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The post-pandemic future of public protest

The coronavirus pandemic may make traditional protests more

The coronavirus pandemic may make traditional protests more difficult, forcing advocates to engage in so-called "hashtag activism". Credit: iStock

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So in light of the coronavirus pandemic, what is the future of public protests? In the 1960s, the U.S. seemed almost defined by the mass demonstrations against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. In recent years, people have marched through the streets so often, and on behalf of so many different causes, that no one could possibly keep track. In an essay published just before the emergency began, the legal scholar Richard Thompson Ford warns that public demonstrations have become so commonplace that we're suffering from "protest fatigue."

Well, so much for all that.

Shelter-in-place orders have emptied the streets. At a demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut, the other day, people stayed in their cars the whole time. Progressives are bemoaning the way that the lockdown keeps them from organizing around electoral politics. Although a tiny handful of activists are suing for the right to protest publicly, few people seem eager to venture out for something as mundane as showing solidarity with a cause.

And while many people are doubtless too busy searching for paper towels to worry much about the latest cause, skyrocketing usage of both the internet generally and social media in particular surely portend a rapid acceleration of the trend toward protesting online. What's often called "hashtag activism" has both defenders and critics, but what's clear is that you learn a lot less about my level of enthusiasm for a cause when I retweet than when I invest time and energy in marching through the streets.

That's one reason why many who might be moved by the passion of public protest remain unaffected by digital activism. Sure, an online mob might now and then scare a publisher into cancelling a controversial book, or get some college dean to condemn an unpopular utterance by a faculty member. But apart from causing the ghost of Joe McCarthy to cackle with approval, this is all tame stuff.

Yes, a social media campaign can be an important step toward organizing larger forms of activism; yes, now and then, as with #MeToo, what begins online might spark a movement with national consequences. But for the most part, digital protests are distinct from physical protests in the single most important way: they're easier to ignore.

Yet hashtag activism is our near-term future — and possibly our long-term future as well. Even after the lockdowns end, it will be some while before pluralities of potential protesters on left or right are ready to march down broad boulevards as in days of yore, arms linked and voices raised.

In his classic 1967 essay on the theory of protest, the economist Kenneth E. Boulding pointed out that demonstrators tend to have a particular payoff in mind. They make a calculation: running this much risk in return for this chance of the payoff. The risk mattered. Boulding wrote in an era when protest conjured images of brave demonstrators facing down police in riot gear or even the National Guard. The risk included the possibility of arrest or worse. Should the potential payoff not justify the risk, the demonstration would not take place. At the same time, the acceptance of the risk is itself a powerful weapon in the hands of the activist. There's a reason those police dogs in Birmingham remain a powerful part of our national memory more than half a century later.

But when protest is online, joining is cheap and risk is low. All that's required is a single click to retweet before going back to whatever one was doing before. There's little incentive to do much weighing of risk versus reward.

So as long as activism sticks to social media, we should expect more protests, over a greater range of issues. What we should not expect is for the protests to be effective. The more there are, the less effective each will be. Moreover, in a world where most people's first priority is keeping their families safe, fewer and fewer people will even notice.

Protest fatigue indeed.

To be sure, even during the emergency, it's possible to protest. A recent demonstration in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro involved standing in one's windows and banging pots and pans together. Or consider the Hartford protest I mentioned earlier. What happened was this: Around 50 cars gathered outside the governor's official residence to demand the release of state prison inmates to help them avoid the virus. According to the New Haven Register, the drivers maintained social distancing: "They stayed in their cars, blocking traffic on Prospect Avenue, and honking non-stop for about 45 minutes before police arrived to break up the protest."

But if these examples represent the future of public protest then public protest is in big trouble. These strategies aren't the sort that win skeptics to your side. In an important new paper, the social scientists Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, and Chloe Kovacheff show that although "extreme" tactics by protestors - for example, blocking traffic, vandalizing property or engaging in inflammatory rhetoric — tend to increase news coverage of the demonstration itself, they tend to decrease popular support for the movement. Thus, getting loud in order to be heard by a nation fearful of leaving home is likely to prove self-defeating.

Yes, we can imagine a more disciplined group of activists taking to the streets properly masked against infection and each separated from the others by the specified six feet. Now we run into a different problem: In the dozen or so states that ban the wearing of masks in public, the protesters would probably be committing a crime.

All of this is to say that the future of public protest might be quite grim. And for a nation largely built on dissent, that's a problem.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include "The Emperor of Ocean Park," and his latest nonfiction book is "Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster."

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