Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Are protests effective?

Over my many, many (many), years of attending and organizing protests, I have periodically heard some folks complain that “protests don’t achieve anything” or the like.

Today, a friend posted a status update online in support of the protest in Calgary against the war criminal Condoleeza Rice’s visit. A friend of that friend posted this comment:
What good is that going to do? Protests are horrendously ineffective.

My response was:
Tell that to the people who protested for the abolition of slavery in Europe and the U.S. Tell that to the people who protested for the passage of a civil rights amendment in the U.S. Tell that to the women and their supporters who protested for women to get the right to vote. Tell that to the people of India who protested for an end to British rule. Tell that to the people of South Africa and their supporters around the world who protested for an end to apartheid. Tell that to the most celebrated heroes of the twentieth century, MLK and Gandhi, who are celebrated because of their activism and protesting for social change.

They followed up with:
It's great that you're able to conflate waving a few placards with massive social movements with real impacts. Bravo.
Perhaps I should have made it clear: Waving signs at Miss Rice isn't going to change what she did, nor will it punish her for what she did. Much better methods exist than that. What they are, I don't know, necessarily.

To which I wrote this lengthy response:

First off, I was responding to your statement that “Protests are horrendously ineffective.” I believe that to be entirely inaccurate (as amply illustrated by my previous examples).

Secondly, do you honestly believe that leaving this war criminal’s paid visit to Calgary completely unremarked would not have sent the unacceptable signal that Canadians don’t care about her war crimes?

Sometimes protests are not about making things better, they can be just about trying to prevent things from getting worse.

What did this particular protest accomplish? It made sure that there was acknowledgement that not everyone in our city accepts the use of torture and other human rights violations. It drew attention, on the street and in the media (and online such as right here), to the issues around the Bush regime and our current Canadian government’s acceptance (and I would go so far as to say embracing) of state terror. It connected some new people in with local organizing for peace and social justice, and increased connections for others.

In other words, it was a step toward making things better.

Is that enough? No. Which is why so many of us are engaged in a wide variety of additional efforts to address these issues. (Things such as petitions, letter-writing, education campaigns, lobbying, political campaigns, legal proceedings, producing documentaries, writing articles & books, building alternatives, etc., etc.)

If all we did was protest, we probably wouldn’t get very far overall. But if we never protested, we probably wouldn’t get very far, either. Protest is a necessary (but far from the only) part of democratic efforts for social change.

Over the years, I’ve been to extremely tiny protests and I’ve been to protests with too many thousands of people to properly count (and various sizes between). Every single one of the big protests came about after years of tiny protests leading up to them. Without the tiny protests, there would never be any big protests. Without tiny efforts, there would never be any massive change in this world.

It was not a waste to “wave a few placards”. It was another piece in a very big puzzle of getting us to a better world.

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3 comments:

Tavis said...

Well said. Between rallies and protests, a better world is under constant construction.

Cody said...

I think the outcome of the protest must be seen and all who protest must agree with that outcome. All it takes is one bad apple to ruin the bunch and the media like the bad apples.

Cristina said...

Great response. I wish more people were more open-minded toward the effectiveness of protests and other acts of social change (petitions, lobbying, political campaigns, etc). Of course, a protest, in an of itself, is not the only solution. I agree it is an important part of a much greater social an d political process. Keep up the great work.

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