By Erica Gilman
In the United States, we have a line-up of successful figures to look up to: from the men who threw tea into the harbor in the dead of night, to the King with a dream, to women fighting for the vote, to people who didn’t think Vietnam should have been made intoa warzone, to the recent Sioux tribe protecting their water.
Some of these protests were incredibly successful.
And in response to recent events, such as the election of Donald Trump and the construction of the North Dakota Pipeline, protests have been popping up across the nation.
It has become a common argument that protests are futile, that they encourage violence against both police and residents of the area. Often, headlines of property damage and violence determine the narrative about such protests.
But is this true? Do protests serve a purpose? Are they useful tools of communication with our government, or should we stick with ballots and letters?
In fact, protests can succeed — just not always in the way that was expected.
The idea of protests being on the edge of legality and prone to violence has been perpetuated by the media. Fox News published a piece on the North Dakota Pipeline protests; interviewing a sheriff and titling the piece “Sheriff on pipeline protests: ‘My job is to enforce the law,’” they made the protests seem like they are outside the law and therefore bad.
The New York Daily News published an article titled “Violent protests break out in California over Alfred Olango, unarmed black man fatally shot by police,” not stating that the protests were largely peaceful until late in the article.
The problem with these catchy headlines is that they emphasize not the peacefulness and goals of the movements themselves, but the actions of certain individuals. This seems to incriminate the protests in general.
However, nonviolent protests actually have an over 50 percent success rate, according to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, authors of Why Civil Resistance Works.
According to Worcester State Sociology Professor Dr. Alex Briesacher, “The success of protests is twofold: the first and primary goal of them is consciousness raising, getting people to know what it is you’ve got a beef with. The second goal is changing things. But that changing things, whatever they may be, may not be the way the protesters envision it.”
Briesacher pointed to the Occupy movement as an example.
The Occupy movement “did not overthrow capitalism, but it drastically changed foreclosure laws,” he said. “There’s clearly more successful forms of protest than others. I think it changes based upon the issue, the environment.”
Nonviolent protests and civil disobedience have been known to work in some way and make a difference: America got its freedom, women got the vote, and African Americans have progressed towards equality.
Protests are supposed to be a population standing in front of their government, going “this is not okay, we demand change.”
But what happens when that government turns its back on its citizens? People scream louder, they stand longer, they break things.
Not everyone can get elected to represent themselves. Not everyone feels like they are being represented in government.
What if sitting at home and hoping things go away doesn’t work? What if your drinking water is spoiled and you spend years without clean water in your pipes; what if the boys in your neighborhood are getting killed without any ‘guilty’ sentence; what if the girls in your neighborhood feel like they are forced to watch their every little move because they know they will be blamed if anything happens to them?
The choices the government and other officials make are a big deal for the people affected by them. So how do we stand up to represent ourselves?
Well, we can literally stand.