Why Are U.S. Protest Marches Less Effective Than They Used to Be?
By Lauren A. Schmidt  May 30, 2010
"A protest is not very useful unless it
also causes people to take further
Photo by Eduardo Barraza | Barriozona
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Protesters during a march in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Eduardo Barraza  2010
I recently started working part time at UC Berkeley, where I often
walk through Sproul Plaza. Everyone at UC Berkeley talks about the
protest culture of the school, and the protesters and protest
organizers frequently gather in Sproul.  The other day, I got into a
conversation there with an undergrad manning a table that said
something like, “You’re radical and I like you!”

Me: What are you promoting?

Him: on March 4th we’re taking part in a march to protest the state
of education in California.  We’re trying to get everyone to participate
— get everyone at Berkeley to march off campus and into the
downtown, but also everyone from the surrounding K-12 schools.

Me: What are you hoping to achieve with this protest march?

Him: Well, we have a lot of complaints… [he elaborates and hands
me a pamphlet]

Me: Okay, but how do you hope the march will help address these

Him: Well, there will be a lot of organizations involved.  People will
get to see that they’re not alone in caring about this. It’s good to not
be alone.

Me: So the march is an end in and of itself — a place to vent

Him: Well, no.  We hope to change things.

Me: How?

This went on for a while before I took pity on him and left him alone.  
I don’t think he was unusual in not knowing why exactly he was
marching — but it got at an issue that I’ve been wondering about for
a while, and have only been thinking about more now that I’m in
Berkeley.  When and how do protest marches actually work?  It’s
clear that
they sometimes do have a large impact on society
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, the anti-Vietnam war
protests, Gandhi’s march to the sea, and recent effective protests in
places like Pakistan, Thailand, and arguably Iran (where the Green
movement seems to be bringing about potential long-term social
changes, even if the protested election results still stand) provide
examples of how protest marches can aid social change. Why haven’
t we seen marches with comparable success in the U.S. recently?

One of the questions that goes into this larger topic is part of what I
was trying to get the UC Berkeley undergraduate to help me — what
are the mechanisms by which protest can have an effect?  I haven’t
found research that explicitly spells this out, but here are some
mechanisms that I’ve heard mentioned and/or brainstormed. Protest
marches can:

1. bring isolated people together so that they can then organize to
take further action,
2. energize and galvanize people to take that further action (I think
these first two are what the UCB undergraduate was probably trying
to get across),
3. provide publicity for a cause,
4. cause embarrassment and PR headaches for organizations on the
other side of the issue, thus pressuring them to change,
5. and/or publicize alternatives to the current model of doing things.

(Are there more that I’m missing?)  It seems to me that, while
outcomes #3 and #4 are probably the outcomes that people think
about most with regards to protests,  a protest is not very useful
unless it also causes people to take further action (#1 and #2), and
suggests alternatives to the current ways of doing things (#5).
Without a specific set of goals, a protest is just a place to vent

With these mechanisms in mind, I set out to find out about factors
that are different between today’s protest and previous ones in the
U.S. In an NPR story called, “
Do Street Protests Still Work?” Dana
Fisher, a sociologist at Columbia, points out that “today’s protests
lack the numbers of attendees, duration and galvanizing confluence
of social movements that made rallies decades earlier so powerful.”  

Socialist Worker points out that the anti-Vietnam war protests
included a march in D.C. with at least 500,000 participants, and a
month earlier over 10 million people had taken part in rallies across
the country.  

These numbers were huge, and so was the duration of the
movement: every year from 1967 to 1971, huge protest marches
occurred in D.C. and across the nation.  in May 1970, 8 million
students protesting managed to shut down affect schools across the
nation, and shut down 51 colleges not just for a day, but for the
remainder of the year (granted, it was May, but still — all of these
point to far larger scale efforts than a single day’s march).

The organizations and people behind the protests are obviously
important as well. Having organizations to coordinate and sustain
efforts helps with mechanisms #1 and #2 of protest — keeping
people involved beyond the event, both so that the protests keep
going, and so that the protest is a means to an end, rather than the
end itself.  Blogger Fabius Maximus has collected a thoughtful set of
comments about
effective protests in the 21st century, some of
which point out the role of protest as one of many tools: “There are,
after all, a bunch of other tools for change: boycotting, voter
registration, sit-ins, strikes, pamphleteering, arguing legal cases,
creating legal cases, and the successful examples listed above
(Gandhi and King both being examples of this), used protests ALONG
with a variety of other mechanisms during a long and often
frustrating process of change.”  

Organizations can also potentially helps make the goals of the
protest clearer, although there has been a change over time from
viewing protests as an occasion that you dress up for, where the
organization approves the signs that are carried, to an umbrella
occasion for self-expression of all types. Another comment
highlighted by Fabius Maximus points out that this lack of top-down
order may not be the best trend for keeping the message clear.

Individuals can also help a cause greatly. It helps to have
charismatic, well-recognized people to lead both organizations and
individual protests (here I’m thinking of people who are devoting
their lives to a cause, not people like celebrities, but I don’t actually
know about the quantitative effects of having a celebrity advocate).  

However, neither having organizations nor individuals devoted to a
cause make for automatic effectiveness. I think there are a lot of
ineffective individuals and non-profits out there who have a good
cause but poor techniques, and a lot of even relatively large
organizations who just don’t stop to think about the goals and
effects of a particular protest even sufficiently.

Coming back to goals, I emphasize once again that it is vital for any
movement to have specific goals and publicizing clearly the methods
by which they can be achieved. King’s March on Washington had a
list of demands; some protest marches are organized with a
broad goal like “protesting globalization” or “ending racism” and
have marchers with very vague and/or disparate goals. This diffuses
the message into something where people can nod their heads in
agreement and feel like they’re not part of the problem (or can
disagree with the message and say, “Well, there’s no real
alternative, so we’ll stick with the way things are”).

The framing of the complaints and the goals can also make a big
difference.  Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy, in a post called “
protests ever work?”, points out that the civil rights movement of the
1960’s “was able to gain widespread support because its arguments
were largely rooted in the constitution and christianity [sic].” I’m
quite sure that that doesn’t make a cause invulnerable to criticism,
but I also think I agree with his statement that “at least in
democratic societies, protests that demand accountability or
consistency from ‘the system’ tend to be more effective than one
that seek to overturn it.”  

The less radical you can make your claim sound, and the more you
can make it sound like the thing that all reasonable, decent followers
of the current system should agree with, the better off you are.
One interesting fact that I dug up while researching this post
regards the size of the “public forum”.
McPhail, McCarthy, & Andrew
(2004) observe that the number of places where protests can freely
be staged has shrunken significantly since the 1960’s. Many
sidewalks and parks have changed from public to private property.  

Additionally, there is far less freedom concerning where a protest can
take place than there was then. “During the peak of the cycle of
protests in the late 1960s most protest events did not take place in
the public forum, but in areas controlled by governmental authorities.
During recent protests against the 2000 Presidential election results
gatherings occurred almost exclusively in public forums.”  

It’s not clear from this conference paper how much the effectiveness
of protests is altered by the increasingly restricted access to spaces
in which to hold protests. But I suspect that, as well as making the
organization of protests more difficult, it reduces the potential size
and media coverage of many protests. It sure seemed like the latter
was a problem for anti-Bush protesters during the former
administration; they were cordoned off into areas that were not
easily seen.

With all these factors in mind, how does one make a protest more
effective? Fisher points out that a lot of the participants in the most
effective protests in the U.S. and abroad have their lives or their
basic human rights at stake in a way that galvanizes them to take
part in large protests, and to keep up a sustained effort over a long
period of time.  

It’s unclear if protest marches, or social movements in general, can
be nearly as effective without such an immediate, motivating force
behind them. It seems likely that organizations who strive to make
their protest effort large and sustained, and who put forth a clear
and coherent proposal for change can still make a difference — as
long as people do not see the protests as the final or only step in
the process.  

Can all those factors come together today, when there is no draft to
put people’s lives as immediately at risk, and when protests have
become events where people show up with hand-made signs for
their own pet causes? I don’t know.
Lauren Schmidt is a cognitive scientist and co-founder of
HeadLamp Research. She also blogs at
about how to make a quantifiable difference in the world.
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