Are Protests Productive?


(The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Josh Petersen, Digital Managing Editor

In Defense of Public Protest

By Josh Petersen

Whether it’s colonists dumping tea in the Boston Harbor or Black Lives Matter protesters marching in the streets of Ferguson, protesting has always been an indelible part of American history. While public protest is one of the most well known forms of political participation, it is worth asking how effective it is in actually inspiring social change. After all, it is difficult to determine the impact of protests after the streets are cleared and the picket signs are put away.

In a 2018 article for the American Journal of Political Science, Soumyajit Mazumder found that protests could inspire altitudinal shifts over the long-term. He compared counties with civil rights protests in the 1960s to counties without protest. He found that white people in counties with protests were less likely to demonstrate racist attitudes and more likely to support affirmative action policies. Mazumder’s work adds on to existing research that found protests have played a role in the passage of civil rights legislation.

Protest is utilized by all kinds of people across the political spectrum. It may be particularly useful for marginalized people excluded from other methods of political participation, however. In an article for Slate, professors Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver pointed out, “For many Americans, public protest is sometimes the only meaningful avenue for democratic expression.” While there may be more direct ways to reach lawmakers or advocate for change, political influence often requires time, money and status that is unavailable to millions of citizens. Even the most basic forms of political involvement, such as voting, are limited to certain groups — voter ID laws currently disenfranchise many Americans, especially racial minorities. In a country where democracy does not apply equally to everyone, protesting becomes a necessary tool when few other options are available.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all forms of protesting are equally effective. Analysis from the Washington Post and Vox pinpointed several key factors that influence effectiveness. These include organization, appeal and applicability of messaging, use of nonviolence and the length and size of a protest. Ideally, demonstrations are just one part of a larger movement to influence change. University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher said, “Energy, emotion and people can certainly make social change. But the energy, emotion and the people have to be channeled into tactics that are effective.”

Still, the enduring role of protests suggests they are still necessary agents for influencing the country’s direction. Protests have played a role in most, if not all, of the major social movements in American history, including women’s suffrage, the labor movement, gay liberation and the civil rights movement. While it would be inaccurate to say that protests were the sole reason these causes found success, it is clear that they mobilized supporters and garnered attention for important issues. The 1969 Stonewall Riots inspired press coverage of queer people — a year later, the first pride parades in the U.S. were organized in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. At its best, protests can increase visibility of valid issues and inspire bystanders to support change.

Some of the most vital benefits of protests are also the least tangible. They can provide hope in a tumultuous world, and the visceral feeling of bodies marching together united by a common cause can be genuinely inspiring. The 2017 Women’s March did not eliminate sexism or remove Donald Trump from office. Yet, in watching thousands of people from all backgrounds unite against hatred, I felt for the first time in a long time that America might truly be great again.

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Your Protesting is a Problem

By Paul Braden

Today’s political strife offers even the most casual observer ample opportunities for distress. Changing public policies, threatening remarks aimed at further discouraging disadvantaged communities and middle-of-the-night Tweets of terror constantly remind us that our sanity hangs only by a thread. In spite of this, we continue to find the courage to stand our ground. We use our right to voice disapproval through many avenues, and one of the most historically popular of those is public protest.

There seems to be a new rally or protest for one cause or another in the news every time we scroll through our feed of the day’s events. Groups of activists and their ideological rivals can be seen holding homemade picket signs that might as well just have one word scribbled across them: discontent.

Any cause, event, proposition or idea can be subject to this type of public outcry and there exists a substantial number of people in every town across the country willing to stand on a street corner and let the world know just how much they hate it.

Protests of all kinds should be revered as a vital part of the democratic process, but what positive impact, if any, do organized demonstrations contribute to the issues in question?

Take the Occupy Wall Street movement that began near the financial district of New York in Zuccotti Park several years ago, and consider what was accomplished. For the hoards of determined citizens who camped out in the streets and demanded the one-percenters rectify issues of economic inequality, there appeared to be no problems solved, no issues addressed and most importantly, no change.

It must be evident that the amount of effort invested needs to be commensurate with overall influence produced. And if tried and tested methods that have included both peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests of the past resulted in little to no return, activists eager to protest with their opinions have to know they are fighting a losing battle, even if their cause is virtuous.

Sure, public protests produce awareness, but I’m not sure that’s enough of a payoff.

Protests also do a great job of generating confirmation bias for people who have the right to protest and vote themselves. This can cause to make the issue at hand worse. Awareness is an important part of activism, but it falls short without subsequent change.

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