Aspects of Effective Peaceful Protests

Outline of a crowd of angry people,
Outline of a crowd of angry people,

"Congress shall make no law respecting...the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." So reads, in part, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. State legislatures considered this protection so important that it was included first among the guaranteed provisions considered necessary to protect against the potential tyranny of the recently formed federal government under the Constitution. Clearly, then, Americans have long considered the right to protest as fundamental to their democracy. Images of throngs of individuals marching in protest are thoroughly ingrained in the American consciousness, particularly those of Civil Rights marches. Consequently, it is no wonder why Americans esteem protests so highly and resort to them so quickly in the face of perceived injustice. Protests are and always have been an effective means of voicing and publicizing discontent on a large scale. However, protests are only as effective as the protestors who participate in them. These protestors must abide by certain rules if their protests are to affect substantial change. If not, their protests can actually prove counterproductive to their goals in their frequency. In some instances protests, no matter how they are conducted, are not an effective means of producing change.

I am considering the Black Lives Matter movement because I so wholeheartedly agree with their basic intentions but so often disagree with their methods. As I am not a political theorist, what is to follow are rudimentary suggestions of reform derived from my own observations and knowledge of history. I am comparing Black Lives Matter with the Civil Rights Movement of the middle 20th century as this is widely regarded as the most effective social movement in recent history.

Protests at their most basic level can publicize a grievance. In the case of Black Lives Matter the principal grievance seems to be that black Americans are disproportionately subject to police brutality. This is fact according to conventional wisdom and private investigations despite a distinct lack of information from the Department of Justice. While protests inevitably call attention to this fact, they are less than certain to affect changes. The fact of the matter is that many are aware of this disparity but awareness alone is not enough to incite change. Ideally the powers that be would act immediately to implement change in the face of such information. However, as we do not live in an ideal world it is not enough to simply raise awareness.

First, protestors must have clearly defined policy goals. In order to affect change, protestors must have an idea of what changes they would like to see made. By having policy goals, protestors have a means to gauge the success of their protests and make changes accordingly. This is not to say that protestors need to draft a comprehensive bill before taking to the streets. However, in the absence of reasonable policy demands, a protest does little more than to voice anger. Real change comes from legislation. Consider the 1965 demonstrations in Selma. These marches were organized with a specific purpose in mind, to guarantee the protection of voting rights for black Americans. These protests motivated President Johnson to call on Congress to enact comprehensive voting rights legislation and ultimately resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As far as I can tell, Black Lives Matter protests are typically in response to individual cases and fail to adequately respond to larger structural problems or present policy goals for doing so. No policy goals are clearly described on the movement's website.

Secondly, protestors must impose costs on the state. By imposing costs on the state, protestors force legislators to acquiesce to their demands rather than asking them do so. Imposing costs on the state can take many forms, including labor strikes or boycotts. These methods can disrupt the operations of the state in a significant way. However, the key is in this regard is consistency. As such, any method of imposing costs on the state must be sustainable. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, lasted 381 days. The recent Black Lives Matter blockade of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport lasted only a few hours. It is important to note, though, that the Montgomery boycott concluded only after a Supreme Court decision ruled the segregation of public busses unconstitutional. Again, real change arises from legitimate legal means. But, by effectively and persistently imposing costs on the state protestors can hope to incite the government to act on their behalf.

Thirdly, protestors must have effective organization and strong leadership. A movement must have a leader (or leaders) who can address the petitions of the movement at large with the powers that be. This leader should be equipped to negotiate the demands of the movement with individuals in positions of executive or legislative authority. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely considered the leader of the Civil Rights Movement but officially he was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In this role King was able to cooperate with President Johnson to facilitate the passage of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation our country has seen. The Black Lives Matter website identifies Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors as the founders of the movement but doesn't ascribe leadership roles to any of them. I doubt that many even know the names of these women; I didn't before I began research for this article. Without an effective leadership structure it will prove exceedingly difficult for the movement to establish policy goals and impose costs upon the state so as to affect change.

2015 can be aptly characterized as a year of much outrage and little progress. Should the Black Lives Matter movement seek to spur real change in the years to come it itself will need to undergo changes. In doing so it can become a dynamic force for good. If not the movement may very well go the way of Occupy Wall Street, and we simply can't afford that.