Are Protests Effective Agents of Change?
Out of many vehicles of change, protests are a worldwide go-to when a group is being threatened or discriminated against. However, when looking at women’s rights protests, one might be inclined to wonder if any change has actually occurred. Besides the Women’s March, a protest in Washington D.C. that attracts hundreds of thousands each year, many have taken to the streets to protest rape culture, violence against women, and numerous other injustices.
But do these protests actually bring about tangible change?
The answer is complicated. Tracking the change a specific protest brings about is surprisingly difficult due to the many interconnected issues that larger-scale protests focus on as well as the amount of time it takes for bills to be enacted or for social change to occur.
Often, protests lack a clear message or call to action, making it hard for them to bring about concrete change. Looking specifically at the Women’s March, an outsider would have no knowledge of what their goal is. Women’s rights are too broad a term to bring lasting social and legal change, and while the protest does have a specific focus every year, it is largely unknown to citizens uninvolved with the marches. The lack of an obvious message makes it difficult for outsiders to understand and therefore care about the issue. The reason protests work is because “they change the protesters themselves, turning some from casual participants into lifelong activists, which in turn changes society” (Tufekci).
The antithesis of this would be the work done against the Menstrual Product Tax. In the US, 20 states don’t tax menstrual products, and 2 are in the process of banning the tax. How did we get here? Protests, legal action, and organization. Tax-Free. Period., launched in 2019, is one of the organizations that can be thanked for this success. By organizing protests, employing lawyers, and meeting with state officials, they were able to bring change to Washington, Utah, Rhode Island, Ohio, and temporarily California. What role did protests really play in these successes?
Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, seemed to have the same question. According to her, “Protests are a grab for attention: They are an attempt to force a
conversation about the topic they’re highlighting." This seems to be a shortcoming of many smaller-scale protests. Once its job is done, and attention has been granted, the work seems to stop. Protests themselves usually don’t bring change. They cannot convince lawmakers to sign a legislature that protects women’s autonomy, or remove rapists from office. But they can force politicians and people in power to pay attention. From there, a different approach has to be taken in order to bring lasting change.
The protests against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 shocked people across the nation with their lack of success. Amongst the plethora of issues being discussed at the time, not excluding the difficulty of impeachment and bipartisan divide, our focus shifted elsewhere. The issue with these protests? Primarily, they stopped. After his confirmation, many had given up and left the issue as is. It isn’t impossible to remove a Supreme Court Justice, but outraged quieted down as if it was. If you stop talking about an issue, it will fade from the view of people with the ability to enact change. Because we stopped forcing Congress to pay attention, their focus shifted elsewhere.
Tax-Free. Period. makes it clear that they are not slowing down. Protests can be done from home, by almost anyone. This is because it is clear their work is not over. Protests are not a magical solution to all our problems. They are but one crucial step on the long ladder that is the road to justice and equality. They can only bring change if they are supplied with the help and longevity they need to forge forward.