As hundreds of students flooded the streets of downtown Palo Alto in reaction to Donald Trump’s election victory, they marched in step with a proud American tradition: exercising the democratic right to protest.
America is a nation grounded in freedom, democracy and civil liberty. The right to protest — a form of free speech — is the first liberty emphasized in the Constitution and has endured for two centuries since ratification. Despite this inalienable right, protests have been widely criticized throughout our country’s history. Indeed, public assembly has often been seen as an impractical and fruitless method of solving societal injustices. Even the most popular of protests have had dissenters and faced accusations of detrimental disruptions to society.
Yet, time after time, people have continued to take to the streets, holding up signs, flags and fists. Through frigid winters and humid summers, tear gas and water cannons, thousands of protesters throughout the years have withstood countless obstacles in pursuit of a single common goal: justice.
The nation has most recently been rocked by protests following the polarizing presidential election. In an increasingly divided Union, protests denouncing President-elect Donald Trump have become commonplace.
The onset of these protests once again renews the time-old question: are protests an effective means of implementing societal change and cementing America’s foundations of democracy? Or are they just futile attempts ignited by minority groups of revolutionaries?
During the Civil Rights Movement, prominent activist and leader Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that people have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” As citizens of America, a country that so emphatically values democracy, protests often allow people to express their voices and exercise their democratic rights in times of societal injustice.
“When things get really terrible, you have to look at all different kinds of options,” said Shepherd Siegel, a Palo Alto High School alumnus and a participant in the anti-war protests at Paly and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s. “To the extent that I am not in jail and that I am a free citizen, exercising my right to protest is really important, and I believe in the rules around civil disobedience.”
The tolerance of active civil disobedience varies widely in different countries around the world. According to Susan Olzak, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, there is a strong correlation between the occurrence of protests and levels of democracy. In less democratic areas, freedom of expression and instances of widespread protest are often perceived as dangerous to the society and are therefore prohibited.
“The underlying idea here is that the legitimacy of protest is a critical component of democracy, whether or not there is a large amount of protest that also goes on,” Olzak said.
However, the frequency of protests that occur in an area does not necessarily indicate the region’s status of democracy. Countries that are more democratic and countries that are more repressive may both experience either little or widespread protest, depending on circumstances. In reality, many other factors, such as the content of the general population, contribute to a widespread occurrence of protests.
“The presence or absence of protest does not by itself indicate democratic principles govern a country,” Olzak said. “Rather it is the legality and legitimacy of citizens’ rights to express dissent that seems crucial.”
Against the Grain
Since the dawn of the United States, societal change has often been implemented through the creation of social movements and their respective protests. The formation of our country was a protest in itself, in the form of a rebellion against British rule. The Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest conflict, was largely prompted by the Abolitionist Movement. The fight for women’s suffrage represented a prominent milestone in our country, symbolizing a form of relief from discrimination. Similarly important movements have occurred throughout America’s history and continue to do so.
Protests and social movements are generally not accepted by the broader community at the time they occur. During the Vietnam War and the corresponding anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s, only a small fraction of citizens was willing to physically participate in protests against the injustices.
“In a Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) poll that was done at the time, at the height of the [anti-war movement], probably 1969, only 2 percent of the population considered themselves to be revolutionaries,” Siegel said. “But then again, that’s usually all it takes to make a revolution.”
According to Rob Wilson, a Paly alumnus and a participant in anti-war protests at both Paly and Stanford University, the conservative slogan during the anti-war movement was “America: Love it or Leave it,” indicating that a large number of citizens undoubtedly supported the government and its decisions at the time.
“There were several smart and radical students who were involved, but the majority was — in the vernacular of the time — apathetic,” Wilson said.
An article written by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research of Cornell University stated that “the public is particularly uncomfortable with protests during wartime.” A number of citizens during the Vietnam War and the Gulf War in 1991 believed that “protests should be made illegal” during times of national warfare. However, this article also noted that when viewed in hindsight, these protests are often more widely praised.
For example, according to a series of polls conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for President Nixon in 1971, 71 percent of American citizens disapproved of the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War, while in 1990, years after the end of the war, a reduced proportion of 39 percent deemed the anti-war protests unfavorable.
Another example of protests being unpopular during their time is shown by the widespread unpopularity of King during the Civil Rights Movement, of which he was a prominent leader.
According to a poll conducted by the Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University in 1994, 79 percent of Americans considered King a hero. However, a Harris survey conducted in 1966, at the height of the movement as well as King’s leadership, found that half of white American citizens thought the protests King led were actually hurting the reputation of the Civil Rights Movement. Only 36 percent believed King was contributing to the movement in a positive way.
Why do popular opinions of protests increase over time? The answer: success. Today, the Abolitionist Movement of the 1800s — hotly-contested at the time — is currently viewed as an essential advancement in our country’s history. Women’s Suffrage is now looked at with praise because of its staggering success.
“Success — in the form of actual concrete goal attainment — undermines subsequent protest, presumably because the motivation to protest has been undercut,” Olzak said. “Alternatively, if there is no chance of success, protest may be completely extinguished over time.”
War for Peace
Although protesting practices have evolved, violence inherent in demonstrations of protests in general has remained constant despite efforts to maintain peace and nonviolence in organized protests.
For example, even protesters in the anti-war movement, which was built on the basis of peace in Vietnam, believed in using violent strategies as a means of reinforcing their voices and societal values. Consequently, many of these protests were condemned.
“Tactics such as demonstrations, marches, dramaturgical performances, boycotts and organizational mobilization have been the staple activities of protesters for centuries,” Olzak said. “So too has violence, attacks on buildings and/or attacks on group’s identity using symbolic displays, such as putting Nazi symbols on gravestones or burning of Ku Klux Klan crosses.”
However, Olzak stated that violence does not necessarily indicate a more effective protest. Although violent protests may garner more attention, the goal is rarely ever truly accomplished, which causes many citizens to be extremely wary of these protests.
As an Office for Civil Rights/Nixon poll conducted in 1971 depicted, almost 50 percent of surveyed American citizens believed that the police should arrest protesters.
“Widespread participation by a population — especially using nonviolent tactics — seems to be weakly but positively associated with positive outcomes,” Olzak said.
With the evolution of time also comes a change in the themes, trends and motives inherent in protests. New, prominent issues and social movements have arisen, and so have new social issues with protests that differ greatly from those in the past.
“In terms of changing over time, there is one perspective on social movements that claims that protest in most countries has been increasingly aimed at national governments, as opposed to local, parochial or regional concerns,” Olzak said. “Issues and demands also may have changed from class-based movements — for laborer or union rights — to more identity-based movements, [such as] ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, racial, et cetera.”
Protests in the 20th century were heavily based on the idea that people needed direct change in society, and that they were protesting a specific conflict. An example is the anti-war protests, where people were protesting as an immediate response to the war in Vietnam.
Current movements, such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) protests, are created as a result of people’s need for the acceptance of their identity in the community and country in which they live. Gay Pride parades in San Francisco and elsewhere are examples, as are the “silent” protests of withholding business from an organization, such as the boycotts that call for canceling events in North Carolina in light of its recent anti-LGBT legislation. However, identity-based movements often motivate an us-versus-them mentality, and end up targeting those who do not support their cause.
“For movements associated with identity politics, such as the effect of LGBT protests on community organizations, this is particularly tricky, because protest not only signals movement strength and helps recruit new members and supporters, but LGBT protest also creates a more visible target for those who are opposed to LGBT rights,” Olzak said. “My view is that many contemporary U.S. movements have both an identity component and a countermovement dimension to them.”
Decades have passed since the major movements of the 20th century, yet many snapshots of that era are reflected in current protesting methods. Many are worried that the same injustices protesters fought against decades ago have since been renewed, nullifying years of demonstrations.
Movements themselves often bear striking resemblances to those that occurred years prior. The Black Lives Matter movement, aimed at combating the disproportionate amount of police brutality against African-Americans, is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement and even the anti-war movement through its message of combating systemic injustices, such as discrimination and violence.
Take the war in Iraq, for example, which was recently a largely disputed conflict. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, 29 percent of American citizens supported protests of the war. Only 5 percent believed that protests made them more sympathetic to the cause.
The basis of this evidence is strikingly similar to statistics regarding the anti-war protests, where only a handful of people opposed the war, while a large number of people condemned the anti-war protests. It seems as if we are, in a way, repeating history with the current protests.
“Iraq is strong evidence that we did not [learn from our past],” Wilson said. “In response to a flawed policy, based on a broad paranoia about a global threat, ‘radical Islam,’ in this case, a devastating war was launched, and we are now seeing the continuing ripples of decisions made back then in the massive hatred of America among young Muslims, the rise of ISIS and global terrorism.”
Impact of Media
As news becomes more easily accessible and reliant on expediency, the credibility of the media often comes into question, and mischaracterizes many global events, including wars and protests.
“Our media is [now] largely a ratings-driven, sensational selling machine,” Wilson said. “There are still a few courageous investigative reporters reporting from the battleground, but the military has learned how to control them. For years now, just the sight of flag-draped coffins being shipped home has been barred.”
However, even less aggressive media have not hindered the growth of current social movements. Although the media often relies on sensationalism to attract viewers, the outrage caused by such headlines has propelled many to become involved.
The rapid expansion of movements can also be credited in part to social media. Technology has revolutionized the methods of organizing protests and bringing movements to all corners of the country and even other countries. Black Lives Matter gained momentum through the sharing of videos of police brutality across multiple social media platforms.
Many movements have relied on Facebook events to organize and mobilize protests. One such movement is the Women’s March which will take place in January 2017, supporting women’s rights. The 130,000 planned participants on their Facebook page were exposed to the movement exclusively through social media.
“[The Women’s March] is inspiring lots of other communities to take action,” said Renee Mckenna, a prominent activist. “Out of one march that was planned in Washington, there are now marches in every state and every major metropolitan area across the country, and the number continues to grow.”
Yet, newer generations’ increasing reliance on technology and the internet is not without its downfalls. Although the internet has led to easier and more widespread organization of protests, the convenience of “internet activism” often results in the facade of productivity and a lack of participation in real-life physical protests.
“I am proud of the young people who are out there,” Wilson said. “I am just afraid that the ease of escaping into the cybersphere will dilute their impact. Petitions and reposts, Tweets and memes, do not make a revolution. They are just too easy.”
As today’s teenagers march forward as a new American generation, they will be responsible for maintaining democracy through freedom of speech. After all, as President Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
High school students could play a huge role in inspiring this societal change.
“I’ve stayed involved my whole life,” Siegel said. “I think high school kids are smart enough and have been around long enough that they know that there’s a whole world out there. They have not yet been made cynical by that world; they’re still idealistic and optimistic, and they’re willing to put themselves on the line to take risks. That’s why I love young people in high school.”
Siegel also stressed the importance of high school students in performing acts of civil disobedience at times of peril as a means of immediately creating change amid current problem around the world and in the U.S. government.
“I can’t wait for my congresswoman or my congressman, and I can’t wait for my senator to pass a law that’s going to prevent the destruction of the national parks if they are going in there with the bulldozers right now,” Siegel said. “I have to get myself into my car and get there and commit an act of civil disobedience that’s actually going to stand in the way of the destruction of a national park.”
Many remain hopeful for the revival of the same level of momentum that propelled historic protests.
“A lot of us are still waiting and watching,” Wilson said. “If there is a moment when scattered protests truly coalesce into a unified force, when that upwelling of anger is harnessed, when we reach that critical mass of fury, frustration and disgust — and there is a loud, reverberating call from a trusted leader — I will push past the pain in my back and my knees and join that march.”