Protest (alone) doesn’t work

The readership of this piece is most likely of university age, a demographic most partial to protesting. This piece is penned to those who are dissatisfied with the state of the world and wants to see things change. Not to suggest my opinions are paramount or should be respected, but it should at least be considered.

Recent protest movements have, for a lack of a better word, been disappointing. The Occupy movement didn’t achieve its aim. The result of the Hong Kong protest has been dispiriting for democracy advocates world-wide. The world now holds its breath as the people of Belarus and Thailand take to the streets, wondering if they will go to the same fate as the Occupy movement, or worse, the Arab Spring. This brings us to the question; why has modern protest proven to be so ineffective?

It is easy to gather people to show up, less so to write policy.

Part of the problem with how many perceive protests is that it is thought of as a solution to the problem, instead of part of a larger process to get the issue solved. For too many, activism starts and ends there. Unfortunately, protesting is no way to resolve your discontent. This is especially if what you are against is a systemic issue such as inequality and racism. Protesting allows for many to voice their anger, but unless that anger is pointed to the right direction and used strategically to achieve political aims, it would all be for nought.

Democratic governments claim to represent the people and would thus yield to the people’s demand. But it is unhelpful to think of the government as this monolithic, faceless leviathan to fight against. Like any institution, it consists of people. It is these people – the decision-makers, legislators, politicians, etc. – that yield to the demands of the people. It is the elected decision-makers that, through much politicking, determine the agenda of the government.

In theory, and in the most simplistic way to put it, politicians want to stay in power. You want them to do what you want, and so you reward them with your votes if they do what you want. Unfortunately, there are those that would oppose your idea and the change you want to bring. This is the balancing act that politicians must face; one wrong move, or betting on the wrong horse, and their opponents can bring them down.

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Many choose to protest because they think that it is the only way to be heard, while others prefer to politick in government, and deem protesting a substitute. It is understandable, after all; we all want to live normal lives and would rather not dip our hands in ‘dirty’ politics. Unfortunately, to bend the government’s will, political activism is necessary.

The very fact that people are protesting in the first place means that while their cause may be just, as long as the protest does not translate into action to change something within government, nothing will change. The factors that cause government inaction on the issue persist. Perhaps there are sympathetic politicians within and if so, they’ll need all the support they can get; in that case, the field of battle is not the streets.

Discontent as a weapon

Social media has made gathering much easier, but that has its cost. The effectiveness of using it to draw crowds has been proven time and time again, from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring. But the ease of this has made movement leaders focus less on organization and by extension, strategy. What is the end game of gathering these crowds? Is there a next step other than another demonstration? As long as you don’t threaten the decision maker’s power, these protests mean nothing to them. Politicians react to numbers; not the numbers that attend a rally however, but the numbers that can threaten their position. Therefore, protestors need to bring the fight to where the real battle is being fought; the realm of politics.

The discontent of the people must transform into political energy by way of organising them into a special interest group. This involves getting the network of voters and using them as leverage to turn the discourse in your favour by either rewarding and punishing politicians. The success of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks for itself. Help politicians to get into power, but only under the condition that they put the protests’ issues on the agenda or their party platform. Ensure they hold on to their promise, and if they prove to disappoint, withdraw support immediately and back another more receptive politician.

If the established political status quo is unreceptive, and no sympathetic political party will take up the cause, form one yourself. Get funding from voters who share the same opinion; build an organization capable of getting the electors on your side; be where the people gather and make your case to them. If you win, understand that you are most likely the minority and must be willing to negotiate, compromise on issues, reciprocate support and form coalitions with those you may disagree with. Do whatever it takes to get things done. 

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The use of protest

While what I’ve wrote so far may sound like protests are useless, this isn’t the intention of this article. As mentioned, protesting is part of the process, and a very important one at that. 

People like to be part of a community, and want to be part of something greater. Taking direct political action, such as protesting, fulfils both of that. It helps build solidarity, something especially important for a marginalized community.

All too often the media ignores issues that should be on everyone’s mind. A crowd always gathers attention, and a protest uses that attention to disseminate messages. As more eyes are on the protest, either by media coverage or word of mouth, the issue attracts more attention, and inspires many to take up the cause.

Last but not least, it is an impressive show of force, and will certainly make decision-makers either worry enough to appeal to your movement, or boost confidence among sympathetic actors to fight alongside you.

There are limitations to protest, and understanding that would make any movement much more effective in its goals. But this article is written for those who have the privilege to live in a relatively democratic setting, that even while imperfect, still respects the result of an election, and, we assume, respect political freedom. In a more autocratic setting, where there is no channel to turn discontent into a proper solution, a protest alone wouldn’t cut it. Something much, much more drastic is necessary. 

Written by Yap Per Hung