements.

In conclusion, please realize that no movement or campaign unfolds in one specific manner. This anatomy of a campaign I provided cannot possibly account for or anticipate every single nuance of a struggle. It does however acquaint you with the general things you should consider and for which you should prepare.


 Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at

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