Opinion: Why Protesting Works

By Ian Conte, Copy Editor

On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered 46-year-old Black man George Floyd during an arrest. After restraining him, Chauvin dragged Floyd out of the back of a patrol car, threw him onto the pavement, and proceeded to press his knee against Floyd’s neck for seven minutes and 46 seconds, according to Minneapolis prosecutors.

Floyd, who was unarmed and in a severe state of stress, repeatedly told Chauvin and the other three officers aiding the arrest that he could not breathe, and that they were going to kill him. A bystander video capturing the last moments of Floyd’s life went viral and sparked what is now known as the “George Floyd Revolt.”

Within two weeks, the revolt spread from Minneapolis-St. Paul to over 2,000 cities in over 60 countries, according to the New York Times. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement grew as much in the first two weeks of the revolt as it had in the last two years. The protestors demand a swift end to white supremacy that has plagued first world nations for centuries, reparations for the victims of slavery’s lasting legacy, and for a complete demilitarization of the police.

However, these demonstrations beg the question: does protesting actually work? Popular movements of the past show us that the success of protest depends heavily on the clarity and uniformity of a movement’s goals, and sustained support from the people.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, taking place from Dec. 5, 1955 to Dec. 21, 1956, is a prime example of the success of protesting. The boycotts began when Black seamstress and Montgomery NAACP chapter secretary Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. 

At the time, a Montgomery, Ala. city ordinance segregated their public transportation, and dictated that passengers of color had to give up their seats to white riders when the bus was full. Just nine months before Parks’ arrest, Black 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested on a Montgomery city bus under similar circumstances.

Upon news of Parks’ arrest, the black Women’s Political Council (WPC) on civil rights began circulating flyers across the city calling for a boycott of Montgomery city busses. Parks’ involvement in the community and willingness to become a controversial figure propelled her to becoming a symbol for the movement. Black community leaders across the city quickly began holding mass meetings to mobilize boycotters and organized a carpooling program to aid the boycott effort. 

The first day of the boycott saw 40,000 Black bus riders participating. Black people made up the majority of Montgomery’s bus riding population, and the boycott put a severe economic strain on the city. As the boycott continued, the movement’s goals evolved into a complete desegregation of Montgomery city busses. 

After a long legal battle, the US Supreme Court upheld a Montgomery federal court’s ruling that the city ordinance violated the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Montgomery city busses were integrated on December 21, 1955, and the boycott ended.

Another excellent example of the effectiveness of protesting is the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. The wall was put up around the exclave of West Berlin in 1961 to stop the mass exodus of East German citizens to the west.

During the 1980’s, the threat of economic collapse hung over the Soviet Union, and a revolutionary wave surged throughout the eastern bloc. Years of striking in Poland force their government to decriminalize the banned Solidarity trade union in the late 80’s. In August of 1989, over two million people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania formed a 370-mile human chain across the three republics calling for independence from the Soviet Union. That same month, Hungary finally seeded to its peoples demands and opened its borders to the west.

In short, this revolutionary fervor reached East Germany. By Oct. 31 1989, the number of East German protestors demanding democracy and open borders had swelled dramatically. On Nov. 4, 1989, half a million East Germans gathered in the heart of East Berlin to rally for democracy and open borders. Three days later, the East German government resigned, and a bureaucratic error led to the fall of the Berlin Wall two days after that.

Critics of protesting often say that mass movements are widely ineffective at achieving immediate change, and that people should instead protest with their vote. While it may be true that it can take a long time for movements to achieve change, these critics are ignoring the fact that many central governments worldwide do not afford political power to their citizens’ votes.

Authoritarian regimes like the USSR and Pinochet’s Fascist Chile rig their elections to remain in power. Even in constitutional republics like the US, those without significant capital face a massive struggle when it comes to influencing their legislatures. Without a popular mass movement, the majority of a nation’s people will not be able to effectively exercise their voice in government.

Clearly, protesting can and does work to achieve the goals of the people. Mass support and clear goals in a movement has the potential to politically activate large numbers of people and bring popular ideas to the forefront of political conversation. Even though it can seem like odds aren’t in our favor, through organization and continual support, we the people can achieve anything.

To support the Black Lives Matter movement, visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co for educational resources, organizations to donate to, and information on protests in your locality.

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