How the Popularization of Protest Culture Has Made Rallies Largely Ineffective
Darya Farah Foroohar
January 21st, 2019
I did not attend this year’s Women’s March. Most of my friends did not attend either. Looking at coverage of the march, I saw that many people turned out but that it was not nearly as impactful as previous years, probably because, like me, so many people did not feel the need to go. Admittedly, I also did not attend last year, though it was because of sickness rather than what I felt this time, which was that my attending was inconsequential.
The Women’s March is a movement plagued with controversy, with issues like Anti-Semitism that divide the women who started it instead of bringing them together for a common cause. Yet many people choose to support it wholeheartedly without addressing these problems, which is why the movement has lost some of its momentum. Those affected by the issues the Women’s March fails to address have decided that the movement as a whole does not deserve their commitment, while those who ignore those issues don’t realise that what they are protesting for becomes meaningless amidst the extreme sectarianism. The movement has become a shell of what it once was, popularised to the point where pressing issues are lost in the flood of people chanting the same things they have chanted over and over without realising how their demands can be met. They believe that by marching, they can make a change, yet they fail to realise that marching without concrete action will result in no improvement whatsoever.
Protests like the Women’s March have become so popular that they are no longer in the hands of their founders, but taken over by the administration, which kills their intended effect. For example, at the March for Our Lives last year, the crowd was broken off into sections by vigilant police officers yelling into megaphones as they told us where to head and when to stop. As I stood still for almost forty minutes, I thought about how ironic it was that a protest– which is a tool for resisting authority– was being controlled by this existing authority. If protests are to be impactful, they need to rise up against the status quo instead of remain within the corral this governing force has set out for them, and sometimes that means resisting authority.
I understand that I come from a position of white privilege and that if a rally were to come into conflict with the police, I would be safer than some of my POC peers, but I fear that simply complying with the existing authority will cause more harm than good, for it allows said authority to abuse certain groups much more subtly and with greater effect. For example, a skirmish with the police will most likely result in at least a few arrests and possibly injuries, but if a protest (which may be commenting on police brutality) completely obeys police orders, its message becomes muffled and the police are more likely to keep abusing their power to keep minority groups in check on a much larger scale than if their abuse was publicised at a protest. If white people saw their POC peers getting arrested and used their white privilege to protest this instead of assuming the police will take care of everyone, the movement they are participating in will become stronger because it will foster a sense of community instead of a sense that one group can always buddy up to the existing authorities purely for their own benefit.
Furthermore, with the increased participation in so-called “resistance” rallies comes the advent of performances placed in the middle of them. Protesters remain silent, enclosed in police barricades, as various leaders of organisations associated with the cause of the protest come up on stage one by one and speak, sing, or read poetry to their audience, reminding them of why they are there and what this protest is supposed to mean. Some of these performances are incredibly emotional and serve to inspire the marchers, showing them the importance of their contribution. I have been to rallies in which I was deeply moved and impressed by the speakers, whose stories motivated me to take a more active part in social justice. However, I have also witnessed speeches which, while relevant, only serve to dull the spirit of the protesters and delay the march. A large driving force of any protest is rage at the actions of the oppressors, but with an hour-long presentation that is difficult to watch from the middle of a crowd, the flame of rage which provokes the marchers has been reduced to a single candle.
This is not to say that a march should only be a frenzied crowd of people screaming; I hope that readers do not believe this is my desire. In many cases, such as vigils, thoughtful speeches can be inspiring, much-needed sources of solidarity for a crowd of largely strangers. And negotiating with police can often increase the safety of all marchers involved and ensure that traffic or unknowing bystanders do not get in the way. But these safety measures and speeches can often lead to protests (not vigils) turning into concerts, in which the main attraction is a song or a dance or someone’s cute protest outfit instead of the root issue. It is an unfortunate fact, but selfies of a protest do not translate to concrete policy change. The consequences of these “party protests” are enormous— they get ignored by those in power, who see them as just another rally demanding change without actually doing anything about it.
Thus, change must first come from actions which worry those in power. Large-scale walkouts, strikes, and boycotts are acts which do not involve police and which can be extremely effective. In addition, petitioning or canvassing for votes can create concrete policy change which will show that immediate action is needed to solve an issue, not just fancy posters. A rally tells those in power that you want change. Definite action demands it.