Can Demonstration Affect Political Change? 

protest against roe v wade overturning in los angeles ca
A woman holds up a sign in a pro-choice rally. In this article, Nell and Harrison discuss whether demonstration affects political change or not. Photo courtesy of Derek French on

N1: Allow me to put on my 18th century classical liberal hat just this once. 

The demonstration is one of the most critical tools that members of a political movement should have in their arsenal. There is a reason people have fought tooth and nail, even given their lives for the right to demonstrate in public – because demonstrating alone is sufficient to spark the radical changes we need to transform society into a just and egalitarian one. 

Even in the simplistic model whereby students, community members or other disgruntled participants in society march through the streets with signs and chants, demonstration is a perfect analog of democracy. The politics of the crowd are shaped through compromise and shared experience, producing a cohesive goal that is no more messy than agendas set by often disorganized and deadlocked governments. It’s a form of experiential learning to lead or participate in a demonstration, with the most key lesson being how to organize yourself and others in a political movement and leap forth. 

Most importantly, you can’t change the state of affairs without establishing intent. What good is a statement of intent made in a dark underground compound, isolated from your relatives in society? A key function of demonstrating is to publicly reject the mandate of people in power and force them to face the public opposition their actions have fomented. 

H1: Demonstration is an ineffective way to impact political change. We spend hours and hours creating signs and banners, gathering attendees, listing speakers and topics, and sharpening public speaking skills. These strategies are ineffective because they can be ignored. At the University of Connecticut, throughout movements for mental health to protect students from death, movements to protect black lives against racism, movements for accountability for sexual violence, movements to combat antisemitism, historic climate justice protests, movements against the university’s relationship with settler colonial states and the military industrial complex, the administration has routinely, consistently and effectively ignored every single demonstration students organize. Worse than ignorance, when demonstrations become large or consistent a “task-force” is established with no resources, no power and no accountability, whose main goal is to frustrate further political organization among the demonstrators by extracting resources from student-organizers and convincing the student body that their initial effort was impactful enough to catalyze change.  

After years of demonstration, all the above problems are outstanding at UConn. Why pursue the same strategy again and again, expecting a different result? If we want data on the effectiveness of demonstrating, how much further do we need to look beyond our own home?  

N2: The arguments against the demonstration are understandable, but many of them rely on assumptions about human behavior that are not based in reality. For example, the idea that demonstrations can be easily co-opted by those you’re protesting against betrays a fundamental underestimation of people’s intelligence and agency. A questionable speech, a risky turn onto a dead-end street riddled with cops may fool newcomers, but experienced political organizers or demonstrators can democratically negotiate the terms and direction of the gathering, as is often required since organizers are imperfect too. Another common criticism of the demonstration is that it, in and of itself, does not affect change, to which I rebut: Change for whom? Ask the young revolutionary, dreams of societal transformation still buried beneath a life under the status quo, who is then transformed by the solidarity and electricity coursing through a demonstration. Ask the organization that consolidates because like-minded activists met at a successful protest. The potential is limitless! 

H2: Demonstration actually has damaging impacts as a strategy to pursue political change. By demonstrating, people think they are contributing to a movement, attending once and believing they are fulfilling an ethical obligation regarding injustice. These people neglect to investigate the real work necessary for justice because they believe a demonstration is efficiently pursuing that goal, which is completely untrue. A culture has been created such that, while attendance is considered important, it is completely acceptable and ultimately encouraged that one attends select demonstrations without making commitments to the problems they address or the groups organizing around the issues. While no commitments are made by anyone but a small group of overworked students, injustices remain and politics is stagnant.  

Throughout, the university can create public relations communications claiming it receives and interfaces with student grievances, addressing their concerns in due time while continuing to neglect or sponsor the violence the students are frustrated about. According to institutional structure, universities prioritize rankings and revenue, things demonstrations routinely do not impact. These structural concerns, not emotional beliefs or an ignorance of the problem, are the reason that the university remains committed to violence. How will your demonstration deal with this reality?  

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