From Ghandi’s Salt March to the faceoff at Tiananmen Square to the March for Our Lives protesting America’s lack of gun control to the protests in Hong Kong that got the world talking about an extradition bill to the recent George Floyd protests erupting across America, humanity buzzes with protest movements every year. And while nothing captivates like a crowd, especially when the crowd, urged on by a US president, is storming the US Capitol with lawmakers inside, a comparison of the number of protests held yearly to governmental or society changes suggests that the actual success rate of this cornerstone of non-violent (and sometimes violent) resistance is, in fact, rather low. This begs the question: Do protests work?
Here are three reasons why protests are effective, and three reasons they are not.
Say it loud, say it proud.
Protests bring socially and economically marginalized groups to the foreground.
Throughout history, coal miners have been unlikely champions of protest movements. As global economies began shifting away from coal, miners suffered from downsizing, colliery closures, and loss of benefits. In the US and UK, miners used protests to bring their struggles to the public – and won. In 2016, coal workers of the China’s Longmay coal firm prompted the government to admit financial struggles and demand back payment of thousands of workers. Additionally, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement was similarly effective in giving America’s lower income bracket a voice, shedding light on the growing chasm between the top 1% of American earners and the rest of the nation. More recently, the nationwide protests across America in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer have brought police brutality and racism into the spotlight, forcing Americans to address the ongoing disparate treatment of African Americans, especially by law enforcement, which has been unchecked for decades.
Protests promote solidarity.
Protests are not merely coalitions of the aggrieved, but can be understood as an expression of a shared fate. Protests like the Women’s March on Washington and Standing Rock, as well as Parkland high schoolers against gun violence and pro-immigration protests saw participation of individuals who are unaffected by the core grievances of women, Native Americans, victims of school shootings and immigrants. Why? Because people’s identities are governed as much by their values as they are by their color, class, age and education. Case in point: The 2019 protests in Hong Kong against China’s encroaching influence inspired solidarity protests in the United States and elsewhere around the world. More recently, people of all races, colors and religions are protesting across America and the world against police brutality. Protests offer the opportunities to use values as their main identifiers, allowing for greater identification across diverse groups. Such intersectionality was seen during the Women’s March on Washington, whose expansive platform drew an estimated one million participants from 670 protest events across the country – likely the largest non-violent protest in history.
Protests produce results.
Protests have been shown to exert influence over politics. Serbians ousted a dictator through nonviolent resistance, and Egyptians followed in kind ten years later. In recent American politics, the grassroots protests that sprung up at American airports in reaction to Trump’s 2017 executive order barring refugees and citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US might be credited for prompting swift legal action that allowed many visa-holders to remain in the country. Also, in 2018, teachers throughout West Virginia went on strike during a nine-day protest that resulted in, among other demands, a 5% increase in pay – not to mention it inspired additional teacher strikes in other states. It may be too soon to tell the final outcome, but the teenage survivors of the Parkland high school shooting in 2018 created a national discussion and movement that is holding government officials and businesses accountable when it comes to measures that would increase responsible gun control.
Don’t waste your energy.
Protests hardly ever achieve their ends.
Protests aren’t as effective as demonstrators like to think. Thousands of protests are constantly taking place around the world. While the George Floyd protests across America and the world may have changed how Americans view each other and how the world views America, most protest efforts pass without remark, revealing the miniscule impact of protests in general. Though the mob of pro-Trump protestors that stormed the US Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results drew the world’s attention (and condemnation), it did not succeed in meeting its aims; the constitutional ceremony to certify the election results was interrupted, but Joe Biden’s presidential victory has been confirmed.
A Princeton study found that public opinion hardly comes to bear on legislation, and the results of most protests confirms this. The anti-war movement against US military involvement in Vietnam that was popularized on college campuses in 1965 had no effect on war activities, which were in fact ramped up until the war’s end in 1973. Protests in the US and the UK against the Iraq war did nothing to curb the invasion. The Women’s Day March of 2016 was even confronted by results that ran counter to their goal of ensuring reproductive rights for women worldwide. For instance, just two days after the protest, President Trump signed an executive order stripping US aid from foreign institutions that offer abortion services, and further rollbacks on reproductive rights in the foreign and domestic arena continue.
Protests alone do not achieve change.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech bookended the Civil Rights Movement’s march on Washington, yet the march itself cannot be credited for the civil rights legislation that followed it. Protest was just one part of a layered nonviolent resistance tactic employed by the movement for a decade before any legislation was signed. Protests can win exposure for a cause, but they do not fight legal battles that make change possible. Consider the 2016 Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. While media attention may have hastened legal decisions on the matter of building on Sioux lands, the final battle was ultimately decided in the Oval Office and in the courtroom, and the protest lines were swiftly shut down. Additionally, the Hong Kong protest movement, which grabbed the world’s attention in 2019 as it pushed back against the Chinese government, has since fizzled out as it has become evident that it lacks options and opportunities for keeping China’s government at arm’s length.
Protests are win-lose propositions that highlight ideological differences and sow discord.
The ethos of protest is rooted in conflict, not conflict resolution – resistance, even nonviolent resistance, is an act of war intended to change a political reality. To many, protest rhetoric is more about preaching to the choir than it is about changing hearts and minds. The one-voice-no-debate approach may be perceived as a zero-sum game that pits protesters against their environment, and to an extent, against anyone who is not protesting. This charged atmosphere often leads to violence that proves counterproductive to protest goals. Look no further than the pro-Trump protesters who violently overran the US Congress. For an older example, Antifa protestors and their embrace of violence tend to undermine their aims of fighting against fascism. This light being shone on the (mis)actions of the extreme left lessens the focus on or impact of the extreme right, and widens national discord, as was shown after Charlottesville in 2017.
The Bottom Line: While protests can do much to direct attention toward controversial issues, attention is not necessarily all that is required to effect change. Do you believe that protests lead to change?