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How Much Do Protests Matter? A Freakonomics Quorum

Iran’s citizens take to the streets en masse after a disputed election. Gay men in Salt Lake City hold a kissing protest. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church voice their anti-just-about-everything views to military funerals and elsewhere.
Beyond the media attention they inevitably garner, what do protests actually accomplish?
We rounded up a few people who have thought a lot about this topic — Chester Crocker, Bernardine Dohrn, Donna Lieberman, Juan E. Méndez, David S. Meyer, and Howard Zinn — and asked them how much protest matters in this day and age, and why.
Here are their answers.
Howard Zinn is professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University, and author of the book A People’s History of the United States.

“Testing is always a gamble, but one worth taking, because if you don’t take the risk, you will be stuck with the status quo and I suppose we all agree: the status quo is extremely undesirable.”

Do protests work? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes very soon, sometimes there is a long-term effect. Sometimes you can see a direct connection between the protest and the result, and sometimes it’s difficult to trace.
What this means is that you must not desist from protesting because you don’t see an immediate result. What immediately looks like a failure may turn out to be a success. Testing is always a gamble, but one worth taking, because if you don’t take the risk, you will be stuck with the status quo and I suppose we all agree: the status quo is extremely undesirable.
Some examples:
There was protest when the founding fathers concluded their work in drafting the Constitution in Philadelphia because there was no Bill of Rights. With the protests threatening the successful ratification (the vote was close in major states: New York, Massachusetts, Virginia) the Founders agreed they would add it, and they did in 1791.
The anti-slavery movement had to keep protesting for decades, from the 1830’s to the early 1860’s, until it had an effect on Lincoln and the Congress, first with the Emancipation Proclamation, then with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
The nation-wide strikes in the 1880’s resulted in winning the eight-hour work day in many places. The demands of the Populist movement resulted in regulatory legislation in various states and resulted in national reforms years later in the New Deal measures to help farmers.
The sit-down strikes of 1936 to 1937 led to recognition of the C.I.O. unions and contracts and better wages and conditions.
The wave of protests in the early 1930’s — by the Unemployed Councils blocking evictions; by the Tenants of organizations winning rent control in the Bronx, for instance, but also other places — led to the New Deal measures that helped the poor.
The various protests against racial segregation, taking various forms, are well known — the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the various demonstrations in the South — and all led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and various Supreme Court decisions that effectively ended legal racial segregation in the South.
The protests against the Vietnam War certainly helped Lyndon Johnson come to his conclusion in early 1968 that he would not run for president again, that he would begin negotiating with the North Vietnamese, and that he would not send more troops to Vietnam as General Westmoreland had requested.
The protests of G.I.’s during the Vietnam War — desertions, fragging, public disclosure of massacres — helped build public opinion against the war; and if you study the Pentagon Papers you will see how often the officials in Washington worried about public opinion, and why Nixon promised an end to the war, though it took years.
After the Vietnam-Watergate era, the protests of disabled people certainly led to the Disabled Persons Rights Act.
The feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970s undoubtedly led to affirmative action for women, moving more women into better positions in the economy.
There is much more historical evidence, but I am running out of space and time.

Chester Crocker is the James R. Schlesinger professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and serves on the board of its Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Previously, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and chaired the board of the United States Institute of Peace.

“Saying that they matter is not the same thing as saying their results are always or principally positive.”

History demonstrates the relevance and impact of protest actions. For some societies, protest events punctuate their histories like milestones. The short answer is, they matter.
The more interesting questions are why and in what circumstances. But saying that they matter is not the same thing as saying their results are always or principally positive.
Why do they matter? Protests have the potential to have impact on the varied audiences toward which they are directed. They can become part of a mass mobilization campaign, literally altering a society’s inner balance and subverting the coherence and esprit of the authorities. They can place a vulnerable regime on the defensive in the eyes of citizens and at the same time weaken its bases of external support. In a word, protest when conducted skillfully, can undercut a government’s inner sense of rectitude and its perceived legitimacy. Protests of this nature have shaped events in India, the Philippines, South Africa, Ukraine, Serbia, Lebanon, Bolivia, Russia, and other places over the last 100 years.
Not all protests have such sweeping goals. Protests can be targeted tactically in order to achieve a specific shift in policy, to create pressure for remedies or reforms, and to achieve such goals as prisoner releases, the recognition of the rights of aggrieved groups, or the winding down of a war.
When do protests work? To generalize, protests are most likely to be effective in one of three circumstances: a) in political-social systems that already recognize civil rights and political liberties (including freedom of the press) and those that profess adherence to such norms; b) by contrast, in autocratic systems that have become too brittle to adapt and whose security services may have become divided, demoralized, or unreliable agents of repression; and c) in weak, newly democratic systems where official legitimacy exists in the formal sense but lacks the deep social roots necessary to stand up to “street power” demagoguery.
Protests are also more likely to work when a) led by skillful political activists and organizers who understand how to manipulate public opinion and b) targeted at concrete rather than abstract ideological goals. The odds of using protest to stop the building of a dam are obviously better than mounting protests to achieve extra-constitutional regime change. And the prospects are not static: information technology and social networking are literally changing the protest landscape as these words are written.
Are protests a good thing? The short answer — and it is not a cop-out — is that it depends. Street power can get out of hand and subvert the democratic process. Under some conditions, protests can weaken a tottering autocrat and create a vacuum that is exploited by extremists, fascists, or other lowlifes. But protests can also achieve miracles large and small, moving a nation to greater things.

Bernardine Dohrn is clinical associate professor of law and director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Law. She was a former leader of the anti-Vietnam War organization the Weather Underground.

“So we have to act as we can, and then doubt whether we are fully right and effective, and then act again.”

Imagine our world without the differing protests of Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Tubman, Wounded Knee and Tien an Mien, Soweto and Stonewall. Where would we be without the persistence of Ida B. Wells‘s anti-lynching campaign and the quiet radical nurturing of Ella Baker who taught the reciprocity of community organizing? Don’t forget the transformative work of those who risked their lives and the safety of their families to serve as an invisible station on the underground railroad or the flamboyant truth-telling of Vietnam vets against the war who threw their medals back at the warmakers four decades ago and still continue to repair the harm. Let’s recall those in wheelchairs blanketing the steps of the Capitol building for dignity and access for the disabled, and the still-clandestine leakers who exposed the torture memos and the illegal actions they legitimized.
The secret is that protest encompasses acts that are individual and collective, literary and rousing, pathetic and transcendent — and we don’t know until later whether it made a difference. So acting against injustice or pointing toward solidarity has an existential quality; it must be done to object to a mighty wrong — to not be part of the problem. Looking backward, it seems obvious that sitting down to strike at Flint, and sitting in at Greensboro lunch counters, and standing up to enter school in Little Rock were obvious sparks to larger social movements. At the time, no one could know.
Surely speaking up when our upbringing encourages being polite can be the most courageous form of dissent. How many men or boys interrupt the hateful locker room banter about women and girls and queers? When do white people reject the invisible privileges that insulate us from the pain of structural inequality? Why is it so popular to admire dissidents in other countries but succumb to the social pressure to go along with homelessness, mass incarceration, and Katrina displacement at home?
And yet it is hardly obvious how to object and also be heard. Clearly comedy and humor open doors where earnest entreaty fails. And the art of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Audre Lourde, and Tony Kushner opens eyes and encourages the ethical longings of others. I don’t think we know what it takes for a walkout or teach-in or musical performance to simultaneously expose tyranny, enlighten, give heart, educate, recruit allies, and forge connections. So we have to act as we can, and then doubt whether we are fully right and effective, and then act again.
Without our protesting ancestors, we’d still be burning witches at the stake.

David S. Meyer is Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.

“When activists make progress, it’s always less than what they want.”

Protests can matter a great deal, but not by themselves, and often not in ways activists intend. When King George learned that colonists had dressed as Indians to throw discounted tea into the Boston Harbor, one of many acts of resistance, he saw his empire unraveling and responded harshly. Repression spurred further protests — and ultimately, America. Latter-day tea partiers have yet to take similar risks or demonstrate comparable commitment.
A protest is a signal about who you are, what you want, and what else you might do. A former White House adviser can write an op-ed against a planned war and create a stir; less prominent citizens need to do something more dramatic to win attention for their views, demonstrating at the Capitol or trespassing at a military base. What you do reflects who you are and what you want. Poor people may march on Washington, but rich people usually have other ways of getting their messages across.
When people protest, they tell authorities that they’re unhappy about something, and implicitly threaten to do more than protest: vote, contribute money, lobby, set up a picket, blockade a clinic, or try to blow up a building. Opponents and allies in government make judgments about how strong and widely held demonstrators’ grievances are. Demonstrators can force leaders to explain, again and again, what they’re doing and why. Sometimes, in crafting responses, governments change their policies. The Reagan administration, for example, offered new arms control proposals to the Soviet Union in the wake of massive antinuclear demonstrations. Gorbachev seized upon them, and history unfolded.
Demonstrators can stiffen the spine of would-be allies in government, suggesting there might be advantages in pressing for new positions on climate change, abortion, or gay marriage. No savvy politician will admit to changing direction in response to demonstrations in the street, but of course, it happens all the time.
When activists make progress, it’s always less than what they want. The antiwar movement in the Vietnam era ultimately ended the draft, but the war dragged on. Immigrant rights and anti-immigration demonstrators stopped their opponents in 2005, battling to a stalemate that frustrated everyone. People don’t generally take to the streets looking for smaller reforms, but often it’s only by asking for more that they get anything.
Demonstrators also signal to other citizens who might share their views that they are not alone, that things could be otherwise, and that they might be able to do something about it. The large national event that receives coverage in The New York Times reflects hundreds of smaller, less-visible actions and meetings in church basements and living rooms around the country, as people develop the temerity to think they can change the world. Sometimes they can.

Juan E. Méndez is a visiting professor at Washington College of Law, The American University, and an adviser on crime prevention to the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. He has also served as president of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and was special adviser on the Prevention of Genocide to Kofi Annan.

“In highly complex societies, powerful special interests have such access to, and even control of, levers of power that against them street protest looks — and most often is — quite futile.”

It is easy to think that the technological advances in communications and information have made street demonstrations useless as a means to influence policy or obtain change. In highly complex societies, powerful special interests have such access to, and even control of, levers of power that against them street protest looks — and most often is — quite futile. Celebrities embracing certain causes often seem more effective in pushing them than anonymous protesters joining to support their common interests.
But what would you do if you were an Iranian whose vote was outrageously stolen by Ahmadinejad‘s and Khamenei‘s massive fraud? A letter to the editor, lobbying a legislator, or an interview on prime time television are not available if you are a Zimbabwean fed up with Mugabe. Even at the international decision-making level, one suspects that the “international community” would quietly turn to more urgent matters if we thought that Darfurians were accepting their fate and acquiescing on Al Bashir‘s designs for them.
For the billions of powerless in today’s world, protest is the only way to have their voices heard. That is why international human rights law places a very high premium on freedom of speech, association, and assembly, all of them broadly understood. Vibrant, live democracies are those where all citizens believe they have a stake in the outcomes and consequently feel compelled to voice their opinions through the vehicles available to them. It is no wonder that the politics of protest are livelier in countries that are emerging from tyranny.
What does protest achieve? The agenda of protesters must be such that can be achieved through genuine debate in a democratic society. At the same time, rarely if ever is that agenda adopted in full the way protesters envision it; and rightly so, because policy is formulated through the interaction of many opinions and not as a result of pressure. Often, protest is a way of preventing some policy option that is considered unfair, and frequently the option is at least modified in view of the protest. So demonstrations may never completely succeed in achieving the goals of the demonstrators; they succeed in allowing them to participate in the process of policy formulation and decision-making, and participation is the democratic ideal.
Undoubtedly, protest must abide by rules of peaceful coexistence and reasonable regulation. Farmers in Argentina had every right to protest against export taxes (whether the taxes were fair or unfair in the overall context is another matter); but they had no right to block highways and impede the access of food products to the markets. Protests should indeed grow in frequency and intensity as necessary, even to the point of bringing down a repressive or unrepresentative government; but they must stop short of forcing a duly elected leader from office. Just as there is a threshold of “legitimacy of exercise” that should be demanded of elected leaders, so also demonstrators must exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly within the constraints of legitimacy of both means and ends.
Ultimately, protest works if it intelligently combines speech with action and a genuine attempt to persuade rather than simply antagonize. Under such premises, protest will continue to be a viable, indispensable ingredient of democracy for generations to come.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“The test of our democracy is the protection we offer not to the protests we like, but how we treat those we find offensive.”

Do protests matter? Just look at where they’ve been prohibited and why — Tehran and Tiananmen Square, for example. That ought to offer a clue.
But for every stifled protest, there are many examples of political protest that have changed the course of history.
From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery bus boycott and the march in Selma, American history is peppered with dramatic moments when demonstrations have provided the catalyst for profound and enduring change.
But for every Selma there have been countless quiet protests that have created a steady drumbeat toward change. Every poster that’s hoisted high, every petition that’s signed, every Tweet that registers dissent contributes to the nation’s political discourse.
And for every quiet protest, there have also been many not-so-quite protests — like the millions who marched to prevent the Iraq war. Though it didn’t feel like it in 2003, the throngs who took to the streets began shifting the public debate so that later our elected leaders could finally muster the courage to challenge the deceptions of the Bush administration.
Protest demonstrations don’t happen in a vacuum. And they matter most when they are part of a movement. The march in Selma was part of a movement that included the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom rides, the voter registration drives. They both complemented and fueled a litigation campaign to challenge segregation and — no coincidence — to protect the right to protest, and a political strategy to make equality the law of the land.
The impact of protest is often neither obvious nor immediate. Its impact is certainly important for the participants and their cause. But what is vital for democracy is the freedom to protest. Only when everyone has the right to speak out can a democracy thrive. And the test of our democracy is the protection we offer not to the protests we like, but how we treat those we find offensive — be they the Nazis in Skokie or the Klan. All First Amendment exercises — those that “work” and those that don’t — have shaped our history, made it better, and are crucial to how we come to understand ourselves as a people.
The NYCLU produces t-shirts that say simply “dissent is patriotic.” Peacefully gathering to speak out for change is one of the most patriotic things we can do. It’s how each one of us can enrich the public discourse, add to the marketplace of ideas, and help create the context where good ideas will flourish and change might happen in another time or place.
So does protest matter? Few things matter more.