The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Do protests work?

I was somewhat amazed this past week when an acquaintance, scoffing at the Occupy Wall Street protests, said "protests never work anyway." That person must have a very short memory, because two governments have fallen to protests just this year (Tunisia and Egypt), with possibilities for more. In the United States we have a memory of the Civil Rights and Vietnam anti-war protests also bringing about real change. These changes came not by voting, but by applying public pressure to elected politicians to do the right thing.

Still, the vast majority of protest movements do not achieve their goals. I think a major problem for the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it does not have a goal or a central message to speak of.  It is a general outpouring of angst against the economic and political conditions in this country. The most central theme appears to be "we are the 99%", which deals with wealth disparity.

"I am a man"It seems to me that successful protest movements often have a powerful focal point. They are based on a single, understandable idea with fairly broad support in the public. So when protesters marched carrying signs which read "I am a man," it became a symbol for the cause which still resonates powerfully with us today.

I think wealth disparity in the US is a "first-world problem," but it is something that needs to be discussed in the public sphere. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement will be able to transform "we are the 99%" into a successful symbol, and the issue will be taken up in earnest by politicians. At the moment I think the campaign will fizzle, though it may be paving the way for future protest movements.

Category: politics