Efficiency of public protests: Will students make a tangible change?

Hundreds gather for the Tax march on the Denver Capital.

Hundreds gather for the Tax march on the Denver Capital.

Since the historic election of Donald J. Trump protests have been ubiquitous and worldwide. Take for example the Women’s March which took place the day after Trump sworn into office, millions of people took to the streets in almost every major city in the United States. Even more renowned were the shocking photographs that captured the sheer mass of people participating in the march in places such as India, Serbia, Kenya and many more.

Across the country, airports such as John F. Kennedy and San Francisco International where filled to the brim with thousands of protesters – both standing in alliance with immigrants and against the Trumps temporary immigrant ban which prohibited people form the seven proclaimed Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

The famed No Dakota Access Pipeline protest, also known by its trendier name #noDAPL made waves as protesters flew into North Dakota from around the United States to partake. The protest which began in 2016 has been ongoing and in the media limelight even after the Trump administration has removed civilians from the land. Business Insider stated in Sep. 2016 that, “Whether or not the tribe is successful in stopping the pipeline, it is clear that the protest is reshaping the national conversation for any environmental project that would cross the Native American land.”

Business Insider has brought up a noteworthy topic, are protests effective and how does one measure effectiveness? Is it merely enough to “reshape the national conversation” as the Insider suggests or are protests only successful when they meet their set objectives?

What is a protest?

Prior to analyzing the complexities of social movements and the interworking’s of societies it is necessary to define a protest. In accordance to Webster Dictionary a protest is: the act of objecting or a gesture of disapproval – usually an organized public demonstration of disapproval. So yes, refusing to eat Chick-fal-A’s food after announcing the company’s stance on gay marriage is to protest. An organized demonstration of disapproval, such as marching for Donald Trump to release his tax report, is a protest.

Effectiveness: political change

Aisling Watton, international student from the University of York states that, “protest are not an effective tool to create policy change and policy change is the only measurable tool for efficiency.” She continues, “marches like the women’s march did tangibly nothing for women.”

The evaluation of efficacy is of course difficult and subjective. Whether a protest was the exclusive cause of change, or whether change was already to occur due to the unpopularity of the action which symptomatically sparked a protest is near impossible to determine. However, four economists from Harvard and Stockholm University believe that they may have ironed out the old “chicken or the egg” dilemma.

By using a natural experiment from the origins of the Tea Party political movement the economists were able to find that protest do have an influence on politics, not because they show a message to the policy writers but because they motivate people to be politically engaged and active.

The Tea Party emerged as a political movement on the American right, shortly after the 2008 financial crises and the election of Obama. The Tea Party’s primary focuses were opposing government spending and tax increases. On April 15, 2009 their first major protest was held, “Tax Day” where there was an estimated 450,000 to 800,000 people that protested.

This information gave grounds for the economists – out of the 500 distinct protest locations nationwide there was on average a 60 percent lower turnout when it rained than at other similar locations. Therefore, they used weather to assess the protest’s impact, since clear weather permits larger protests and if protests have tangible impacts than it can be assumed that local political outcomes ought to depend on the weather.

For the Tax Day protest, cities that had clear weather and synonymously larger crowds had more conservative voting by the district representative and a higher turnout for their Republican candidate in the 2010 congressional election. The economist state that specifically “the marginal protester brings an additional 7 to 14 votes to the Republican campaign”

The economists conclude that protests affect policy, not as a direct result of the protest itself, but due to the newly motivated attendees – “it is personal interaction within small groups of citizens that serves as a crucial channel for the transmission of new political views and that leads to increases in political activism.”

Effectiveness: social awareness

But by these standards, would protests such as #noDAPL be deemed efficient although it did not prevent the pipeline from occurring?

Autumn Raynne, co-chair of University of Denver’s Native Student Alliance and organizer of the NoDAPL movement on DU campus states,  “I think they [protests] can [be effective] if enough people get behind it. With our protest for DAPL, it was considered the biggest protest ever or at least in two years. After our protests was done, university administration had to come up with or start coming up with a policy to accommodate or combat large scaled protests in the future.” Autumn also touches on why protest don’t meet their objective, “I don’t think any protest ever really meets their goal – NoDAPL was one of them. It might be because there isn’t enough backing of supporters or maybe the people their message is intended for just brush it off.”

Another example of protests giving visibility to a cause and bringing social awareness. Take #BLM movements, which exposes racially charged policy brutality, a tale as old as time. Yet, this topic was rarely talked about in mainstream media until #BLM brought it to the surface.

Eric Shimono, a Josef Korbel graduate student addresses the question, “I think a protest is effective if it puts a spotlight on a particular issue. More people become aware, engaged, educated, and start paying attention to that issue,” he continues “obviously if it affects policy that too is effective, but I feel that even bringing awareness or mass media attention and the beginning of pressure on elected officials is effectiveness.”

Tips for turning protests into policy

It is difficult to say or to calculate the social effect protests have or even their effect on policy-writers. However, there are a few tactics that can make your protest more visible, memorable, and possibly more likely to achieve it’s set goals.

  1. Make the message salient

Daniel Q. Gillion, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania states that there are a few tactics that are more likely to get you noticed by policy-makers and influence them. These are: length of protest is longer than a day, 100 or more people involved, police presence, political organization affiliation, and if a crime or death occurred.

  1. Coalition under one protest

There is only so much time that the typical citizen can participate in democracy, responding to each executive order is unrealistic. Therefore, it is more beneficial to be united and have specific goals. Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, states that the reason protest in the 1960’s where so effective was because they did more than show up for marches they also “had specific plans of action to put political pressure on politicians to address their concerns.”

  1. Be proactive

Pamela E. Oliver, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin states that proactive protests where demonstrators attempt to prevent an action from happening are more effective than reactive protest in which people protest in response to an action.

Denver Capital building

Denver Capital building

One Response to Efficiency of public protests: Will students make a tangible change?

  • Mikaela Gerdes
    Mikaela Gerdes says:

    I really liked this piece and felt like I learned a lot about protests in general, and how to enact policy change. I think looking at the effeteness of movements, and how we can foster change through things like protest are important. However for the sake of this class and assignment you really need to boil down more and focus on how your topic relates to DU and college life specifically. You had a great quote form Autum than was more focused. I think it would also be better to focus more on one movement, like DAPL, and see how Du got involved, or how it effect DU life in some way. A more specific angle could really help you here. Other than that I thought your piece was well written and very informative.

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