The power of protest and collective action

Opinion by Mina Shah
Feb. 13, 2017, 12:30 a.m.

Conservative and alt-right-esque movements around the world seem to be doing particularly well as of late. Between the current political situation in the U.S., Le Front Nationale in France and separatists in the U.K., things are, I think it’s safe to say, not good for those of us who care about ensuring greater social freedoms.

In response to these conservative movements, though, protests are also cropping up all around the world. In the U.S., we have seen massive, mainstream protests at the airport against the travel ban executive order and in solidarity with women following the election of the current president. In Romania, there have been protests regarding a new piece of legislation that would ease penalties for official corruption convictions. In Indonesia, citizens have begun to protest an incumbent governor who is currently facing blasphemy charges. These protests may seem disparate and disconnected at the moment, and it is unclear what their overall efficacy might be. However, there is actually good reason to be positive about these demonstrations.

Protests are contentious, especially in this country. Certain kinds of protests are more acceptable than others, and certain historical moments look more fondly on protests than others. We can look at examples from the past several years, even, to provide a contrast to understand what this difference might look like. The Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015 garnered very different responses than the current protests in 2017 in response to the inauguration of the new president. Whereas the 2014 and 2015 protests prompted a lot of violently negative energy in response, the mass media messaging has been much more positive in 2017.

Even those who support protests generally and on principle may be frustrated with protests at this point in time. Part of the logic of protest is that it has the potential to do more than just bring attention to a cause or bring about a social kind of change. It can, in theory, also create political change if done in the right political context with the right political leverage. The problem with protests in the current climate is that there isn’t the requisite political capital to influence any change in the government.

Despite any and all controversy regarding movement for political and social change in this way, there seems to be something deeply important about these demonstrations. Specifically, the fact that there are protests happening around the world is important for several reasons.

First, though these movements are disparate at the moment, they are deeply connected in terms of the underlying principles they espouse: creating equal opportunity for all people. This means that there is a possibility that the movements could end up being in solidarity with one another. More numbers means more pressure on the powers that be even if the political capital isn’t there to make an immediate difference. After a certain point, those people in power will feel shamed by the negativity.

Second, the fact that there is such energy around making the world a better place is encouraging because it will be more possible to channel that energy into making change by voting and getting the people around them to the polls to make some political change in the upcoming midterm and general election cycles.

People engaging in these protests, though, do need to make sure that their protests are ethical, that they are inclusive and that they recognize the fact that we may be in a time that looks more fondly on these kinds of displays of political opinion as compared to other historical moments. It is important for participants in these demonstrations to note that in many ways, it is much easier for certain people with certain kinds of privileges to protest for certain things than it is for others to move against other things.

Ultimately, though, these protests are good things. They keep us aware. They remind us that this cannot become the new normal.


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’

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