” … highly readable guide to activist tactics and principles … “Neil Ungerleider, Fast Company Magazine
“The real action is in the enemy’s reaction.”Saul Alinsky
When taking on a big and well-known target, it is often the target’s reaction to your action that’s the key to success. Therefore, anticipate your target’s reactions and write them into your script.
During the Salt March of 1930, Indian independence activists famously kept walking, unarmed and undeterred, into the brutal blows of British police (see CASE: The Salt March). Importantly, the press were there — activists made sure of it — to document the colonial government playing the villain in predictably despicable fashion. The Indian nation rallied to the cause. World public opinion followed.
Organizer Saul Alinsky later coined the term “political jiu-jitsu” to describe actions like this. Confrontations like the Salt March enable under-resourced activist groups to use a powerful opponent’s momentum against them by provoking a reaction, and then watching them fall flat, literally or figuratively, in front of the cameras.
When applying this principle, it’s important to understand that you can’t just hope the target reacts in a way that spotlights the injustice. Wherever possible, plan for your target’s reactions, encourage them, and incorporate them into the action. If it doesn’t work the first time, adjust and try again.
A good way to ensure you get a strategically useful reaction from your target is to force them into a “Decision Dilemma” (see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma), where all of their available options play to your advantage. When the Yes Men, impersonating a spokesperson for Dow Chemical, announced on BBC TV that Dow was apologizing for the Bhopal disaster and allocating $12 billion to compensate the victims (see CASE: Dow Chemical apologizes for Bhopal), Dow’s stock plummeted and they were forced to react. Dow had to issue a statement saying they were NOT apologizing for the Bhopal disaster and would NOT be compensating the victims. And that was the big tell. Here, once again, the action (happily and by design) was dwarfed by the target’s reaction.
As the Dow Chemical case illustrates, you don’t need a physical confrontation to make good theater. In 2000, the Bush campaign sued activist Zack Exley and tried to shut down his prank website, GWBush.com (a domain Exley had managed to buy before the campaign had). The press picked up the story, and with each new legal attack (Bush at one point saying “there ought to be limits to freedom”), there was another wave of press sympathetic to the site and combative towards a hapless dolt who somehow ended up being President for eight years. (A sorry reminder that even the cleverest one-off tactic does not a successful campaign make.)
Contrary to popular belief, when one of the big boys threatens you (and if you use a company’s trademark in an action, for example, you can count on a cease and desist letter), you should celebrate! You are the David to their Goliath, and now you have the upper hand! Take their best quotes, weave them into a press release, and voila, you’ve cast them in your play. In the timeless logic of jiu-jitsu, you have borrowed some of their power, and if coverage goes your way, you have used their offensive momentum to flip them on their backs. Everyone loves it when Goliath bites the dust.