Columnists debate the effectiveness of protests as protesters fill the streets of America.
BY GEORGE BERNARD ’23 AND SAFIA MALHOTRA ’24
YES. PROTESTS ARE EFFECTIVE
I often find myself tracking a package minutes after placing the order, and feeling, admittedly irrationally, disappointed that said order is not yet out for delivery. As a society, we have heavily leaned into the notion of instant gratification as is evident in our progress from two-day delivery to overnight delivery to two-hour delivery (thank you Jeff Bezos for that one).
Let’s determine the difference between a protest and a march. While a march is a form of protest, it’s not necessarily all that a protest entails. I find that oftentimes people believe that the only way to protest is via marches; however, that is not nearly the case. The Oxford Dictionary states that “protests often take the form of overt public displays, demonstrations, and civil disobedience, but may also include covert activities such as petitions, boycotts/buycotts, lobbying, and various online activities.” It also defines a social movement as “an organized effort by a significant number of people to change (or resist change in) some major aspect or aspects of society.” Which is why, although my opponent distinguishes a definitive difference between movements and protests, I find it hard to truly differentiate the two.
George Floyd’s death took place on May 26, 2020: by July 5, 2020, 4,700 protests had been held in the US alone. A poll conducted by the New York Times from July 3, 2022 showed that approximately 26 million Americans had attended a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest since the murder of George Floyd, and there has been speculation that the BLM protests may be the single largest movement in American history.
People have called the BLM movement unsuccessful because they don’t feel enough has changed so far, which is not an uncommon occurrence. Protests are often written off as ineffective due to the fact that they don’t get things done “quickly enough.” However just because it takes time doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t effective. The women’s suffrage movement lasted 80 years (1840-1920), yet was one of the most successful protests in American history. Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 following the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012; however, the BLM movement has only truly been in existence for approximately 3 years, only 1/26 of the duration of the women’s suffrage movement. Change takes time, and a certain amount of patience that our need for instant gratification can’t seem to comprehend.
Take another example. The 2022 Sri Lankan political crisis is an ongoing political crisis due to the power struggle between Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Parliament. On July 13, 2022, hundreds of thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo stormed Rajapaksa’s palace following months of daily protests across the country. Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives and left Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in charge in his wake. He later resigned, and the protesters demanded that Wickremesinghe step down as well, which he did weeks later.
While some argue that voting is the best way to change policies, it’s not unknown that our political leaders are often influenced by money, power and personal gain. It’s hard to truly change anything in America via legislation without money and a title. However, protests are inextricably linked to policy. Public protests are manifestations of dissent and an expression of the urgent need to change policy. Protests drive media coverage, and shift public opinion which allows them to successfully catalyze congressional action. The country’s marches, rallies, boycotts and gatherings in the name of justice must continue if we expect substantive, structural change within this country. It’s time we stop relying on people in power to change things for us, and time we start fighting for change on our own.
NO. PROTESTS ARE NOT EFFECTIVE
Let me start by stating a clear thesis: Protests can be somewhat effective for raising awareness; however, they are ineffective at causing meaningful policy change, and in some cases, the backlash causes regression on the issue. I am also making a distinction between protests and mass movements, which I will define as “an organized effort by a large number of people, to bring about pervasive changes in existing social, economic, or political institutions, frequently characterized by charismatic leadership. It must also last multiple months and be present in most of the geographic area affected”. I am not arguing that mass movements, such as the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements, are ineffective.
Let us take a look at the two largest protests in recent times: the response to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and the BLM protests of 2020 and 2021. While I sympathize with both causes, they are perfect examples of how protesting has become ineffective. One of the most useless protests is one in response to a court decision. The decision has been made, immutable and indifferent to public opinion. Clarence Thomas’ views on originalism are not going to be changed by some people chanting for a few hours outside the Supreme Court building. Moreover, protests, with the exception of those intended to raise awareness, often happen in response to decisions rather than to influence them, and public officials are very reluctant to reverse a decision for fear of losing credibility. Even if you disagree with the Dobbs decision like me, you have to admit that the fight Pro-lifers made was impressive. They have been fighting for 50 years to slowly shift the Supreme Court to the right, inch by inch, and they didn’t do it with protests, they did it by mainstreaming Originalism and winning elections.
The 2020 BLM protests were in response to the murder of George Floyd and in the immediate aftermath, polling showed public support for the protesters at about 70%. Despite this, it seems that no matter how many people showed up, nothing happened besides a few mostly superficial changes to a dozen or so police departments. Congress failed to pass any legislation, most states did nothing and all that remained was billions of dollars of property damage.
Why is this? Part of the reason that protests aren’t causing change is something I call “the protesters’ paradox”. When a protest is seeking attention from the media, it usually resorts to destruction, which tarnishes its ability to cause change because the opposition can label them as criminals. This was perfectly exemplified by the Rodney Riots of ‘92, when initially peaceful protests demanding justice for Rodney King and Latasha Harlins became overshadowed by the rioting and looting that killed 63 people and caused over a billion dollars of damages. This is another disadvantage protests suffer from, they are often infiltrated by people who seek to exploit the disruption to steal, loot and burn. Another reason is that a lack of a charismatic leader to sell the cause to the public prevents protesters from being able to change average voters’ minds. But the more important factor is that partisan gerrymandering has put the vast majority of representatives in safe districts, making them unaccountable to protesters. Additionally, as a byproduct of gerrymandering, polarization has made many politician very ideologically driven and unwilling to compromise. As a result, it is far more effective to try to convince members of the opposing party to vote for your side by appealing to them on moderate issues and avoiding divisive issues. Lastly, my opponent claims that time will show the BLM and Dobbs protests to be effective in the long term; however, I counter by saying that neither has a constant enough presence in the public eye to have meaningful effect. For this I point to the fact that although the Black Lives Matter organization was created in 2013, its roots can be traced to the aftermath of the Rodney Riots, 30 years ago, and they have made very few accomplishments given how long they have been around. It is also important to note that some of the progress claimed by protesters wasn’t their own doing. In recent months, a number of police departments have made policy changes as a result of the demands of their insurers. As a result of a number of high-payout settlements, the St. Louis Area Insurance Trust demanded that the St. Ann police department cease engaging in high speed chases or forfeit its coverage. After failing to find another insurer that would take them on, the department was forced to make the change. In essence, money talks a whole lot louder than protesters. If you want change, don’t protest; or at least don’t expect protesting to have any effect. Instead, you should donate, volunteer for campaigns, vote and most importantly, talk to those you disagree with.