Updated: May 7
protest noun noun: protest; plural noun: protests /ˈprəʊtɛst/ "a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something."
People have been protesting for centuries; coming together about issues that they feel strongly about. Issues of unfairness, inequality and injustice can create anger in huge numbers of people, making them come together and make a stand. But, all too often, after the protest, nothing changes. People go home, they carry on with their lives and hope that they've done enough to start the changes that they want to see, but things stay the same. There are many different ways to protest, but how, what kind of protests actually work? What do you have to do to make those in power hear you, actually listen and change things for the better?
Protests can be an incredibly powerful way to create a positive change
Kids That Change The Game
A 15-year-old girl named Kellen S. from Portland, Oregon, created a Change.org petition called Justice For George Floyd that became the most signed petition in Change.org’s history, gaining more than 16 million signatures. When interviewed Kellen said that she realised the daunting challenge for people her age to become social leaders during great social changes and crisis. But, her age was actually her biggest asset as she knew the people she was trying to target. She realised that social media would be the most effective tool to reach teens and young adults and used it to spread awareness about police brutality and racism.
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, who was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019, is a leading international voice on the environment, she single handedly created a global movement of kids and teens protesting climate change and environmental destruction.
How To Make A Protest Work
It’s really hard to determine what makes one protest effective and another not, but when looking back at a protest there are four ways of deciding how successful a protest has been:
Did it raise awareness?
Did public opinion change?
Were there institutional changes as a result?
Were there electoral consequences?
1. Raising awareness - There is power in numbers. Quite often people, in general, are aware of issues but don't realise how bad the situation is, how many people are affected by the issue or how dangerous the issue could be to them personally. Protests can spread awareness of an issue, not just locally, but globally, creating a movement that inspires people to get involved, to find out more about the problem, educate themselves or even join the protests. There have been many protests in the past and even in the present that have started off as small movements but have quickly spread with thousands of people joining in when they have become aware of what is going on.
2. Changing public opinion - If you don't have the public on your side the protest will fail. When a protest starts it can take a little while for the public to become aware. News will spread across social media before reaching televisions and newspapers. As attention gathers around the protest more people will join, numbers swell and so does the disruption caused. Roads can be closed, businesses can't operate, traffic can't pass, pavements become unusable. When this happens the genral public can become affected and if they don't agree with the reason for the protest, or if the protest becomes too disruptive, nothing positive will be achieved. If the situation deteriorates too much the public will turn against the protestors making progress impossible.
3. Creating institutional changes. A successful protest needs governments and lawmakers to make changes to huge systems. Systems of governance, finance and business. However, these governments also need to be popular so that people will still vote for them. If the public don't like the protest the governments will shut them down and change nothing. If the public agree with the reason for the protest they will make changes to remain popular. Sometimes the government will want to make changes but it would be very expensive to do so or they are unsure about whether or not the public will approve; if the public agree that the changes must be made they won't be angry about having their tax money spent to fix the problem.
4. Electoral changes. Electoral change involve changing governmental systems. This could be voting in politicians that have promised to make the changes that you want, or voting out politicians that have done the opposite of what you wanted. It could be through stopping a change to a law by proving how unpopular it is, forcing a change to the law that has been needed for a long time. It could be getting someone out of prison that has been held for too long or is innocent in a way that highlights the failures of the judicial system. An effective protest could get someone removed from government or even force an election. If a protest leads to real change it is said to be a success. The change may not come immediately, it could take years, but the main thing is that it does happen.
How To Make A Protest Fail
Guaranteed ways to make a protest fail is to use violence, destroy property or loot. Violence, destruction and theft are never okay, they are crimes and it ensures that people focus on, and only remember, those crimes, not the reason for the protest. When people talk about recent environmental protests in London they talk about people gluing themselves to door handles and smashing the windows of banks; no one remembers what changes the protesters actually wanted. In Hong Kong the protesters held a "sit in" in one of the busiest airports in the world, people couldn't travel, flights were cancelled. This action along with peaceful protests in the streets lead to the law changes being halted and a member of the government leaving.
Rioting achieves nothing positive
Another way to make a protest fail is to not have a clear message. When no one knows what you're protesting for you will achieve nothing. This also happens when there is no leadership structure within the movement, this will result in a lack of direction and control within the protest. Groups will split and do their own thing, they may change the message of the protest, without a cohesive message and united front the protest will be dismantled and achieve nothing.
Protests can bring socially and economically marginalised groups together, they can create solidarity between people that otherwise would feel very alone in their fight. But, protests alone do not achieve change. Highlighting the problem, bringing awareness to an issue is only the beginning, sometimes change takes a fight, not a physical one, that can take years. There may be votes, and court cases; studies might be needed to see what the effect of the change would be before it can be implemented. But, when it comes to changing a system that is more powerful than you protests can definitely do what you thought was impossible.