Does Political Protest Help Bring Change?
This past weekend, many of us were in the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley counter-protesting the alt-right/white supremacist rallies planned there in the wake of Charlottesville. As in Boston the previous weekend, the outpouring of the local citizenry was a clear statement that the great majority of us reject racism and bigotry.
As in Boston, participants were overwhelmingly non-violent. But it it was fear of the actions of the few “antifa” and other groups who do not embrace nonviolence that caused the alt-right groups and individuals to back down and leave. Food for thought about “one goal, many tactics”… but let’s leave that discussion for another time.
The issue I would like to raise is a different one.
An article in the August 21 New Yorker by Nathan Heller asks the qestion: “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” It’s a review of recent books about political protest in the U.S. over the past 60 years. Different perspectives on the efficacy of public protest in bringing about political and social change.
The authors show there is a constant tension between two kinds of politics.
On the one hand, the dramatic and exciting “movement politics” of people registering principled opposition or support for policies through various forms of public protest against “the system” and its entrenched injustices.
On the other hand, the slow and unglamorous work of “traditional politics” — building institutions and working within the established processes of elections and government to make systemic changes happen, often imperfectly and through deals and compromises.
Our present-day public protests are able to come together very quickly and effectively thanks to the tools of the internet age. They are also extremely loose, bringing together diverse individuals and groups, with minimal centralized planning or leadership. These protests can help create a strong sense of collective identity in support of certain shared values, as was the case in this January’s “Women’s March” and in last weekend’s public protests in San Francisco and Berkeley, and this is obviously valuable.
But it has yet to be demonstrated that these kinds of ad hoc efforts can be sustained over time, or can in and of themselves bring about the needed systemic changes. In the words of one of the authors quoted, they are “necessary but insufficient” for achieving change.
The Civil Rights movement during its height (1954–1968) was the most successful of all the protest movements we have seen in this country over the past 60 years. It achieved a truly impressive list of transformative victories for racial social justice.
But it did this not through loosely organized and spontaneous pouring out of people into the streets. It was led and coordinated by clearly recognized and empowered leaders. It built and worked through structured organizations. It developed and trained people in the skills needed for effective direct non-violent action. It was strategic in the actions it carried out. There was planning, patient waiting until the right time to act, steady building of infrastructure, and the working out of necessary alliances with influential figures within the political establishment.
This is evident in the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.
In our contemporary individualistic “authentic self” mythology, she was a courageous woman who had just had enough one day, and impulsively refused to move to the back of the bus. But that was far from the truth.
The whole event was carefully planned for over nine months by the African-American leadership in Montgomery. Rosa Parks had been the secretary of the local and state NAACP, and someone who trained people in the methods of non-violent resistance. A whole infrastructure of logistics and legal maneuvers was developed by the Montgomery leadership to enable to bus boycott launched by Rosa Parks’ arrest to last as long as it had to — 381 days as it turned out. The protest was focused from the start on one strategic goal: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.
How different this feels from our present day “pop-up protests” that bring us out into the streets for a one-day event that may focus on one immediate precipitating issue (“Trump’s being inaugurated!” “Racists are coming to our city!”) but also bring together a large swath of people and groups around a whole array of good causes and make us all feel good that we are not being passive in the face of wrong.
I know that there are times, like this past weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, when getting out into the streets as individuals is the right thing to do as part of keeping alive the spirit of resistance to the evils of our present era.
But I become more and more convinced that we need to take seriously the fact that this kind of protest is “necessary but not sufficient” and that we’ve got to get ourselves involved with the most powerful tools for change that we have: electoral politics!
It’s hard, it’s time-consuming, it’s a slow slog. Candidates and parties are flawed, choices have to be made between better and worse (rather than good and evil), compromises have to be made in order to achieve something close to our goals. It’s real life.
[This piece was originally written on August 30, 2017]