Q: When people take to the streets to protest, does this presume a failure of leadership?

I found myself explaining to a friend that street-action is to leading as “no” is to selling:
it’s a message to be heeded and (only at its most extreme) an outright rejection of the ‘sale’.

Leadership is a lot about power: who has it, who influences it, and what they do with it. It’s because “power concedes nothing without a demand” that we have opposition parties, social movements, civil wars, and democratic elections to influence those who have it, to distribute it more broadly, or to move it from one person, group or entity to another.

Taking to the streets is a way of making that demand …

it’s a form of communication; one tool — among many — to try to influence power. Rallies, sit-ins, marches, protests, parades, and strikes can sit almost anywhere along the continuum of change strategies that includes conversation, collaboration, education, negotiation, compromise, conflict, argumentation, and violence. Lyndon Johnson famously told Martin Luther King that he wanted to support the Voting Rights Act but had used up his Congressional IOUs passing the earlier Civil Rights Act. I want to support this, was his message to MLK, but you’re going to have to make me do it. So according to Roy Wilkins, “King put the people on the street”.

Street action can encourage conversation, bolster courage for collaboration and compromise, be a tool for education, strengthen one’s hand for negotiation, drum up support for one’s argument in the face of conflict, or — when all else fails — provide context for the ultimate lever for change: violence.

It’s only when the single reason for taking to the streets is to express one party’s most extreme and violent rejection of the other — through violence — that street-action expresses a terminal breakdown of leadership.