Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Petitional Protest Legitimizes Power

There are four primary directions of protest that I see enacted in American Society.  For purposes of this article, I am separating them so that they can be seen, knowing that in the real world they are often bound up together in any discrete action or moment.  Several of these may be active in the hearts and motivations of even a single activist at the same time, so they are bound up together when any group is acting together.  Actions can even be crafted so as to intentionally engage in several of these directions at once.  And by “directions”, what I mean is who is the protest directed to?  Who is the “target audience”?

My names for these four directions of protest are Petitional, Disruptive, Transformational, and Pastoral.  There may be more “directions” than this, and I look forward to the thoughts of others on this topic.  But let me discuss the four that I see, and then engage a point about Petitional Protest that I think is important for this moment we are currently living.

Petitional Protest consists of protest actions whose primary motivation and criteria for success involve influencing or shifting individuals or entities who have explicit power.  The famous exampled used in many community organizing systems about a community that comes together to convince local lawmakers and officials to put a stop sign at a dangerous intersection in the community’s neighborhood is a classic example of petitional protest.  It is making a petition to those who hold established power to exercise their power to do or cease doing something that is within the power that they currently exercise or hold.  Whether it is an organized action to visit the offices of members of a legislature to engage them on an issue, or making the case for climate change to the shareholders of a petroleum corporation, or a list of demands asking an executive office holder to implement this or that policy from an established lobbying organization… all seek to petition some action from those who hold direct power to take said action.  Almost all community organizing systems, and indeed most institutional justice work, are a form of Petitional Protest.  They seek to influence established power towards certain actions, and away from other actions.

The second of the four directions of protest that I have identified in our country is Disruptive Protest.  This is any protest designed to disrupt established patterns and systems within institutions, or within everyday life.  Disruptive Protest comes in two sub-categories.  The first seeks to disrupt patterns and systems within established institutions, like governmental entities or corporations.  The second seeks to disrupt patterns and systems within the lived lives of members of the society.  Both seek to create a level of anxiety and inconvenience that would then force actions by the affected institutions or changes in awareness among the general population.  Disruptive Protest could be taking over a state legislature building, disrupting the ability of the legislators and their staffs from conducting normal business.  Or blocking the actions of a corporation from conducting business that activists want them to cease doing.  Or blocking a highway and creating a traffic jam so that people who are inconvenienced ask the question “Why are they doing this!?” and pay attention to the answer, popping out of the concerns of their daily lives for just a moment.  Or filling the streets of a city center over and over, preventing people from getting to work or conducting business.  Disruptive Protest is any protest that seeks to force an action of an established power or cause a moment of awareness in the general public by disrupting the patterns and systems upon which those institutions or individuals rely.

The third direction of protest that I have discerned in our society is what I call Transformational Protest.  Transformational Protest is any protest designed to create a transformational, epiphany moment in the minds and hearts of human beings.  These are protests designed that when someone encounters them, they experience a shift in their awareness that brings a new vision, and draws them closer into agreement with the goal of the protest.  Transformational Protest can be targeted to create this moment of transformational awareness within the entirety of a society, or it can be targeted to create such a moment of transformational awareness in the heart of even a single person, perhaps a person with explicit power.  Transformational Protest is one of the most powerful forms of protest, and it can range from the very blunt and obvious to the very subtle and even subliminal.  From an art installation designed to shock the viewer into a new awareness, to the way television has been used to slowly normalize LGBTQ relationships over the last 10 years.  From a full-page ad in a newspaper designed to publicly embarrass someone who is exercising power, to activists willingly being publicly arrested to highlight the importance of an issue.  From a billboard designed to shock and outrage being put up on a busy freeway, to the slow recruitment of someone to shift to a different political perspective, transformational protest has the capacity to create both moments of shifted awareness and a lifetime of dedicated activism.

The fourth direction of protest that I often witness is Pastoral Protest.  Sometimes the direction of impact for a protest is the activists themselves.  Often when I talk about this, there is a defensiveness that can occur, and so I want to say at the beginning that I think that this kind of protest is vitally important to the energy and sustainability of any movement or action.  I’m both a minister and a chaplain, so I understand sustaining the spirit and the soul.  In naming this, what I am asking of us is that we recognize that sometimes the direction of an action of protest is our own sustainment and care as activists, and to be aware of how pastorally easing the tensions of our society can also sap energy that could instead be directed towards more externally focused protest directions.  Often mass protests are engaged by many of the participants as a form of Pastoral Protest, and to the extent that they center us and energize us for the work ahead, then they are important and wonderful.  To the extent that they allow for a release of tensions in ways that lessen the motivation of both activists and the population towards necessary change, then they can be counter-productive.  It is in the art of the activist to see this direction of protest for what it is, and manage the amount of and type of pastoral protest to build energy for activism in the community rather than dissipate it.

I believe all four of these directions of protest are essential in working to build the beloved community, and that both individual activists and activist groups and institutions often show a preference for one of these forms.  For example, those trained in most Community Organizing systems show a strong predilection towards Petitional Protest.  This is rooted in the theory behind much community organizing, particularly those along the Industrial Areas Foundation Model and other similar systems.  I know that I have a personal draw towards Transformational Protest, or trying to create moments of awareness in the hearts and minds of individuals and groups, such as taking groups on “Street Retreats” in the homelessness communities near where I served as a parish minister, including once an individual street retreat experience for the city’s mayor.  I have celebrated when Black Lives Matter and other groups have shown some skill recently at Distruptive Protest, as my understanding of anxiety theory says that we are most likely to shift our awareness when our patterns and systems have been disrupted.  And no one who has led or attended a candle-light vigil after an unjust death at the hands of police can doubt the power of Pastoral Protest to energize, dedicate, and sanctify the hands and the hearts of the people for healing the world.

And, in this moment in the United States, I am very aware of one specific aspect of Petitional Protest.  All four of the directions of protest have benefits and challenges, such as the tendency of some Pastoral Protest to dissipate energy rather than build and strengthen it, and there is a tendency of Petitional Protest that I feel called to name right now.  And that is how Petitional Protest legitimizes power.

If you are asking an individual or an institution to exercise power they hold, you are legitimizing that power.  At the core of Petitional Protest is a recognition and acceptance that the power of the individual or institution being petitioned is legitimate, and that you are requesting they then use their legitimate power towards ends that you wish them to achieve.  If you are petitioning a corporation’s Board of Directors to stop drilling for oil in the Arctic, then you are recognizing that the corporation’s Board of Directors has the legitimate authority to make the decision about whether they should be allowed to drill in the Arctic.  If they agree with you and stop drilling, but later change their mind and begin drilling again, you have already ceded to them the right to make the decision.

The same is true when it comes to state power.  If you petition a legislature to pass a law on a certain topic, you inherently recognize and legitimize the authority of that legislature to not only pass that law, but to pass laws in general.  Laws that are binding upon the society and upon you .  If you petition a state executive to change an executive action, you are ceding recognition of the ability of the executive to take that executive action.  If you file a lawsuit on an issue in the courts, you are ceding to the courts the authority to issue judgements upon not just the issues of that specific case, but of all cases before them.

This is why established institutions are most comfortable with, and indeed deeply supportive of Petitional Protest.  This is why institutional actors in our society seek to legitimize Petitional Protest while de-legitimizing all of the other directions of protest, with the occasional exception of Pastoral Protest especially when it serves to dissipate tension.  Because at the core of Petitional Protest is a recognition of and accession to the legitimacy of institutional power, and therefore it is least likely to create transformational change.

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