The value of protests

After a couple of interesting discussions this week, I wanted to talk a little about protesting, and how it can be both good and bad for a movement. I will also talk a little about why the massive Women’s day marches were less effective, despite being more numerous than other, smaller protests that have occurred.

The definition of protesting is a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something. In most cases, we see that protest in the form of action, boycott, or marches against an organisation that goes against your personal, political, or moral values. Protest often happens when there is no other recourse to show your displeasure or to make your voice heard.

I have seen protests all of my life. When I was young, I saw Tienanmen Square play out on my TV. I read about the Civil rights Marches, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I saw the Million Man March, the Anti-War protests for the Iraq War, the recent Women’s march around the world, I have seen boycotts on Disney, Chik-fil-A, and a half a dozen other companies. I have seen protests in Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and across Europe. As a Gay man, I have been surrounded by protests as well, both for and against my group, it is something that I have seen and witnessed, I have seen how Protests have been effective, and when they have not, and I think it is important that we start looking at what makes a successful protest.

In my opinion, a protest needs to have the following threads in order for it to be effective:

It needs to be Overwhelming

A protest of one is difficult to get traction with when you have a population of 4.5 million (In NZ) or 320 million (in the US), and while single person protests can be audacious, they are not often overwhelming. (I would argue that Thích Quảng Đức’s Self-Immolation in Vietnam in 1963 being an exception, but his actions were overwhelming). When we see protests of a few people, it is easy to ignore. you need a critical mass of people being able to protest in order to gain attention, but that is only the first part. In the Eastern European Protests of the late 1989 and 1990’s, millions of people protested, something that governments could not ignore. In Ukraine, we saw how Protest toppled a government.

Now this is not to say that smaller groups cannot fulfill this objective, but then it relies on the right time and place and optics to make it overwhelming in the situation. Pussy Riot has done effective protest by using media and carefully constructed protest to get the point across, it also helps that several have been imprisoned giving them a reason for people to rally around them. Conversely, their further protests have not been as successful as they get swallowed up by the situation.

The size of the group can vary, but choosing the right moment and right situation to maximize the effect is crucial.

Protests need to be focused

Protests need to have a laser focus on what they are protesting about: Their stance on an issue, or corruption in government, the maltreatment of a minority group, the injustice of a person or entity. Protests without a focus lose their effectiveness to people watching. What are we protesting about? Well, it is for discrimination, for the homeless, for the destitute, for the aged, for the…. At that point people stop listening, and the protest is just a massive whinge fest with no point. That is not a protest. Pointing to a single action on protesting it is far more effective than screaming at clouds about everything. There needs to be a point. There has to be something that people can grab onto and join in, and too many ideas will sow division and confusion. A successful protest allows disparate people to unite together under a simple, direct common cause.

Protests need to be Persistent

This is the greatest failure of the Women’s march held this past January. Millions of people in the United States and around the world gather a day after the Inauguration to protest President Donald Trump. Scenes of massive protests from people around the world filled our screens. Tons of ink was spilled on the event. So was it a success?

No, it wasn’t

We didn’t do anything the day after, or the week after, after the protests, everyone went back to their lives, and while they speak on the internet, there was no massive protest action afterwards. The Guardian has a great piece on the why the Women’s protest will eventual fail. The march gave us awareness, but there was no followup. The Executive Order was signed reinstating the Mexico City provision only two days later was met with… internet outcry. Where was the followup protest? where was the marching in the streets then? While other countries have vowed to respond to the loss of money, the movement lost a key moment in keeping the pressure up. Protests in order to affect change must be persistent. Look at the Romanian Protests over a proposed bill to decriminalize Corruption up to a certain money amount. Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched daily to bring down the law, and it has led to the resignation of several cabinet officials. In this case, the protesters had it right. They kept the pressure up in massive numbers that could not be ignored. They also focused on the the two bills: the corruption bill and the pardoning of prisoners bill (which were linked). It took a week to do it, but it was effective.

These three things are needed in every protest in order for it to succeed. The boycotts of the day are a good example: the boycotting of any organisation that has said anything positive or supportive of President Trump fails these rules. It is not focused, it is not overwhelming, and while it may be persistent, there is no visible change. The company releases a statement and people slowly lose their want to boycott. We see this with other boycotts. The Southern Baptist Church, The Catholic League, and other Religious organizations boycotted Disney for their acceptance of LGBT people and their issues, yet it did nothing to dissuade Disney from continuing its practices. Chik-Fil-A has a counter protest to support the store during an LGBT boycott, and they still quietly continue their practices while outwardly saying something different. They were not overwhelming. And while massive organisations could protest in certain situations. The North Carolina HB-2 law for example caused many major organisations to pull events and money out of the state, and it was coupled with protests both local and national, but it is still unclear if it was successful long term with the Government unwilling to repeal the law despite the pressure.

I will say that Protest is vital and needed, but we, and we in the west especially, need to remind ourselves that protests require more than one day of marching, or a few people following a political figure around. And further, we need to remind ourselves that protest is only one way to affect change. It is not our only tool, and we shouldn’t only use it when we want to dissent a view.

When protests fail, they often do at the detriment of the movement they are championing. I look no further than the Westburo Baptist Church and their protests over anything LGBT related. A few people constantly picketing funerals of anyone and everyone, damaged and exposed the rank bigotry in their policies, and it turned people against them. That is not effective protest, and should be a lesson to those who go down that road.

We have seen protest bring down governments without a shot fired, we have seen protests affect change in a fundamental way. They have the awesomeness of people power, but it is not a cure-all, and they are not always effective or the best way to affect change. We need to learn that so that when we protest, we use that tool the best way possible.

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