Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Do protest marches have an impact?

This morning I received an email regarding a climate march taking place soon, to coincide with the Paris Climate Summit that starts on November 30, 2015. It included a video of the climate marches in 2014, which was both inspirational and a little worrying. The video got me thinking: do marches work? What do they accomplish? My first instinct is that they do little but soothe the protesters themselves. They could connect the activists together in a stronger community, inspire activists to get even more passionate, and encourage the marchers to feel like their views are being heard. But are they really having those impacts? Are there any outside impacts, aside from the positive benefits to the marchers themselves? I wanted to find out a little bit more.

The Atlantic’s piece from 2014 called Why Street Protests Don’t Work, details some recent marches and the effects of them, and finds that social media and online activism has negatively affected the impact of protest marches. Now there are many marches that do not accomplish anything. An article called Marches and Demonstrations Do Work, For A Variety of (Good and Bad) Reasons, details how marches do have an impact, but that impact is often negative against the cause of the protest. The author details how immigrant marches in Arizona in 2006 and 2007 , intended to bring support for undocumented immigrants, actually caused more racial tension, and increased calls against legalizing the large numbers of undocumented immigrants who filled the streets. Another article in favour of protests, says that the important act of showing those in power they are being watched is more than enough to make protest marches worthwhile.

Most of those I spoke to here in Canada about protest marches, from people in their 20’s and 30’s, to people in their 40’s and 50’s, did not think that protest marches have any impact at all on the politics at large. These are people who sympathize with the goals of the marchers in many cases, and yet see this form of activism as fruitless, or even as working against the objectives. A few people made hesitantly supportive comments, but nobody could voice what real impacts protests would actually have, instead vaguely referencing solidarity, spreading information and awareness, and creating visibility for the cause as the more tangible benefits of protest marches. Many young people are disillusioned with activism, finding that nothing much changes despite the energy poured into their causes.

There was some optimism about protests and marches from those I spoke to. Some people believe that peaceful protests are an important way to express yourself in today’s society, and that marches and demonstrations have a huge impact compared to “armchair activism” aka online activism, clicktivism, on social media. An article on Slate described protests as one of the only ways that disenfranchised people have to engage with democracy and express their political opinions. However, when we started discussing violent protests, things got a little murkier. Being from Canada, we are lucky to be legally allowed to protest, and while things have gotten a bit unclear with the previous Harper government’s condemnation of masked protests, generally we are protected and allowed to express ourselves. However, in some places in the world, people are so thoroughly oppressed, and the government so reprehensively despotic, that peaceful protests are not allowed and the marches often turn violent. Governments would be well-advised to allow peaceful protests, as shaking a bottle with the lid tightly closed can shortly lead to a messy explosion. Politicians in Canada might even see peaceful protests as a way to crack the lid and let out the pressure without any explosions.

I guess it really comes down to what the goals of the marches are. If your goal is to raise awareness, and to show the politicians what you believe in, maybe protests do have a positive impact. But to affect real change to the laws and political systems of your country, I have come to believe that marches are not as effective as we wish them to be. I am, however, stumped as to a better solution.

eta (Dec. 14, 2015): In light of the extremely promising Paris Climate Talks, I should add that it has been said that the global climate marches have had an important influence on letting decision makers know that the people want progress on climate change.  
"When in 2014 the UN Secretary General convened his UN Climate Change Summit and hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side." - Christiana Figueres, head of UN climate talks, speaks to the power of our marches in her closing speech to the summit today [Dec 12].

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