From the fight for women’s suffrage to anti-war & civil rights movements in the ’60s to the global protests against the Iraq War in 2003, Occupy Wall St, & the political revolutions’ 2016 march on the DNC, activists have trusted that protest had the power to change society. The central hypothesis is that elected officials can be forced to change public policies by organizing protests large enough to show the population wants it. After European feudalism was replaced by today’s quasi-democratic nation states by the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, this idea became the standard model for activism in garden-variety constitutional republics. And it makes a lot of sense — but what if it isn’t true?
Do 20th Century Protest Tactics Still Work?
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable”
-John F. Kennedy
Children in the US are encouraged to admire Martin Luther King Jr. and the tactics he pioneered during the struggle for civil rights of the 1960s are presented as the best possible blueprint of an effective protest. By the time we are adults, the word “protest” provokes images of people holding signs for demonstrations, marching, or acts of non-violent civil disobedience. The landmark victories of the civil rights era, according to the officially approved script, were due to protesters’ ability to gain public sympathy using creative protests which made the injustice they fought against visible. The idea is that publicly exposing an injustice wakes up the collective conscience & turns public opinion against it, forcing leaders to side with the protesters.
Even if social causes & effects are messy to identify, the protest strategies of the big movements in the ’60s were successful often enough to be adopted by the next generations of activists…
Protest Tests of the ’80s, ’90s, & ’00s
On June 12th, 1982, an estimated 1 million people protested in New York City’s Central Park to demand an end to the arms race & for the US to get rid of the nuclear weapons it had built over the Cold War Era. Clearly, none of that happened. In 1993, another million marched on Washington DC to ask for LGBT civil rights. They demanded an LGBT Civil Rights Bill, protection from federal, state, & military discrimination, the repeal of sodomy laws criminalizing the sexual expression of consenting adults, recognition of same-sex marriages, & universal healthcare. The ’90s went by, a new millennium dawned — none of that happened, either.
From January to April of 2003, an estimated 36 million globally protested the plan for US & allied NATO forces to invade Iraq. Public officials in the 37 nations who deployed forces to Iraq were apparently not impressed by the new world record set for the largest number of people organized for a single protest in human history.
Today’s Protests Have Grown
But Politicians’ Ability to Ignore Them Grew Faster
“No Malcolm X in my history text, why’s that? ‘Cause he tried to educate & liberate all blacks,
Why’s Martin Luther King in my book each week? He told blacks that get smacked to turn the other cheek”
-Tupac Shakur, on 2pacalypse Now, Track 6, “Words of Wisdom”
Trust in Conventional Protest Is Based on Outdated Info
The threat posed to our species by the US nuclear weapons arsenal was not lessened despite the millions who have demanded disarmament. A global total of 36 million demonstrators did a fat lot of good for the 600,000 – 1 million dead as a result of the Iraq War. Environmental protections are still being systematically dismantled in the US despite the million who joined the March for Science in April ( & also despite the largest protest march by actual penguins in the history of flightless birds ). Donald Trump is just as much the president as he would presumably be if 3.3 – 4.6 million had just stayed home instead of showing up at the Women’s March.
The march for LGBT civil rights in ’93 was the largest march of its day but none of the protested federal policies changed until the Supreme Court decided sodomy laws were unconstitutional in 2003 — a decade later. Supreme Court Justices, however, are not the elected officials whom protest is designed to influence and there is no reason to believe their ruling was influenced by marching 10 years prior. Elected officials in congress took 14 years to pass a law protecting the rights of gay men, lesbians, & bisexuals in 2007 — but only in the workplace ( except parts of the workplace that are also a bathroom because that would be crazy! ).
23 years after the march, same-sex marriage became federally recognized in 2016.
Cheating Bastards Keep Moving the Goal Posts
Though observations by past protesters appeared to support the hypothesis that elected officials can be forced to change policies by organizing a protest big enough to prove the public wants it — the results they achieved have rarely been repeated since the ’60s. And when results are not repeatable, either the experiments are flawed — or the hypothesis is flawed. If large protests influence public officials & policies, then why do we observe that anti-nuclear protests in ’83 had less influence over policy while organizing more protesters than the two largest ’60s era protests combined? Sure, in this instance, you could say “it was an issue of national security” — but why, then, did public officials take 14 years just to start redressing the grievances of 1 million who protested for LGBT civil rights?
Mixing an increase in the impotence of protest as an expression of the public will & a growing public frustration with meaningless elections is not just a recipe for being the bad policy makers — it is also a big, red, warning sign. The US appears to be approaching a very dangerous time and the best thing we can do right now is to be honest about it. The working classes or the proletariat or the “we the people” or whoever we are — us, the one reading this & the one writing it — we have lost our ability to meaningfully influence the actions carried out by the state in our alleged name. To say that voting is a joke in the US would be an understatement — and, if millions of people protesting for the change their votes never bring decide that protest is also hollow — then, maybe the people who say violence is the only way to change things will be right.
Whether they are right or not is in our hands — for now. Or maybe it isn’t — it’s getting hard to tell, these days….
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