This study investigates how different targets of state-sanctioned arrests shape the likelihood of collective action. We hypothesize that leader arrests are especially likely to result in backlash protests. Leader arrests symbolize the suppression of social collectives, they create collective grievances, and constitute focal points for mobilization. Building on a global sample of arrests of cultural identity group members, we qualitatively traced for each arrest whether it sparked a backlash protest. Drawing on coarsened exact matched models, we find that protests are significantly more likely following leader arrests. In contrast, mass arrests are not significantly linked to backlash protests. Additional tests show that organizational membership does not drive this findings, whereas the symbolic value of leaders is linked to protest outbreaks. Our findings cast doubt on the narrow focus on quasi-constant structural variables and make the case for the disaggregation of repression and the importance of triggering events.