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Creative disruption

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“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Common Uses

To expose and disrupt the public relations efforts of the armed and dangerous. Particularly useful at speeches, hearings, meetings, fundraisers and the like.

If a war criminal like Dick Cheney or a corporate criminal like former BP CEO Tony Hayward comes to town, what’s the best way to challenge the spin they’ll put on their misdeeds? Often, the scale of the misdeeds and the imbalance of power are so great that activists will forgo dialogue and move straight to disruption, attempting to shut down or seriously disrupt the event. Disruption can be an effective tactic, and has been used successfully by small groups of people, often with little advance notice or advance planning.

The problem, of course, is that not only does the target control the mic, the stage, and the venue, but even more importantly, as an invited guest or the official speaker, s/he has the audience’s sympathy. A poorly thought-out shout-down or disruption can easily backfire. The target can portray themselves as a victim of anti-free speech harassment, thus gaining public sympathy and a larger platform. The challenge is to disrupt the event without handing your target that opportunity.

Sometimes an oblique intervention that re-frames the target’s remarks or forces a response to your issues without literally preventing anyone from speaking can be more effective than just shouting down someone. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a rare town hall meeting in San Francisco in 2006 during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, CODEPINK demonstrators — angry that Pelosi was not pushing for a cut-off in war funding — waited until the Q and A session, then surrounded the stage with their “Stop Funding War” banners and stood there, silently, for the remainder of the meeting.

The creative use of a sign or banner can help you avoid the “it’s an attack on free speech” trap. In effect, you’re adding an additional “layer” of speech; you’re engaging in more free speech, not less. Song can also be used in this way. A 2011 foreclosure auction in Brooklyn, for instance, was movingly disrupted by protesters breaking into song. Song creates sympathy.

A creative disruption needn’t be passive. When Newt Gingrich came to the Minnesota Family Council conference for a book signing, a queer activist dutifully waited in line and when it came to his turn, dumped rainbow glitter over Gingrich, shouting, “Feel the rainbow, Newt! Stop the hate, stop anti-gay policies” as he was escorted out of the room. The video documenting the event see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them went viral and the disruption gained international press attention, sparking a wave of LGBT activism. The tactic of “glitter-bombing” even made it into an episode of the TV show Glee.

Theater is another way to “disrupt without disrupting.” When Jeane Kirkpatrick (Reagan’s Ambassador to the UN) came to UC Berkeley in the 1980’s, activists staged a mock death-squad kidnapping. “Soldiers” (students) in irregular fatigues marched down the main aisle barking orders in Spanish and dragged off a few students kicking and screaming from the audience. Others then scattered leaflets detailing the U.S.’s and Kirkpatrick’s support for El Salvador’s death-squad government from the balcony onto the stunned audience.

As these examples show, it’s critical to tailor your disruption to the specific target and situation. Often, you can be more effective if you step out of the “combative speech box” and consider alternate modalities, like visuals, song, theater, and humor.

Key Principle at work

Put your target in a decision dilemma

Well-designed creative disruption should leave your target no good option. If Nancy Pelosi had acknowledged or engaged with the protesters, she would have only elevated their credibility and drawn further attention to their message. Had security cleared out the silent activists, it would have looked heavy-handed. Had she left the scene, it would have been seen as a capitulation. Her least worst option, and what she chose to do, was continue with the event — whose meaning was then reframed by the silent protest signs around her. A well-designed creative disruption puts you in a win-win — and your target in a lose-lose — situation.


Nancy L. Mancias is a campaign organizer for CODEPINK. An anti-war advocate, Mancias has been actively trying to bring the troops home from their overseas misadventures. She has also been part of the movement against torture and a proponent of closing the prison in Guantánamo. She is a believer in accountability for war crimes. She alerts people around the country when war criminals will be speaking, encouraging them to try to make a citizen’s arrest or some ruckus. Like many in the anti-war movement, Mancias views her work against drones as a natural extension of her peace efforts.


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