Why Protest Events Are Not a Waste of Time

Protests support citizens in their pursuit of democratic change

At first glance, the long-standing American practice of street protesting seems very odd. Picking up a picket sign and spending hours chanting and marching in 105-degree heat or 15-degree frost are not ordinary things to do. In fact, such behavior outside the context of a protest might be viewed as a sign of mental imbalance.

The history of protest in the U.S. and around the world, however, reveals the abundant good this tradition has done for democracy and the democratic process. The U.S. Bill of Rights enshrines the right to peaceful assembly, evidence that the importance of protest has been recognized since the founding of this nation. But why is protest so useful?

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Increasing the Visibility of a Cause

Demonstrators block the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel
Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Policy debates can be abstract and may even seem irrelevant to the people not most directly affected by them. In contrast, protest events put warm bodies and heavy feet out into the world, representing an issue. Protest marchers are real people showing that they care enough about their cause to go out and be ambassadors for it.

Marches bring attention. The media, politicians, and bystanders notice when a protest event happens. And if the protest is staged well, it will invariably make some people look at the issue with new eyes. Protests are not persuasive in and of themselves, but they invite conversation, persuasion, and change.

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Demonstrating Power

The date was May 1, 2006. The U.S. House of Representatives had just passed H.R. 4437, a bill that essentially called for the deportation of 12 million undocumented immigrants and the imprisonment of anyone who might help them avoid deportation. A massive group of activists, predominantly but not exclusively Latino, planned a series of rallies in response. More than 500,000 people marched in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, and millions more throughout the country; several hundred even marched in Jackson, Mississippi.

The death of H.R. 4437 in committee was not surprising after these actions. When large numbers of people take to the streets in protest, politicians and other key decision-makers notice. There is no guarantee that they will act, but they notice.

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Promoting a Sense of Solidarity

You may or may not feel that you are part of a movement even if you happen to agree with its principles. Supporting LGBTQIA rights in the comfort of your own home is one thing, but picking up a sign and supporting the issue in public is another matter: you let the issue define you for the duration of the protest, and you stand together with others to represent a movement. Protests make the movement feel more real to participants.

This gung-ho spirit can also be dangerous. "The crowd," in the words of Søren Kierkegaard, "is untruth." To quote the musician and songwriter Sting, "people go crazy in congregations / they only get better one by one." To guard against the danger of mob thinking as you become emotionally engaged in an issue, remain intellectually honest about it, however challenging that might be.

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Building Activist Relationships

Solo activism isn't usually very effective. It can also become dull very quickly. Protest events give activists a chance to meet, network, swap ideas, and build coalitions and community. For many protests, activists form affinity groups, where they find allies for the very specific angle most important to them. Many activist organizations started out at protest events that united and networked their like-minded founders.

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Energizing Participants

Ask almost anyone who attended the March on Washington in August 1963, and to this day they'll tell you exactly what it felt like. Good protest events can be spiritual experiences for some people, charging their batteries and inspiring them to get up and fight again another day. Such fortification is, of course, very helpful in the difficult process of working for a cause. By creating newly committed activists, and giving veteran activists a second wind, this energizing effect is a crucial ingredient in the struggle for political change.