Protests are nothing new in the quest to initiate change or express dissatisfaction. It’s usually reserved to issues where people feel powerless or change through legislation has been unsuccessful or slow. As public displays, they come in many different forms and may be peaceful or violent. They may be directed at countries, governments, corporations or individuals.
Among other forms of protest, there is rioting, picketing, strikes, boycotts, marches and civil disobedience. Sometimes they are meant to shock the public and gain media attention; other times, it is to affect those being protested either through fear of bodily harm, property damage or financial impact. The form depends on the issue and unfortunately, unless it is really capable of instigating change, it is useless.
Occupy Wall Street, in protest of social and economic inequality, eventually attracted widespread media attention, but fell far short of making a significant impact. As far as wealthy individuals, corporations and banks were concerned, Occupy Wall Street could protest all they wanted, but as long as they controlled Congress, no reform was forthcoming.
Conversely, the Earth Liberation Front, used property damage against corporations they felt was not listening to their environmental concerns. Through illegal actions, it was successful, in part at least and certainly more than its legislative efforts, in getting the attention of the companies it targeted or even shutting them down.
Of course, there are many others. Caesar Chavez, through years of hard work, led the efforts of farm workers through successful boycotts of companies that engaged in unfair labor practices. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, employ—sometimes controversially— a wide variety of protests to gain media attention and embarrass companies and individuals who needlessly harm animals.
Much attention has been given to the widespread protest of the police killings of young black men across the country recently. The protests have been largely peaceful, but there have been episodes of violence and property destruction. “No justice, no peace,” is sometimes the mantra.
Rioting is often a little like terrorism; it usually affects people who have nothing to do with the perceived injustice. It serves little purpose and often turns public opinion against the protesters.
I always favor non-violence over violence, fear or destruction. I think economic protests are often quite effective, but it requires a significant effort enacted by a lot of people for a long time—often against their own personal interest. Even with social media these days, it is very hard to organize and sustain.
So what if an economic boycott does not work? How do you demand the accountability of a police force? How do you stop a country from engaging in war? How do you boycott diverse a multi-national corporation? How do you financially impact a billionaire or Hollywood star? In these cases, it takes more.
This is where I think we enter a gray area. What are the oppressed supposed to do? Most Americans feel pride in its revolution, in which protest turned into a war for independence. Many also believe that the country’s civil war was a worthy cause as a measure against slavery. Unfortunately, the issue was resolved through violence and the death of thousands.
It’s a shame when change cannot be initiated on its own morality. It often takes committed radicals, willing to make personal sacrifices for their cause. In this regard, I am an admirer of Saul Alinsky and his methods of community organization as described in Reveille for Radicals. An expert in understanding human nature and how to get the attention of oppressors, he did not identify himself with Republicans or Democrats, Christians or Muslims, Blacks or Whites; for him it was the “haves” and “have nots.”
It basically comes down to “hitting them where it hurts” to commence a climate of change or negotiation upon those imposing the injustice or immorality when legislative or voting changes are unlikely to make a difference or be realized.
Alinsky wrote, “From a general point of view, liberals and radicals desire progress. In this they differ from conservatives, for while a conservative wishes to conserve the status quo, liberals ask for change and radicals fight for change. They desire a world rid of those destructive forces which issue war. They want to do away with economic injustice, insecurity, unequal opportunities, prejudice, bigotry, imperialism . . . They want a world where life for man will be guided by a morality that is meaningful—and where the values of good and evil will be measured not in terms of money morals but social morals.”
In a way, America was built on protest. We are defined by our freedoms—the most precious being the freedom of speech. We are afforded the right to speak out against immorality, oppression and injustice. And, we have the right to act as radicals, to protest in its most effective form, when those who carry out those injustices turn a deaf ear.