By the estimates of many, the right to assemble and protest is a mark of a free society. It’s a privilege and right sorely missing in countries like North Korea, Ukraine, Egypt and Russia. And though there are limitations to protests (France has banned Palestinian solidartiy demontsrations (1) ), it is a valuable component of a society, enabling people to speak out against injustice and make their voices heard.
However, I’ve seen many people make the same comments about the recent protests sparked by the actions of President Donald Trump.
“What are they gonna achieve?”
“There’s no point to those protests”
I definitely see where they’re coming from. In the grand schemes of world events, a march in your local town will seem ineffective. Donald Trump, Theresa May, Angela Merkel or any of the other world leaders won’t change their minds on policies, simply because citizens demonstrated in a obscure, foreign city.
And at times, the protests have questionable elements.
Personally, I don’t think small children have a place at a political rally. Particularly not when protesters are screeching “FUCK DONALD TRUMP!!!” or dressing up like vaginas. I strongly believe in the ‘Let kids be kids’ line of thinking.
And it’s certainly true that there will be people at the protests who don’t really care about the cause. Perhaps they’re there just so they can snap a picture, and make everybody think they’re a politically active person. Or they may wish to stir up anger in the crowd, and loot a television from a shop window.
These people are in the minority, I believe.
However, taking the stance that protests are pointless and don’t lead to change is to ignore history entirely.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a tiring and hard-fought battle (And most certainly not a concluded struggle). Many of the protests were controversial at the times, and provoked violence- The Greensboro Sit-Ins, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Chicago Campaign of 1966 and the Birmingham campaign of 1963. Martin Luther King, often praised as an advocate for the non-violent approach to protest, knew that violent responses would ignite media attention, hence his controversial of marching children through the streets of Birmingham to confront police forces (2).
Part of the success of such tactics wasn’t in shifting the hearts and minds of policy makers. It was to expose issues on a national, and international level. Then, once the injustice was exposed, pressure would amount. President Kennedy felt public embarrassment from the Freedom Riders in 1961, feeling their protest had humiliated America on a global scale, in exposing it’s racism.
With social media, this approach is amplified by a thousand. Photos and videos can travel over the world in mere seconds, and make the rounds of the internet in hours.
With regards to recent injustices (President Trump’s travel ban, Police brutality), protests are highly effective in raising awareness. Bringing the issues to the forefronts of people’s mind prompts awareness, and initiates change. The Black Lives Matters movement has made police brutality a international talking point, and made reforming it a policy agenda (3).
And let’s say, this wasn’t even working. Let’s say that none of these marches worked. Nobody’s mind was changed, opened or expanded. People carried on with their normal lives, without any regard to the lives of refugees, black people, gay people or anybody else experiencing difficulties.
It still gives people a sense of control, a sense of power.
And in a ever changing world, where things are changing faster than we can keep up, it’s a comforting thought that people’s voices can be heard, on any scale at all.