why are U.S. protest marches less effective than they used to be?

[Note: this post has a lower ratio of fact to “I think”/”someone on the internet thinks” than I would like.  Even more than usual, I’d love to know about more facts/research on this topic, if you can point me at any.]

I recently started working part time at UC Berkeley, where I often walk through Sproul Plaza.  Everyone at UC Berkeley talks about the protest culture of the school, and the protesters and protest organizers frequently gather in Sproul.  The other day, I got into a conversation there with an undergrad manning a table that said something like, “You’re radical and I like you!”

Me: What are you promoting?

Him: on March 4th we’re taking part in a march to protest the state of education in California.  We’re trying to get everyone to participate — get everyone at Berkeley to march off campus and into the downtown, but also everyone from the surrounding K-12 schools.

Me: What are you hoping to achieve with this protest march?

Him: Well, we have a lot of complaints… [he elaborates and hands me a pamphlet]

Me: Okay, but how do you hope the march will help address these issues?

Him: Well, there will be a lot of organizations involved.  People will get to see that they’re not alone in caring about this. It’s good to not be alone.

Me: So the march is an end in and of itself — a place to vent frustrations?

Him: Well, no.  We hope to change things.

Me: How?

This went on for a while before I took pity on him and left him alone.  I don’t think he was unusual in not knowing why exactly he was marching — but it got at an issue that I’ve been wondering about for a while, and have only been thinking about more now that I’m in Berkeley.  When and how do protest marches actually work?  It’s clear that they sometimes do have a large impact on society — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, the anti-Vietnam war protests, Gandhi’s march to the sea, and recent effective protests in places like Pakistan, Thailand, and arguably Iran (where the Green movement seems to be bringing about potential long-term social changes, even if the protested election results still stand) provide examples of how protest marches can aid social change.  Why haven’t we seen marches with comparable success in the U.S. recently?

One of the questions that goes into this larger topic is part of what I was trying to get the UC Berkeley undergraduate to help me — what are the mechanisms by which protest can have an effect?  I haven’t found research that explicitly spells this out, but here are some mechanisms that I’ve heard mentioned and/or brainstormed. Protest marches can:

  1. bring isolated people together so that they can then organize to take further action,
  2. energize and galvanize people to take that further action (I think these first two are what the UCB undergraduate was probably trying to get across),
  3. provide publicity for a cause,
  4. cause embarrassment and PR headaches for organizations on the other side of the issue, thus pressuring them to change,
  5. and/or publicize alternatives to the current model of doing things.

(Are there more that I’m missing?)  It seems to me that, while outcomes #3 and #4 are probably the outcomes that people think about most with regards to protests,  a protest is not very useful unless it also causes people to take further action (#1 and #2), and suggests alternatives to the current ways of doing things (#5).  Without a specific set of goals, a protest is just a place to vent frustrations.

With these mechanisms in mind, I set out to find out about factors that are different between today’s protest and previous ones in the U.S.  In an NPR story called, “Do Street Protests Still Work?” Dana Fisher, a sociologist at Columbia, points out that “today’s protests lack the numbers of attendees, duration and galvanizing confluence of social movements that made rallies decades earlier so powerful.”  The Socialist Worker points out that the anti-Vietnam war protests included a march in D.C. with at least 500,000 participants, and a month earlier over 10 million people had taken part in rallies across the country.  These numbers were huge, and so was the duration of the movement: every year from 1967 to 1971, huge protest marches occurred in D.C. and across the nation.  in May 1970, 8 million students protesting managed to shut down affect schools across the nation, and shut down 51 colleges not just for a day, but for the remainder of the year (granted, it was May, but still — all of these point to far larger scale efforts than a single day’s march).

The organizations and people behind the protests are obviously important as well.  Having organizations to coordinate and sustain efforts helps with mechanisms #1 and #2 of protest — keeping people involved beyond the event, both so that the protests keep going, and so that the protest is a means to an end, rather than the end itself.  Blogger Fabius Maximus has collected a thoughtful set of comments about effective protests in the 21st century, some of which point out the role of protest as one of many tools: “There are, after all, a bunch of other tools for change: boycotting, voter registration, sit-ins, strikes, pamphleteering, arguing legal cases, creating legal cases, and the successful examples listed above (Gandhi and King both being examples of this), used protests ALONG with a variety of other mechanisms during a long and often frustrating process of change.”  Organizations can also potentially helps make the goals of the protest clearer, although there has been a change over time from viewing protests as an occasion that you dress up for, where the organization approves the signs that are carried, to an umbrella occasion for self-expression of all types.  Another comment highlighted by Fabius Maximus points out that this lack of top-down order may not be the best trend for keeping the message clear.

Individuals can also help a cause greatly.  It helps to have charismatic, well-recognized people to lead both organizations and individual protests (here I’m thinking of people who are devoting their lives to a cause, not people like celebrities, but I don’t actually know about the quantitative effects of having a celebrity advocate).  However, neither having organizations nor individuals devoted to a cause make for automatic effectiveness.  I think there are a lot of ineffective individuals and non-profits out there who have a good cause but poor techniques, and a lot of even relatively large organizations who just don’t stop to think about the goals and effects of a particular protest even sufficiently.

Coming back to goals, I emphasize once again that it is vital for any movement to have specific goals and publicizing clearly the methods by which they can be achieved. King’s March on Washington had a specific list of demands; some protest marches are organized with a broad goal like “protesting globalization” or “ending racism” and have marchers with very vague and/or disparate goals.  This diffuses the message into something where people can nod their heads in agreement and feel like they’re not part of the problem (or can disagree with the message and say, “Well, there’s no real alternative, so we’ll stick with the way things are”).

The framing of the complaints and the goals can also make a big difference.  Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy, in a post called “Do protests ever work?”, points out that the civil rights movement of the 1960’s “was able to gain widespread support because its arguments were largely rooted in the constitution and christianity [sic].” I’m quite sure that that doesn’t make a cause invulnerable to criticism, but I also think I agree with his statement that “at least in democratic societies, protests that demand accountability or consistency from ‘the system’ tend to be more effective than one that seek to overturn it.”  The less radical you can make your claim sound, and the more you can make it sound like the thing that all reasonable, decent followers of the current system should agree with, the better off you are.

One interesting fact that I dug up while researching this post regards the size of the “public forum”.  McPhail, McCarthy, & Andrew (2004) observe that the number of places where protests can freely be staged has shrunken significantly since the 1960’s.  Many sidewalks and parks have changed from public to private property.  Additionally, there is far less freedom concerning where a protest can take place than there was then. “During the peak of the cycle of protests in the late 1960s most protest events did not take place in the public forum, but in areas controlled by governmental authorities. During recent protests against the 2000 Presidential election results gatherings occurred almost exclusively in public forums.”  It’s not clear from this conference paper how much the effectiveness of protests is altered by the increasingly restricted access to spaces in which to hold protests.  But I suspect that, as well as making the organization of protests more difficult, it reduces the potential size and media coverage of many protests.  It sure seemed like the latter was a problem for anti-Bush protesters during the former administration; they were cordoned off into areas that were not easily seen.

With all these factors in mind, how does one make a protest more effective?  Fisher points out that a lot of the participants in the most effective protests in the U.S. and abroad have their lives or their basic human rights at stake in a way that galvanizes them to take part in large protests, and to keep up a sustained effort over a long period of time.  It’s unclear if protest marches, or social movements in general, can be nearly as effective without such an immediate, motivating force behind them.  It seems likely that organizations who strive to make their protest effort large and sustained, and who put forth a clear and coherent proposal for change can still make a difference — as long as people do not see the protests as the final or only step in the process.  Can all those factors come together today, when there is no draft to put people’s lives as immediately at risk, and when protests have become events where people show up with hand-made signs for their own pet causes?  I don’t know.

1 Comment

  1. InfoHedon Said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    Nice article. Thanks for writing this. There are no doubt countless issues that matter to us all. I think about public opinion to some extent, so perhaps persuasion should make the list. If public opinion didn’t matter, governments wouldn’t go so far out of their way to lie to us.

    But I think you make an important point. Public protest is just a tool and it does accomplish certain goals, though unlikely the end goal. Activists need to dig a little deeper in their toolkit than protest in order to change the state of affairs. Perhaps this would include using the masses gathered in order to make non-idle threats should the policy continue as is. Or to take immediate action.

    For example, imagine a protest over the banks being bailed out and being rewarded for their lending practices. A protest could provide information on how to change banks and provide protesters with signs showing the local bank or credit union they’re choosing instead. This says that not only are the protesters angry and in number, but they’re also pissed off enough to take meaningful action.