Political Protest, U.S.

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Protests disrupt the peace, stop business as usual, and cause disquiet. Protesters in effect withdraw their consent to the way things are. Even if people are poor, unemployed, or seemingly without power, when organized together they can become a force that troubles the powerful. When the powerful are inconvenienced (or worse) by sit-ins, strikes, marches, and occupations, they will often negotiate to restore order and their own peace and privileges. In this way the powerless often wrestle concessions from the powerful.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects citizens' rights to assemble (gather in groups), speak out, protest, and believe in and practice their chosen religion (or absence of religion). Closely linked to these freedoms are the guarantees of a free press. Protest is a time-honored tradition in the United States. American schoolchildren are taught the stories of the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and other events leading up to the American Revolution, many of them subversive protests against the ruling regime.

Protest is often difficult, however, because oppressed people understand the harsh consequences their dissent draws from the powers-that-be. People put up with a lot of injustices out of a sense of hopelessness, futility, fear, intimidation, and internalized oppression. Government repression of protest and activism was seen in the American labor union movement, the antislavery movement, the women's suffrage movement, and the early years of the civil rights movement. Governments can damage themselves, however, if they brutally repress a non-violent, sympathetic protest movement, as the British learned in India from the nonviolent civil disobedience movement led by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi.

Ideological hegemony, a form of internalized oppression, is one of the most powerful barriers to protest by oppressed and aggrieved people. "Inequalities in power have their most insidious effect when the dominant group has so much control over the ideas available to other members of society that the conceptual categories required to challenge the status quo hardly exist" (Mansbridge, p. 4). Marxist theory of "false consciousness" similarly asserts that the poor are indoctrinated to believe in the justice of a system that harms them.

The latent powers of the weak, however, are often manifest in their potential to protest and in their actual demonstrations of disobedience. People can take courage from observing protests, as demonstrations show potential supporters that they are not alone in their beliefs and desires. Challenging authority can have harsh, even deadly, consequences for people; noteworthy, then, are the numerousin fact countlesstimes people, often without formal power, have challenged authority and protested. Within societies, repertoires of protest develop. These are learned conventions of political contention that become part of the public culture (Tarrow, p. 20). Examples of culturally familiar protest repertoires include the French barricades, consumer boycotts, labor strikes, silent vigils at the White House by women's suffragists, the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, and petitions, to name a few.

Protest and the Media

Media attention often follows protest. For environmental causes, television footage of small Greenpeace boats and rafts moving against giant factory whaling ships epitomizes the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words." Another notable protest was the highly photogenic occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco by Native American rights activists from 1969 to 1971.

Media coverage can potentially expand the audience for a protest worldwide, thus embarrassing and pressuring dominant groups to explain themselves and account for the issues protesters are raising. In the early 1960s, images of peaceful civil rights protesters being set upon by police dogs, water cannon, and police with truncheons troubled the consciences of citizens observing this on television news programs. Highly placed U.S. government officials were also forced to explain the contradictions between their Cold War rhetoric about oppressive governments abroad and the images shown worldwide of brutal treatment of their own American citizens.

Media attention can be harmful to a protest movement if the images are negative. For example, the antilegal abortion group Operation Rescue found that extensive media coverage of abortion clinic blockades partly backfired against their cause. Even when the public's reaction to media coverage of protests is negative, the protesters have achieved something because they have publicized their cause. The group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), for instance, engaged in wild and confrontational acts of protest about the spread of AIDS/HIV and the relatively weak governmental programs to address the disease. As a small group, ACT UP was able to broadcast its causes through media coverage of its flamboyant demonstrations, a sure success even though the television public was shocked and repelled by some of its performances. ACT UP's slogan, "Silence Death," deftly epitomizes its approach.

Violent Protest

One threat that groups can use is violence. Violence can help topple dominant regimes, but it has dangerous potentials for protesters. Violent protest can frighten the public, scare away potential allies, and ricochet against causes of groups that adopt these tactics. It also gives authorities a perceived mandate for severe repression.

Regime Change and Revolutions

States can be toppled and replaced by sustained protest and contentious, rebellious movements. The most glaring instance of this in the United States is the American Revolution. The subtext of the Declaration of Independence is that governments can be legitimately, righteously replaced. Regime change is also evident in the aftermath of the American Civil War, with the defeat of the Confederacy and ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Regime change was also arguably the result of the American civil rights movement and the transformation of the solid Democratic Party South into a two-party system or in some states a one-party (Republican) South. The realignments caused by the civil rights movement have done away with the official, de jure forms of racial segregation, something that the countermovements of the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan tried to prevent.

Protests and Political Parties

In democratic systems, political parties need to respond and adjust to new political social movements. Parties that do not realign to incorporate new interests and respond to protests and challenges often "go the way of the Whigs," that is, become a historic political party. In the meantime, new parties can arise and grow in response to shifts in popular opinion sometimes manifest in contentious politics such as protests (Sundquist, 1983). In the American two-party system, some third parties are protest parties to which the two dominant parties often selectively adjust. The Progressive Party, for instance, with its agitation for more open and representative government, had its thunder stolen in part by the Democratic Party, which over time incorporated Progressive Party platforms and absorbed Progressive activists. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, formed in protest to the all-white official Democratic Party of Mississippi, challenged the credentials of the official party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and won only token reforms from the national Democratic Party. By the 1968 Democratic Convention, however, partly because of the protest efforts in 1964 and beyond, states could no longer send all-white delegations chosen by procedures that excluded African-Americans.

La Raza: Latino and Latina Rights

Both major American political parties are currently vying for the Latino vote. Once a subjugated people, the Latino community in the United States has mobilized to assert the rights of Latinos and Latinas as full American citizens. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the La Raza movement resonated positively with many Latinos. La Raza demonstrations for equal access to education, bilingual education, voting rights, and land tenure occurred throughout the Southwest. Often grassroots-organized, these protests had positive impacts on the political position of Latinos (Marquez; Montejano). As with all movements, however, while much was gained, much still needs to be achieved for Latinos and Latinas (as well as African-Americans, Native Americans, women, gay citizens, and others) to be fully incorporated into the body politic. Protest is one way this is achieved.

Abortion Protests

Notably, groups on both sides of an issue can use similar rights discourses to frame their protests. Pro-choice protests highlight the rights of women, the right of privacy, and the right of bodily integrity. Anti-choice/pro-life protests focus on the right to life of the fetus (they do not use the word fetus but rather unborn, preborn, baby, or child ).

Protest and Religion

People organized in churches, synagogues, and mosques constitute existing networks that can often be mobilized into protest deriving from their religious beliefs and tenets. American antislavery activists were inspired by their Christian religious beliefs of equality and social obligations. When Britain abolished slavery and used its mighty navy to hinder the slave trade, this gave added impetus to American antislavery societies and, indeed, to antislavery efforts worldwide. Their protests, then, were not seen by them as subversive or disrespectful but rather as respectful of the principals of the American political system and their religion. Religious activists often assert that it is the government, not them, in the wrong. Religious beliefs and organizations are also fluid across state borders. Believers in one state might be mobilized to pressure their own government on behalf of fellow religious members in another state who are being oppressed or persecuted. Protests of this type are transnational and evoke a sense of community and solidarity beyond the borders of any one state.

Protest via Irony, Satire, Performance, and Art

People can articulate new values through their dress, lifestyles, music, and consumption patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, the way young people wore their hair made symbolic statements against the dominant value system. When African-American youth wore their hair naturally in "Afros," they were asserting race pride and protesting the power of the dominant white culture to prescribe what was "good" or "pretty" hair (i.e., straightened). Men and women can perform gender in ways that protest dominant images. During the antiwar movement in the 1960s and 1970s, men wearing their hair long was in part a symbolic protest against corporate dress styles and the close-cropped heads of the military.

Political cartoons, some quite scatological, have often lampooned government officials and corporate tycoons. While often humorous, political cartoons also protest in line and ink the transgressions and foibles of the powerful. Making fun of powerful people in this way "brings them down to size," so to speak, and helps citizens conceptualize that the people in power are just like them. Tyrannical regimes, then, expend a lot of energy trying to silence the free press, artists, and performers who dare to poke fun at them and thus make them seem simply human.

In addition to visual art, music has the potential for unobtrusive mobilization and dissent. For instance, some slave songs tolerated by slaveholders as innocent and benign were actually songs of pride, solidarity, and liberation. Drawing upon the Jewish people's escape from slavery in Egypt as told in Exodus, one powerful slave song states, "When Israel was in Egypt's landLet my people goOppressed so hard they could not standLet my people go." Here religious beliefs and subversive speech are intertwined within a song. One scholar explains, "Thus in the Christian as well as the Jewish tradition the embedded heritage of God's implacable opposition to oppression gave subordinate groups a strong claim for rectification of wrongs rooted in the unjust power that one group could wield against another" (Mansbridge, p. 3). When regimes officially repress dissent, it often goes underground into clandestine newspapers, songs, legends, art, jokes, and satire that skewer the powerful and build a community of dissent and networks for protest and political challenges when the opportunities arise.

Examples of songs with political messages include Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land"; Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing"; James Brown's "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud"; "Bread and Roses," written by James Oppenheim in 1912 and adopted by the labor movement; "We Shall Overcome," a gospel song adapted as a civil rights anthem; and "Jesus Loves the Little Children," an innocent indoctrination in human equality.


Dissenters utilize symbols to promulgate their causes, sometimes under the very noses of their opposition. Use of flags, whistles, clothing, and jewelry (with symbols such as the "peace sign," for example) are illustrative. The wire clothes hanger, for instance, is a symbol and trope for the pro-choice movement that hearkens back to the days of illegal abortion when desperate women used implements such as coat hangers to self-abort.

The Internet

The pamphlets of Thomas Paine leading up to the American Revolution were protests in print, information for adherents, and indications to consumers that they belonged to a larger community of readers. Today the World Wide Web disseminates information quickly, cheaply, and without respect for political borders or the sensitivities of the powers-that-be. Dissenting communities on the Internet have organized to protest the Iraq War, environmental issues, and women's rights, to name just a few issues. Through print and literacy via pamphlets, e-mail, or Web sites, information is out of the control of the powerful. Bad news about rulers and regimes can be horizontally, democratically diffused throughout this invisible community of readers.

Intersectionality Simultaneously Expressed

People have often asserted their rights through protest. Citizens live within an interlocking context of their race, gender, social class, and sexuality. These variables are often simultaneously expressed (Weber). When people protest over racial equality, then, many of those attending the marches and sit-ins might also be thinking of the equality of gender and class. Questions of gender equality, privacy rights, and freedom of choice segue into mobilization and action around sexual diversity and legal rights. It is often when coalitions of groups mobilize around an issue that protesters have the highest chances of success. Ad hoc, issue-specific coalitions, however, can break apart if not prepared to address differences between people and groups as well as their commonalities (Woliver, 2002, 1993).

Ranging from large-scale mass actions to daily acts of resistance, people assert their beliefs through protests. Fluid social movements are not easily categorized as having won or lost politically, but they often leave "a residue of reform" (Tarrow, p. 175), changes in political cultures, and networks of people with common interests who survive after a particular protest is over.

See also Abolitionism ; Civil Disobedience ; Democracy ; Nonviolence ; Protest, Political .


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