Protestors and their Targets

By William A. Gamson

When I think about the distinction between members and challengers, I think of the differences in the adversarial relationship with the target of change. Challengers necessarily have an adversarial relationship with their target who does not recognize them as a legitimate spokesperson for some constituency. Members have a more ambivalent and mixed relationship. Representatives of the target are willing to sit down with them and discuss issues but it remains to be seen whether this leads to genuine change or is simply an attempt at cooptation. The task, for analysts, is to do justice to the variable nature of this relationship and to its changes over time.

A second major issue is the tricky task of framing the target in a way that will mobilize ones potential constituency and will affect the scope of the conflict so that bystanders are drawn in as supporters of one’s efforts rather than remaining neutral or even supporting the social control actions of authorities. Often the protestors will recognize that the problem is with a more general system that provides constraints on the actions that any particular group of authorities can take. But the abstractness of “the system” is not helpful when one is planning collective action to change it. Often it is helpful to mobilization to personify the system but making the target particular organizations or individuals who come to symbolize the evils of the system. Saul Alinsky (1972) is probably the best-known articulator of this strategy but it can have its problems, centered on the issue of scapegoating targets who are really not responsible for the undesirable outcomes.

Donatella della Porta reminds us that movements do not start with a blank slate in their choice of collective action but inherent a repertoire from the past. “Past traditions, memories, institutions, all play a role, as collective identities are rooted in them.” Some actions may be chosen, not for strategic reasons, but because they are in the forefront of the movement’s collective memory.

I would also underline the fact that people can play multiple roles. It is possible for a person to be part of a group of authorities with the ability to set or rescind policies that the protesters are trying to change and to provide alternatives. But they can also wear another hat and go out and join the protesters in their collective action. Of course, they are often inhibited from doing so because of potential pressure centering on their role as a member of the target group and the suggestion of a conflict of interest. But this ability of individuals to play more than one role does not mean that the lines between targets and protesters are themselves sometimes blurred since the target remains a group with the ability to make binding decisions affecting policy.

Charles Seguin, in his blog comments, asks, “How do we maintain a distinction between movement actors and movement targets? If these boundaries are so unclear, how to conceptualize the movement’s effect on its target?” This seems to me a misplaced concern. The fact that individuals can be both members of the protest group and the target group does not in any way blur the distinction between the role and powers of the different groups.

I found myself puzzled in various ways by Deana Rohlinger’s discussion of “reputation.” It seems very clear to me that reputation is a multi-dimensional concept, one that does not lend itself to a single measure from “strong” to “weak”. Charles Seguin’s example of the Black Panther Party seems to me to demonstrate the weakness. The Sacramento protests did a great deal to strengthen the reputation of the BPP among potential constituents across the country and aided greatly in mobilization efforts. At the same time, it provided legitimacy for extreme social control measures by authorities that benefited by the negative reputation among bystanders and many authorities. It does not really seem meaningful to me to characterize the BPP reputation as “weak” or “strong.”

What is even more puzzling to me, is Rohlinger’s neglect of parallel discussions of these issues using the multi-dimensional concept of framing. I felt a strong need for her to show how what she had to say about reputation was similar to or different from the framing concept and why this additional, fuzzier concept of “reputation” was necessary or added something new. The framing literature builds on and specifies the dimensions, distinguishing between the framing of the actors, the issue, and the possible outcomes in what seems to me a well-established and useful way.

I found David Everson’s discussion of the importance of scope a useful reminder that an effective movement strategy depends not only on a way of influencing authorities but of influencing bystanders as well. “When a fight breaks out, watch the crowd” Schattschneider (1960) famously observed. The scope of a conflict and the role of bystanders must both be incorporated into a successful strategy and, in this sense, authorities who can make binding decisions and bystanders who can effect scope are equally relevant as targets for protesters.

The concept of scope seems especially important in understanding Heidi Reynolds-Stenson’s discussion of targeting police. There are numerous examples, some of them recent but many of them famous in the civil rights movement, in which social control errors by police have proven vital in mobilization of bystanders in support of protesters. The 50th anniversary of the Selma demonstrations at the Edmund Pettus Bridge highlights this and the ready availability today of camera phones in the hands of protesters allows documentation of outrageous police misconduct (often contradicting “official” versions of what happened) and its widespread circulation through social media. In this sense, the importance of the police handling of protest has become even more important in influencing the scope of conflict than it was in the era of Selma.


Alinsky, Saul (1972) Rules for Radicals. New York: Random House.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960) The Semi-Sovereign People. New York: Holr, Rinehart, & Winston.

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