Can protest affect political change?

A woman holds up a sign at a pro-choice rally. In this article, Nell and Harrison discuss whether or not the protest affects political change. Photo courtesy of Derek French at

N1: Let me put on my classic 18th century liberal hat just once.

Demonstration is one of the most critical tools members of a political movement should have in their arsenal. There’s a reason people have fought tooth and nail, even given their lives for the right to protest in public – because protesting alone is enough to trigger the sweeping changes we need to transform society into a just society. and egalitarian.

Even in the simplistic model of students, community members, or other disgruntled participants in society marching through the streets with signs and chants, protest is a perfect analogue of democracy. Mob politics is shaped by compromise and shared experience, producing a coherent goal that is no more messy than the agendas set by often disorganized and deadlocked governments. It is a form of experiential learning to lead or participate in a protest, the most important lesson being how to organize yourself and others in a political movement and jump ahead.

More importantly, you cannot change the situation without establishing the intention. What good is a declaration of intent made in a dark underground complex, isolated from your relatives in society? A key function of the protest is to publicly reject the mandate of those in power and force them to face the public opposition their actions have fomented.

H1: Demonstration is an ineffective means of influencing political change. We spend hours and hours creating signs and banners, gathering attendees, listing speakers and topics, and honing our public speaking skills. These strategies are ineffective because they can be ignored. At the University of Connecticut, through movements for mental health to protect students from death, movements to protect black lives from racism, movements for accountability for sexual violence, movements to fight against anti-Semitism, historic protests for climate justice, movements against the university’s relationship with settler states and the military-industrial complex, the administration has consistently, consistently, and effectively ignored every protest organized by students. Worse than ignorance, when protests become large or consistent, a resourceless, powerless, and unaccountable “task force” is established whose main objective is to further thwart political organizing among protesters by extracting resources student-organizers and convincing the student body that their initial effort had enough impact to catalyze change.

After years of demonstration, all of the above issues are pending at UConn. Why pursue the same strategy over and over again, hoping for a different outcome? If we want data on the effectiveness of demonstration, how far should we look beyond our own home?

N2: The arguments against demonstration are understandable, but many of them are based on assumptions about human behavior that are not grounded in reality. For example, the idea that protests can be easily co-opted by those you are protesting against betrays a fundamental undervaluation of people’s intelligence and agency. Doubtful speech, a risky turn on a dead-end street riddled with cops can fool newcomers, but experienced political organizers or protesters can democratically negotiate the terms and direction of the rally, as is often required because organizers are also imperfect. Another common criticism of demonstration is that it, in and of itself, does not affect change, to which I refute: Change for whom? Ask the young revolutionary, whose dreams of societal transformation are still buried under a life under the status quo, who is then transformed by the solidarity and electricity flowing through a protest. Ask the organization that is getting stronger because like-minded activists met at a successful protest. The potential is unlimited!

H2: Protest actually has adverse effects as a strategy to pursue political change. By protesting, people think they are contributing to a movement, attending it once and believing they are fulfilling an ethical obligation in the face of injustice. These people neglect to investigate the real work necessary for justice because they believe that a protest effectively pursues this goal, which is completely false. A culture has been created so that, while participation is seen as important, it is entirely acceptable and ultimately encouraged to attend certain protests without committing to the issues they address or the groups that organize themselves around problems. Although no commitments are made by anyone other than a small group of overworked students, injustices remain and politics stagnates.

Throughout, the university can create public relations communications affirming that it receives and interfaces with student grievances, responding to their concerns in a timely manner while continuing to overlook or sponsor violence that frustrates students . According to the institutional structure, universities give priority to rankings and income, which demonstrations generally do not have an impact. These structural concerns, not emotional beliefs or ignorance of the issue, are the reason the university remains committed to violence. How will your demonstration address this reality?

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