America is in love with the idea of protests. If someone does something you don’t like, the natural inclination is to get a few thousand of your closest friends, make up some catchy slogans, raid the arts and crafts store for sign making materials, and take to the streets. The protest as we know it has been a tool for enacting political change for longer than we’ve actually been a country.
But do protests work?
Well, to determine that, first we must define exactly what makes a protest. The dictionary gives us this less than helpful definition:
- a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something.
- express an objection to what someone has said or done.
That’s all very nice and grammatical, but it doesn’t actually answer the question in the context that we’re looking for, so let’s use our brains. A protest, in the sense that we’re talking about, is a person or a group of people expressing disapproval or their objection to something in a public manner.
That’s an extremely broad definition, but it gives us a starting point. By that definition, protests have been a part of the fabric of American public discourse since well before our inception as a nation. Notably, the Boston Tea Party could be considered a protest. So could the American Revolution or the Civil War, when you get right down to it, so for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to exclude anything that could reasonably be considered a battle or act of war.
Once we remove that, the picture gets a little more clear.
The strikes and pickets organized by the first unions were a form of protest, and grew into the labor movement that shaped much of how America’s workforce operates today. The women’s suffrage movement also made use of protests. In the last few years, protests of all shapes and sizes have sprung up across America, making use of social media to spread their message much further than any of the earlier protest-driven movements ever could have dreamed.
But does protest work?
The pinnacle of protesting in America, if I were forced to pick out a movement that was unambiguously successful, was the Civil Rights movement. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights movement was, by any definition, wildly successful.
Contrast this with Occupy Wall Street, which, er, wasn’t. If there was a perfect example of a popular movement that fizzled out without actually accomplishing anything worthwhile, the Occupy movement has to be it.
So what sets them apart?
Three things. Firstly, the Civil Rights movement had strong and charismatic leadership. Secondly, they had a cause that the majority of Americans could be persuaded to support, given the right circumstances. Thirdly, they had a simple but effective strategy to gain that support.
Though Dr. King was hardly the only leader of the Civil Rights movement, he was the most well known. He was a powerful and passionate speaker, one that people could get behind. Though the more violent fringes of the Civil Rights movement refused to get onboard with Dr. King’s message, the majority united behind it, and played by his rules.
The cause of the Civil Rights movement was at once simple and immensely powerful: that all men should be treated equally, regardless of race. At the time, it was a radical concept. Much of the country was suffused with a sort of background racism that the average man or woman simply didn’t give much thought to, because that was just the way things were. But, given the right push, they could be forced to reexamine their views.
That push came in the form of protests. The Civil Rights movement borrowed heavily from the playbook of one Mahatma Gandhi. A lot of people view both Gandhi and King as pacifistic, but that’s an oversimplification. They both utilized violence to achieve their means, but they did so in the most clever way possible: they put unarmed and unresisting civilians into positions in which a government overreaction was almost guaranteed.
With every swing of the truncheon or spray of the hose, the government played right into their hands. The normally apathetic public was horrified to see unarmed and unresisting protesters attacked by government forces without provocation, and public support swung in their favor.
The Occupy movement, meanwhile, had exactly one of those factors working in favor. They didn’t have a clear message that the people could be persuaded to get behind, and they didn’t have a strong figurehead to represent their interests. They did have a fairly simple strategy, but it basically amounted to squatting in public parks and unoccupied buildings, and that didn’t garner them much sympathy from people who weren’t already inclined to support them.
The wave of protests that have swept the nation in the last year or so are similarly lacking. There have been about a half dozen factions protesting a half dozen different things, but a general failure to unite around any cause other than “Trump is bad” has crippled their ability to garner widespread public support.
Their strategies have also left much to be desired. The NFL protests, for instance, automatically alienated much of the nation by virtue of perceived disrespect to veterans, the flag, the country, etc. That was a nonstarter from the word go. The women’s marches earlier this year robbed themselves of credibility in many corners through infighting (the exclusion of conservative feminist groups from some marches in particular caused enough of the wrong sort of controversy to feed flame wars for months) and methods deemed as crude or crass (the so-called “pussy hats.”)
Black Lives Matter had the greatest chance of succeeding where these other groups have failed, but a lack of central leadership has made it all but impossible to separate themselves from the fringe elements that have pushed things too far. Instead, those fringe elements have come to define the group in the eyes of the public, ensuring that much of the nation views them as little more than hooligans at best, and at worst, terrorists.
So, if I were to have to answer the question of whether or not protests work today, I’d have to say no. Though they might stir up debate, without any of the tried and true mechanisms for leveraging public support to their cause, they’re little more than headline generators, doomed to fall from grace once their fifteen minutes of fame have passed. They’re eager to repeat the success of the most effective movements of the past, but unless they learn the right lessons from them, they’ll likely never achieve their goals.