Why protest?

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Mass protest is alive again in America.

Of course, in reality, protest never died. Marginalized groups, in national, decentralized groups like Black Lives Matter, or in local groups like those successfully protesting Sherif Joe Arpaio in Arizona, have kept, and really have always kept, protest alive. But the historical moment now–with mass marches executed almost overnight, with resistance movements springing up everywhere across the country, people forming new groups and committing to consistent actions–demands its own evaluation. Progress, gains, when looked at from a distance remain difficult to assess and predict. Will marching against fascism actually constitute a way to resist it? Will the left actually make gains through protest? What does protest do?

Many millennials have gone to their first protest in the last few weeks and whether it was out of a deep, theoretical grasp of what protest means or out of a bone-deep anxiety about what is coming, it’s useful to rethink what the purpose of protest is. A grand outlining of such a historic strategy is impossible–but we can think through some of its uses.

  1. Energizes and builds solidarity: nothing kills a movement faster and more thoroughly than despair. Protest gets people together, gets bodies together, to act in tandem. We become energized when we feel a sense of our collective power. It’s too easy, too tempting to dismiss protest as the mere presence of shouting crowds–to be immersed in this throng is to get a taste of power, not its full expression, but a sense of what could be if this were harnessed. As strategic as we may become, as many other uses as protest does have, it should always be returned to as a well of energy for activists and organizers so as to be reminded of the power they are building to.
  2. Changes the discourse: protest challenges normalcy and presents a new image of both what is happening and how “people”, as a whole, are reacting to it. Private suffering is translated into public reaction. Controversy becomes useful, even when it seems to threaten to overtake the message, because it breaks open the accepted way of accepting the world. Police violence has become an issue again, thanks to Black Lives Matter, and even when it is dismissed, it is discussed and that sets the foundation for winning such a discussion.
  3. Disrupts the confidence of power: Power resides not only in the powerful but in the powerless for accepting that power. Protest retakes public space and public imagination as territories to fight over. Even if people in the streets, shouting and waving signs, fail to undo laws and guns, their presence can shake the powerful’s belief in their strength. As all fiction writers know, no villain thinks themselves evil, so to be faced, ideally every day, with a mass of people denouncing them, can shake even the most fearsome of leaders. And even if it does not shake them, it can push them to reveal their hand and make explicit what was before implicit. The more clearly the battle lines are drawn, the better the battle can be waged.
  4. Creates space for possibility: Protest is not the end-all, be-all of activism but it is one of the primary ways of setting the stage for further activism and eventually movement-building. As DeRay McKesson has said: “We’ve never said protests are the answer, but protests create space for the answer. Protest is disruption. Protest is confrontation. Protest is the end of silence and what protest does is it creates space for the other work to happen.” Protest creates space by opening a conversation and by filling it with bodies-at-work. Protest pushes the violence of normalcy into crisis and in crisis, there is opportunity.

There are many more uses and I encourage you to think and read of more. Going to a protest can be exhilarating but it becomes all the more exciting, and useful, when you come prepared to think through the purpose and the power of what you’re engaging in.

For millennials new to protesting: this need not be an event. This can be a habit, the basis of a practice that can become the sweeping tide of an entire political movement. In long-term politics, a whole lot can be done without anything necessarily being resolved. Protest is essential but it forms part of a greater strategy–a militant strategy of resistance. If protest can be a wellspring for energy, the strategy it builds toward can be a wellspring for hope.
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