It felt as if the atmosphere in the demonstrator-filled subway ride to the midtown Manhattan starting line of the Women’s March in 2017 would mark a shift in the protest culture of America.
All kinds of pink hat-clad demonstrators went out carrying bright, passionate and funny signs. The city radiated a sense of purpose. In 21 years, I never knew what solidarity felt like until that Saturday morning. Marches across the country produced the largest, single-day demonstration in U.S. history. But then Monday came, and it felt as if nothing had really changed.
Even so, that march seemed to lead to a wave of protests, including the Travel Ban Airport protest, the March for Science, the March for Our Lives, rallies for DACA, and even a second Women’s March this year. Still, questions loom: What makes a protest effective in this political era? What’s the value of an act of protest?
On the Fourth of July, Patricia Okoumou climbed the base of the Statue of Liberty to protest the separation of migrant families. While it was a dramatic, visually appealing and wonderfully symbolic protest, I wondered how her actions would help solve the problem. Is there value in theatrics?
It feels unclear whose attention protesters should vie for at this point. Their peers? The media? The government? Who is listening, and more important, who can help?
While anger was the catalyst, there was a sense of togetherness while walking in the Women’s March. A feel-good atmosphere marked with amusing slogans and impassioned chanting. There must be value in these enormous and diverse spectacles expressing public distaste. But what do these marches do in terms of political change? With Donald Trump in office, are protesters — like those in London on Friday — playing into his narrative of “the left”?
Research shows that protests do not work because big crowds send a signal to policy-makers — rather, it’s because protests help to get people politically activated.
Still, many young people are at a loss. It seems to us, no matter what, whether it’s climbing a national monument or walking on the streets, no one in charge appears to be listening. The travel ban is in place, the incoming EPA chief has ties to the coal industry, shootings and gun violence continue, DACA has yet to be sorted out, and we have yet to reunite all migrant families.
Activism has grown prominent on the internet because of the relative ease of showing political colors. Social media activism, sometimes referred to as “slacktivism,” is performed with a click of the retweet button or a “like” on Facebook. While technology has affected the reach and horizontality of protests in this country, nothing can replace the physical commitment that underpins the success of a movement.
What separates today’s demonstrations from the raw but effective protests of the ’60s and ’70s is calculated organization behind a single aim. Having a concise common denominator helps push people to the ballot box.
Real importance lies in the less Instagram-able forms of protest. Public protest must be coupled with individual, quiet and sometimes invisible forms of action: calling a senator, signing a petition, donating, attending town halls, and voting. This advice feels obvious and trite, but it’s much easier to fight the power than to fix the system.
There is room in America for all kinds of protest and it’s easy to forget “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is not true everywhere. Any exercise of protest is useful, as it is an act of resistance in itself. While protests, covered by the news or held in our own backyard, may feel futile in the short term, the arc of history tells us there’s reason to be optimistic.
Isobel van Hagen is an intern in Newsday Opinion.