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the Protest March

In the NY Times today, there is an article on small town midwestern Latinos participating in  pro-immigration marches. A few weeks ago, Chicago was the site of a large protest march against the immigration bills that threaten to criminalize illegal immigrants and those who assist and/or hire them. Literally, Jackson street was tied up with people from sidewalk to sidewalk for 4 hours straight.

Recently, French students held protests and marches that successfully caused the government to scrap plans that made it easier to hire and fire French youth.

All of these events have got me thinking about the protest march as a form of civic participation and the efficacy of this particular form of engagment.  For a long time, I have been ambivalent.

I am too young to have experienced the US Civil Rights Marches in the 1960s, although they loom in the my black imaginary as the hegemonic model of protest politics. Side note: There is a wonderful commentary on the show Boondocks, on the Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, that proposes that Martin Luther King did not die, but rather went into a coma. When in wakes in 2005, he gets branding as a traitor for "turning the other cheek" about terriorist and then has to hire a marketing firm to get out his message to the new generation based on hip-hop and hedonism.

I did not participate in any of the Million Man, Women, or Children marches in the 1990s. Mostly because of the emphasis on the black male as the force of black political engagement . Plus, there were no new legislation or structural changes that were to come out of the protests.

Due to post-structualist indoctrination at Stanford, I am familiar with the May 1968 "failed" revolution of the Paris student movement.

With the rise of polling technologies worldwide, it seems that there is less need for mass demonstrations. Since previously to polling, protests were the main means by which to gage popular support for a policy item.

All of which had lead me to belive that the protest march was basically dead as a force for generating social change. Yet, does the April 2006 Paris protests, the Latino Immigration Rights movement going on now, even the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine mean that the protest march remains politically effective? There seems to be specific messages and mechanisms that make the protest march work as a force for social change:

  • a broad-based coalition,
  • international financial and organizational support,
  • a government willing to listen,
  • a media willing and able to report events,
  • a specific legistrative and/or executive structure to be changed
  • not to mention, strong symbolic messaging (ex. Orange ribbon) and
  • clear communication of purpose and expected outcomes (ex. Say no to legistration X)

Yet, I wonder what people can do when they lack the above mechanisms.  But then, maybe I realize that I am not a protest march kind of woman. I work better as an inside change agent who advocates internally to implement the changes for which the protesters are agitating. For me, the protest march opens the question of what is civically-engaged design versus propoganda. Or does it mean that design can always play both sides of the fence?



Manuel Rosaldo

Hmmm. Interesting points.
I think that you’re right that protests are still politically effective, especially when they take into mind the list of mechanisms that you point out. A protest should not be designed as an end in itself, but as a strategic part of a well organized social movement.

One of the reasons that new polling technologies have not replaced the protest as a form of civic engagement is that they have not delivered on the promises they once held. Neither advanced polling nor the proliferation of voting rights have translated into socioeconomic rights for the poor in Latin America or Africa. That’s one of the reasons for the rise of populism in Latin America today. Voting rights haven’t improved the economic situation of most people of color in the U.S. so many have stopped voting. Most immigrants can’t vote anyway and our electoral system is heavily flawed.

In some ways, new technology increased protests’ effectiveness. The internet and other forms of modern media have provided new avenues by which to organize and publicize protests.

Also, protests serve lots of functions aside being a poll-like gage for popular opinion. Some of these functions include:
• Transforming the views of the participants themselves: when you march for hours in the heat or cold amongst scores of likeminded people, you can’t help but become more impassioned about your issue. I believe the main function of chanting slogans is to motivate the protesters, not to communicate a message to outsiders.
• Creating Civil Disruption: One of the ultimate trump cards of aggrieved people is civil disobedience. This is a risky because it can backfire, but unlike polls and voting, there is no way political or business leadership can ignore certain acts of disruption.
• Holding political leaders accountable: I recently went to a Martin Luther King Day nursing home worker’s union rally in New York. About 25 politicians spoke (which is typical for union protests), ranging from Hilary Clinton to local city councilmen. It was really boring to watch them all, but now the union can go back to all of the politicians and demand that stand behind their word.
• Community building: My understanding of the million man/woman/child marches is that the purpose was to increase solidarity and pride within the black community, not to demand a specific political concession. Many people described those protests as transformative experiences.
• A space of self-expression: You said you work better as an inside change agent. This is a very important role, but for people who don’t work well on the inside, protests are one of the only public spaces in which they feel self-expressed. Anti-globalization protesters craft elaborate costumes and puppets to generate a vision of society that isn’t represented by mainstream media or politicians.

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