Signal Boost: Does protesting work? 

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Anti-abortion activists protest in front of Colombia's Constitutional Court in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, March 2, 2020. Protesters gathered in front of Colombia's Constitutional Court ahead of an expected ruling that could allow more women to access abortion if approved. The problem is: Are movements like these sufficient in enacting change?  Thumbnail photo courtesy of Fernando Vergara / AP Photo.

Anti-abortion activists protest in front of Colombia’s Constitutional Court in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, March 2, 2020. Protesters gathered in front of Colombia’s Constitutional Court ahead of an expected ruling that could allow more women to access abortion if approved. The problem is: Are movements like these sufficient in enacting change? Thumbnail photo courtesy of Fernando Vergara / AP Photo.

Climate change. Inequity. Nationalism. These are just a taste of the problems we face in front of us. While some bad actors may insist we can work against these in a civil way, it becomes increasingly apparent that radical action is necessary. But with the stakes and tensions rising, are we any closer to fighting our impending doom using current methods?  

More importantly, how do our current methods fare in this fight? Marches have seen much attention in recent years, even in the United States. The women’s marches and climate strikes are two recent examples of this, but large-scale initiatives like Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement have also made waves in the past decade. Of course, this ignores mass action around the world; we will touch back on that later. 

The problem is: Are movements like these sufficient in enacting change  

We live in an age of enforced passivity. It is hard to tell where this began, or where it continues to fester, but it has been visible for a while in the United States. This prevents flash protesting and short-lived movements from spinning up into actual, systemic change. 

The lack of prolonged action in many marches make it harder for real, long-term change to occur. When a demonstration demands a reaction, it is often because it marks a disruption in the regular order. There’s a threat involved. With marches, it is often a case where the powers that be can wait the outburst out. This is not always the case (see Hong Kong, for example, for prolonged protests), but we have definitely seen this problem materialize before. 

In addition, modern-day protests are limited at times by their decentralization. Due to social media, many movements have moved away from a central body or leadership organizing them, instead relying on spreading word through the internet. In some ways, this is good! It really puts the focus on signal boosting problems in society. However, it can be harder for a decentralized movement to stay unified in the face of pushback. If a government threatens the protesters, many may leave because they are not tied to it. If a small concession is made, many may leave the movement because they feel their work is done. This prevents the roots of issues from actually getting dealt with. 

That’s not to say protesting is for nothing. Protests are good for mobilizing a large amount of people, showing to others a genuine public interest for action. They are good at raising awareness on underrepresented issues and the plight of the many. They can be a key first step to changing the tides of public opinion and, later, policy. But all forms of mass action have their strengths and limits. So, why have marches in particular been able to germinate so well in our society? 

I dislike the term “slacktivism,” but the low commitment of marches contribute to this. More importantly, though, our society has been built up in a way to punish any action more radical than this. Think about how scary the threat of arrest is in America. Imprisonment or even fines can really hurt the average person, and anything on the permanent record can mess you up for years in the future. Also, the police are armed here, and any altercation with them may turn violent or even deadly. That’s not to get into the punishments you may face in your job, especially severe when we have so few safety nets in this country for the unemployed. In America, we are pacified under threat by the state, punished further by the corporate structure. 

In addition, companies and government officials have co-opted many protesting efforts to remove the blame from them. Look at Justin Trudeau walking with the Montreal climate strike last year. Perhaps his motives are pure, but he is part of the problem. Yes, it’s good for private and public leaders to make a stand, signalling to others of their stance on the issue. But it may also be lip service, a way to fool people into thinking their message is being heard when it’s really falling on deaf ears. 

I will be the first to admit I am not committed to radical action. I have a career plan for myself, and I always feel like I’m on a tight timeline for it. Any delays due to radical action are very hard to justify. They shouldn’t stop me, but they do. Look at UC Santa Cruz, where over 50 graduate students were fired for striking for higher pay. Those students are heroes for speaking out, but I’m sure they are very stressed now that they’ve been, well, fired. Mass action more radical than superficial marching is swiftly punished, and that’s scary. 

What is the way out of this? I am not sure. Around the world, though, people are increasingly having different and more radical attitudes than the prevailing thought of America. In Chile, protestors are braving violence and arrests to call out their laissez-faire government. In France, the yellow vest protests against rising cost of living have been pointed and sometimes violent. Civil disobedience in Lebanon has managed to force the prime minister to resign and are still ongoing. Even without making any value judgment on these protests, it can’t be denied that the prolonged action in these examples is more radical and effective than some of the efforts we have seen in America. 

If the system structurally does not work, it must be reset a good amount to achieve lasting change. At least in America, though, we have yet to learn this lesson.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Thibault Camus / AP Photo.


Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu

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