It sometimes takes decades to find out
In a remarkable development in the midst of a pandemic, the United States is also witnessing one of the broadest, sustained waves of protest in decades. It’s been three weeks, and nearly one in five Americans says they have participated in a recent protest. Like many other academics studying protests and movements, I am often asked if protests work—an especially important question for the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests as they, like all crowded events, entail extra risk during a pandemic. Will all this accomplish something? The answer is, yes, of course, protests work, but usually not in the way and timeframe that many people think. Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.
In the short term, protests can work to the degree that they can scare authorities into changing their behaviour. Protests are signals: “We are unhappy, and we won’t put up with things the way they are.” But for that to work, the “We won’t put up with it” part has to be credible. Nowadays, large protests sometimes lack such credibility, especially because digital technologies have made them so much easier to organize. When it can take as little as a few months or even weeks to go from a Facebook page to millions in the street, as we saw with the Women’s March in 2017, a protest doesn’t necessarily make the kind of statement it did in the past, when they were much harder to organize. In comparison, the historic March on Washington, in 1963, took more than 10 years to go from being an idea to being organized, with many months dedicated just to the logistics, and with many obstacles before and during. When it’s that difficult to do something, just pulling off the march itself serves as an exclamation mark to those in power, whereas something that’s easy to organize is a mere question mark for the future: Maybe it will go somewhere, but maybe it won’t. Unsurprisingly, low-effort things don’t communicate credible threats. That’s also why things like apps that make it easy for people to contact their representatives don’t do much to help anyone’s cause—if action is easy to do, legislators can also easily discern that it doesn’t necessarily represent a threat to their reelection. (Showing up at their office in large groups, though? That still bites because it represents a lot more work).
Indeed, the past few decades in the United States have featured many large and widespread protests without corresponding immediate change. Large numbers of people marched around the country in early 2003 to oppose the impending invasion of Iraq, but the war and the occupation proceeded anyway in March of that year. The Occupy movement in the United States saw marches in 600 communities and 70 major cities quickly, and then went global, but inequality has gotten worse since then. Neither numbers nor streets are by themselves magic wands for change.
What about when protesters do things that are difficult? When protesters undertake acts that risk jail time, like the Catholic pacifists who broke into nuclear-weapons facilities to smear them with blood, or even death, like holding marches when a government or its paramilitaries will shoot and kill? Clearly, high-risk actions, especially if they inspire mass participation, have the potential to be more piercing in their impact. In 1986, millions of Filipinos protested attempts by President Ferdinand Marcos, who’d been in power for 20 years, to continue his rule through a marred election. They certainly risked being shot at, something that had happened before. This time, though, Marcos realized he could no longer control the country and fled instead.
The current Black Lives Matter protest wave is definitely high risk through the double whammy of the pandemic and the police response. The police, the entity being protested, have unleashed so much brutality that in just three weeks, at least eight people have already lost eyesight to rubber bullets. One Twitter thread dedicated to documenting violent police misconduct is at 600 entries and counting. And nobody seems safe—not even a 75-year-old avowed peacenik who was merely in the way of a line of cops when he was shoved so violently that he fell and cracked his skull. Chillingly, the police walked on as he bled on the ground. After the video came out to widespread outrage, and the two police officers who shoved him were suspended, their fellow officers on the active emergency-response team resigned to support their colleagues. Plus the pandemic means that protesters who march in crowds, face tear gas, and risk jail and detention in crowded settings are taking even more risks than usual.
Sustaining such widespread protests for weeks under these difficult conditions is no easy feat, and there are indications that these protests are already having immediate impacts. In Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd was the initial spark, the mayor called for sweeping structural reform, the city council passed a resolution to disband the police force and replace it with a community-led model, and the police chief pulled out of negotiations with the police union. Many other localities have been considering similar initiatives to scale back police departments.
Does that mean high-risk or difficult-to-pull-off protests can always work to scare authorities into implementing change? We can’t just say yes, because the authorities have another option to meet such actions: Make them even higher-risk through repression until the protesters give up.
Sadly, repression works. No matter how brave the protesters maybe, a state often has a lot more capacity to inflict costs than ordinary protesters have to withstand them. During the Arab Spring, about one-third of the citizens of Bahrain marched for months on end—a staggering number, comparable to more than 70 million people marching in the United States. Instead of buckling, their government responded with widespread arrests, torture, and executions, even of teenagers, finally silencing the weary population. In Egypt, after a military coup in July 2013, at least tens of thousands of protesters, including many women and children, camped out at Rab’a Square, in Cairo, to oppose the coup. In response, the military and the police opened fire, gunning down an estimated 1,000 people in a single day. Unsurprisingly, protests mostly died down, and the country has since been ruled by a ruthless military dictatorship. These are not historical exceptions. In 1989, the Chinese government killed hundreds or, by some estimates, even thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square, where about 1 million people had peacefully assembled for months, crushing the pro-democracy movement.
So why don’t authorities always ratchet up the repression until people give up? Why do they sometimes give in to protest movements? The key to understanding that is also the key to understanding the true long-term power of social movements. Movements, and their protests, are powerful because they change the minds of people, including those who may not even be participating in them, and they change the lives of their participants.