In Defense of Protest
Across the world next weekend, there will be marches to mark the anniversary of the Women’s March. Last year’s marches in defense of women’s rights brought over five million people together in events held in over 80 countries. Despite the historic size of the marches and the epic accomplishment of bringing so many people together, these event has been widely criticized. Worse, the very notion of protest has been critiqued as ineffective, outdated, or inferior to other methods of social change (namely, electoral politics). Disagreements about tactics or critiques of events themselves have the potential of helping movements to grow, become more inclusive, correct mistakes, sharpen messages and demands, etc. At the same time, there is something deeply pessimistic, and worse yet, submissive to capitalism, about the critique of protest itself. This is why I will take a moment to defend protest.
To begin, it is useful to ask what is the point of protesting? From an organizer perspective, the general goal of protest is to bring a group of people together to highlight an issue or injustice and make a demand. This action is a public display of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a call for change. The power of protest is that it is visible, massive, public, uniting, and disruptive. Another positive aspect of protesting is that it can be done immediately, without having to wait for election cycles. For those who are alienated from the political system, it is way to voice an opinion or concern which may not be addressed by politicians or ruling parties. It is also an opportunity for those with power to react with promises, concessions, or changes to avoid being ousted from power. Ideally, protest is a method of challenging and reshaping power. It can be a pathway to revolution. For example, in March 1917, women gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia to march, mainly demanding bread (or an end to war time food rationing). They were joined by striking workers and within a few days, the protests swelled to 200,000- demanding not only food but an end to the Tsar itself. Tsar Alexander abdicated eight days later, ending three hundred years of Romanov rule. One of the early events of the French revolution was The Women’s March on Versailles, which began on October 5th, 1789 when women began rioting in Paris’ markets over the cost and scarcity of bread. This swelled to thousands of women, who marched to Versailles Palace to not only demand bread but political reforms. Certainly, very few protests in history have resulted in such dramatic overhauls of systems of power. But, there are many examples of protests that resulted in significant reforms. The March on Washington in 1963 pushed the United States government towards passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. While social movements employ a variety of tactics, protest in one form or another, played an important role in many social changes in history from winning women the right to vote to earning the right to an eight hour day.
Women’s March on Versailles
Protesting doesn’t work…
While historically, protests have won us many of the rights we often take for granted, there is a great deal of cynicism that this tactic works or remains relevant. It is easy to see why people may feel that protesting fails. In recent years, there have been many massive protests that have not resulted in much significant or obvious social change. In February 2003, millions of people around the world protested the Iraq War, but this did not avert the war and over the years, the anti-war movement his dissipated into invisibility. The Occupy Movement drew attention to such things as economic inequality, the commons, bank bailouts, and fictitious capital, but it was ended largely through the criminalization of the movement (i.e. law enforcement broke it up). Climate change threatens to bring on a mass extinction event and it seems protest has done little to slow it. Protest could not stop Scott Walker from hobbling public unions in WI.
February 15th Iraq War Protest
It is hard to know the impact of recent protests, since history continues. We live in a moment of time, only able to see the defeats behind us. Successful protests seem to be somewhere further in history or in some far off place in the world. When success feels distant, it is easy to become demoralized. Many people may not even be aware of past victories won through protest, because mainstream history tends to focus on great individuals rather than the accomplishments of mass movements. Viewing history in this manner makes it hard to imagine the possibility that ordinary people can come together en mass and create social change. This is why it is useful to both redefine what success looks like but also refocus history. Because I am a revolutionary socialist, my ideal vision of success is the end of capitalism. I would like to see a world where no one goes hungry, war is no more, climate change is stopped, everyone is housed and clothed, reproductive rights are a given, education is free, health care is a human right, and all people are treated with dignity and full humanity. This requires both a long view of history but also a long view of the future. In this viewpoint, protest in the interest of this future is never a failure.
Consider the Iraq War movement. The failure to end the U.S. war on terror is painful. But, was this movement a failure? My first steps to becoming an activist were in 2003. That was when I became a socialist. Before I was a feminist activist, I was an anti-war activist. It is through considering global issues like war, poverty, and colonization that I became a socialist to begin with. It is through becoming a socialist, that I became a feminist. On a personal level, the Iraq War movement was part of my political coming of age. I imagine there are others like me. And, there are those who participated in their first protest when they attended the Women’s March last year. That will be part of their political coming of age. These protests did not bring down patriarchy or thwart U.S. imperialism, but they are part of the process of creating people who will make change. Even when protest fails in a traditional sense, it can be powerful in personal ways.
At the same time, while some protests have not yielded the necessary and immediate results that one would hope for, they have not been for nothing. There are plenty of times that I have participated in protests of less than a dozen people. This certainly feels like a failure. However, it puts a message out into public space. It may spark a conversation. At the minimum, it shows the world that this is an issue that a few people think matters. On the other hand, there are much larger protest movements that may be seen as failure since they became smaller or disappeared. The Occupy movement resulted in the popularization of a tactic: to occupy! It also generated interest in anti-capitalist politics and perhaps in spotlighting social inequality, inspired other movements, such as the movement for $15 an hour minimum wage. The Women’s March last January was followed by a burgeoning of feminist activism over the past year including #MeToo and the International Women’s Day Strike. The story is not over because history is not over.
Alternatives to Protest:
There are of course, alternatives to protest. To clarify, when I speak of protests I refer to activities such as marches, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations. These are public events with participation ranging from a handful to millions. Alternatives to protest include such things as voting, boycotts, divestment, petitions, lawsuits, strike, riot, terrorism, and warfare. A strike would be a wonderful tactic since it wields a lot of social power. However, it is not an easy tactic to pull off because many people fear losing their jobs, union membership is not widespread, and most people do not have experience with even more basic labor activism. This is an aspirational tactic which protest could and should be built towards. Terrorism and warfare are not on the table for most activists because they are violent, can result in criminal charges or death, are usually not mass movements, and alienate potential supporters. Boycotts, petitions, and divestment can be useful tools in an activist tool box. The only shortcoming is that they are often private, so those who are not involved in the movement may not know about them and those who are involved may not feel connected to a larger movement in the same way a protest brings people together. Legal actions can also be a useful front, but again, this is not as public, massive, and visible. Even voting or electoral politics can compliment protests. But, none of these things should replace or usurp protests (well, strikes could but usually massive strikes also include protests). It seems to me, when there is critique of protest, the alternative tactic suggested is voting.
This is an example of protest combined with divestment. In this case, activists were asking for divestment from apartheid South Africa. Apartheid in South Africa was ended through a variety of tactics, including riots, labor organizing, divestment, protest, international sanctions, boycotts, armed struggle, etc.
Political Process and Protest
I am extremely alienated from the U.S. political system. Because both major parties fully support the continuation of U.S. capitalism and the resulting imperialist foreign policy of violence, poverty, and oppression, I can’t get behind Democrats or Republicans. Therefore, I tend to avoid activist events that involve meeting politicians, phone banking for politicians, or really, anything that diverts energy towards getting candidates elected. I am open to these tactics for candidates from anti-capitalist parties, but the goal shifts in these situations. Since individuals who are not a part of mainstream political parties are not likely to win an election, the goal of campaigns tends to be more educational. These campaigns might be used to point out the political shortcomings or hypocrisies of other candidates, educate people about socialism, or popularize anti-capitalist ideas. This approach may be hard for others to understand, but at my core, I don’t really care about the existence or well-being of the United States as a nation. I care about the working people or oppressed people of the world. Thus, I find it hard to participate in the electoral process of the United States, as once again, both parties generally want to continue the U.S. dominance of the world and capitalism. Still, I do not absolutely rule out participation in the political process as an activist tool. I simply do not emphasize it as a prominent tool.
Bringing the topic back to protest, if social movements are effective in mass mobilizations, they can shift the political system without necessarily voting. For instance, if a protest movement becomes widespread and it seems clear that public sentiment has shifted, politicians will shift. After all, they want to be re-elected or at least see that their party is re-elected. Social movements make it “safe” for mainstream politicians to support same sex marriage, utter the word climate change, or proclaim that they are for the 99%. Thus, the horse is always social movements and the cart is the politicians being dragged along to speak to public sentiment. Mainstream electoral politics doesn’t favor the brave. Ideally, it would be wonderful to build space for alternative parties and reforms to our political system that create more opportunities for political representation from a variety of viewpoints. This won’t happen with the acceptance of lesser evilism, a concession to perpetual disappointment, disempowerment, and disillusionment.
Why so Cynical?
I think there are many reasons why protests are critiqued. I have only touched on a few. At the heart of some of the critique is the notion that they have not been working. It is certainly sad and frustrating to see so much misery and destruction go on, seemingly unchecked. And, while I can be optimistic about small victories or alternative successes, this means little to those who struggle without a living wage, are brutalized by the police, watch natural resources wrenched from the earth while the planet warms, cannot afford housing, die of preventable disease, live in warzones, or all of the other sufferings in the world. Change is needed immediately and systemically. Protests themselves sometimes fail to be inclusive or fail to connect to other struggles. Beyond this, there is the problem that most people are not engaged in political struggle. The “masses” are often dismissed as fat, stupid, and reactionary. It is hard to see our future liberation in the faces of the oppressed in our midst. Once again, one might find inspiration in the long view of history. In 1524, illiterate peasants gathered in the Black Forest and managed to create demands, create a banner, and elect leaders, launching the Peasants’ Wars in Germany (which were brutally suppressed, but it is always impressive when a group with little political experience or social leverage manages to organize and fight). Our president recently designated Africa and Haiti as “shithole” places. The Haitian revolution was the most successful slave revolt in history- which horrified Europeans with the reality that Black people could defeat white power and govern themselves. The “shithole” countries of Africa managed to eventually defeat European colonial rule, even if they have not yet defeated capitalism, post-colonial economic relations, and legacies of exploitation. I bring these examples up because when the masses are dismissed as too stupid, too lazy, too addicted, etc. it not only underestimates them, but concedes that some people are inferior. This notion of inferiority is thinly veiled classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or other isms. It is unfortunate that this dismissal of ordinary Americans and the elitism inherent in this sentiment only serves to make Trump more appealing.
If this is your image of why Americans can’t liberate themselves, consider the classism, fat phobia, ageism, ableism, or other isms which cause you to write off sectors of society as incapable of social change. People can be mobilized towards many things- from Black Friday shopping to White supremacy. But, if a person can be mobilized towards these things, then can also be mobilized towards progressive social change with organizing that speaks to the conditions of their oppression and honors their humanity.
There are alternative methods of social change, which certainly can be used with mass demonstrations. All of these methods may inevitably fail. Protest as a tactic remains viable inasmuch as it is a visible, social, collective, public expression of the desire for social change. It also remains viable in the context that working towards systemic change will require mass mobilization. Tactics should ultimately seek to inspire others towards a cause and serve as a stepping stone to larger more system challenging actions. Ultimately, what choice is there? While there may be some tactical choices, there is little room to choose defeat or complacency. This is not Pascal’s Wager, where faith is a tepid attempt to avoid the possibility of hell. Hell is here in the creeping barbarism of everyday life in Late Capitalism. The choice now is between accepting its inevitability or working to end it. Accepting it is a betrayal of all who suffer and of present life on the planet. Therefore, we must fight relentless and together by all means available, but especially those which offer the most promise of dismantling systems of oppression once and for all.
Image from 350.org