Prophetic voices amplified by megaphones bounced off of high-rise buildings. Following their lead, chants erupted from a mass of disillusioned teachers, bankers, veterans, and students. Hell no, we won’t go! Banks got bailed out, we got sold out! All day! All week! Occupy Wall Street!
From 17 September 2011 to 15 November 2011, between 100 and 500 people set up a makeshift encampment in Zuccotti Park, New York City, and began feverishly protesting a host of issues. Chief among them: income equality in the United States. The protesters, aggravated at receiving minimum wage for work that kept businesses alive, essentially performed a large-scale sit-in. By the end of the protest, hundreds of people had been arrested and assaulted by local police, streets had been shut down, shops had been looted or robbed. The encampment was finally cleared by law enforcement when New York City officially closed Zuccotti Park during nighttime, bringing the fever pitch of the Occupy Wall Street movement to little more than a simmer. By then, the feeling amongst the protesters was one of defeat anyway. They’d slept in the park for two months, and nothing had changed. Those megaphone voices weren’t silenced, but they were turned way down.
Why? Well, many people claim that the Occupy movement was disorganized. Others believe the protests didn’t have a clear message or agenda, and therefore no progress could be made. All of those are valid attempts at analyzing the ineffectiveness of the protests. But, honestly, I think it boils down to one simple face: protests don’t actually solve any problems.
I don’t mean to be callous here. I’m not saying protest isn’t effective. I’ve been actively involved in protests my whole life. When a sit-in or a march is well-organized, demonstration can drum up a lot of attention to a particular topic. Certainly, it can harden the resolve of those attending the protest. Which is great! People should absolutely stand up for what they believe in, and they shouldn’t be worried at whether someone will be offended by that message or not. Freedom’s ring is the harmony of uncensored voices. As free citizens, it is our duty to speak our truth, so that such truth might become a part of the collective reality. This is what allows peaceful coexistence.
Still, I’d like to take some time to educate my fellow rebels on the true power—or lack thereof—in protesting. To understand protesting’s effectiveness, we need only look at history.
Ghandi’s infamous Salt March didn’t do jack shit for the situation at hand for 17 years. The 1963 March on Washington—featuring MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”—was not the end to racial tensions in America. In fact, 2014 saw a spike in Black Lives Matter protests. (Also a fact: less than five police officers protested against saw a criminal conviction, and only one has begun serving a criminal sentence.) The worldwide Take Back the Night protests have seen no noticeable reduction on violence against women. The United States military and entertainment industry, for example, are undergoing massive epidemics of sexual violence. The Women’s March of 2017 and 2018 have had no discernable impact on policy. There’s still an accused sexual predator sitting in the Presidency.
So… what the hell? We live in a democracy, right? If the people organize and make their voices heard, shouldn’t that be enough for the representatives to take our side!?
No. No, not really.
While this is not an exact statistic, it’s important to remember this: for every person on one side of an issue, there is one person on the other side. For as many people you see marching through the streets, there are an equal number silently (sometimes loudly) disagreeing. Not to mention, of course, the destruction that protests can often bring. Even peaceful protests, where no blood is shed, can be a massive inconvenience to neighborhoods, businesses, and the status quo.
In fact, I know a kind businessman in Washington whose business is now on the breaking point because of peaceful protests. To protect his safety, I’ll just call him John. In 2014, during a long weekend of Black Lives Matter marches, John’s business was blocked for three days by protesters. Because the entire street was blocked, his business was receiving no revenue. For three straight days. See, John was already in a financial bind. He just couldn’t afford the losses without going into serious debt. So, he went outside and asked the nearest organizer if the protest could move or close down early. The protesters turned on John, who they saw as an enemy to the cause. What were three days of lost business against the millions of African Americans experiencing institutional injustice, after all? The protesters made John an example. After publicly berating him, they trashed his business, slammed it with negative reviews on the Web, and then directly protested the business itself for several weeks after. Now, years later, John has had to take out a number of loans to keep the business afloat. I last spoke to him in 2016, and he’d said then, “I stay open because I have to pay back the loans now. I’d close if I could. I’m not making a profit anymore. I’m barely keeping my nose out of the water.”
John had actually marched in the protests the weekend before this whole thing happened. Ironic, yes. And sad. Also, not even close to the only case of protests doing more harm than good.
Protests in Ferguson burned portions of the city. Antifa protests have led to arrests and, unfortunately, deaths in some cases. Protests in New York have blocked traffic and disrupted up to millions of dollars in innocent businesses’ revenue.
Now, you can argue that disruption and attention are what protesters are seeking. After all, there’s an important issue that needs addressing, and damn it pay attention to this! And, hey, that’s hard to argue. Given the right winds to fan the flame, emotional protest can contribute to concrete change. But, and this is important to remember: protest will never create the change that it’s seeking.
In terms of actual, visceral change, protest is completely empty.
Before you get angry at me and begin writing your reply, I want you to consider the alternative. There is a more effective way to demonstrate, and its track record is 100%. The technique? Participating in the political system.
The straight truth is that corruption in government usually becomes rampant because the people don’t participate in the government. This allows manipulative people to enter office and set down roots, which makes it very hard to remove them. Sure, people get inspired for the Presidential election every four years, but how often are we participating in local and state elections? How often have we cared about midterms? How many of us are out there collecting petition signatures or even stopping to listen to the petitions on the street?
A little over 50% of Americans vote in the Presidential election according to the Election Project, and we’re seeing 20-year lows today. On average, voter turnout for local elections is less than 10%. Even lower than that are citizens attending town hall meetings and community gatherings.
Yeesh. Of course we’re being represented by officials that don’t reflect our views! We’re voting in officials that only reflect 10% of us! Most active voters are people of retirement age, white, and male. Now, not to discredit the opinions or political views of any 65+ white males out there, but that demographic alone does not reflect the totality of the United States citizenry. It just doesn’t. Not everyone is a 65+ white male. This demographic knows very little about the wants and needs of the rest of the country, just as the other demographics know very little about the wants and needs of 65+ white males. (Although, if you look at the current officials, we have a preeetty good idea what that demographic wants and needs.)
No offense, old people, but your views are old. They’re also not likely to change. You’re 65+ and set in your ways, and being set in your old ways is not conducive to progressing in new ways. I’m sorry, but that’s just facts. If you’re pissed off about that, ask yourself: would you want your grandparents to be voting in our current elected officials? Because those people were hardcore.
* Special Note: if you’re 65+ and reading this right now, you are awesome.
Protest is the young person’s game. It’s the sexy side of politics. It’s a flashy way to do something rebellious and cool, and it’s something you can easily do on a Saturday after a few beers and some frisbee golf. It’s harder to schedule off work and go vote. It’s harder to come home from school and grab a quick bite to eat before heading off to some boring town hall. When a problem is difficult, how can we expect the solution to be easy?
The real change-maker in our American system isn’t walking with a bunch of like-minded people down the street. It isn’t sitting in place for a long time. Those kinds of demonstrations have their place, but they won’t change policy. Policy-makers change policy. In order to get the right policy-makers in place, we have to do our research and go fucking vote. We have to put in more effort than saying “Yes” to a Facebook event and showing up.
If we want to activate change in America, the way forward should not be built around organizing protests. For those protests to be effective to our important social causes, the message in them needs to be: “This is our issue, and we are going to vote to change it! Here is information on how to vote!” That shit is what scares politicians. Terrifies them. You rally together a bunch of African American women voters, and you’ll see politicians like Donald Trump and Roy Moore shake in their skin. (You’ll also see people like Roy Moore lose.)
I write this article now amidst students marching nationwide against gun control. Generally speaking, the marches have been effective in drumming up support and showing a side of the debate that we desperately need to see. Unfortunately, most of these kids aren’t old enough to vote. That’s why their rallying cry has been: “Adults! Do something!” I have researched the demographics of my followers and I know damn well that most of you are adults. So, let’s do something.
I’m not writing this right before the midterm elections this November. I’m not writing this to be buried amid a wellspring of other articles that will inevitably pop up in Fall 2018. I’m writing this now, because the best time to start making a change is right goddamn now. Please, keep attending your marches and your protests. Keep speaking up for what you think is right. But, understand that there is a difference between speaking up about an issue and actually doing something about it. We (luckily) live in a nation that allows us to exercise our opinions in a meaningful, political way. Don’t let corrupt bastards take advantage of our inaction. Don’t let them modify the system right under your nose because they expect you not to notice. We are the People, and we are the government.
Here’s a list of things you can start doing to become active in the political system. If you truly want to live in a country (and a world) that’s worth half a damn, you should really consider doing some of this stuff:
– read up on the political issues of the day
– vote in local, state, and national elections
– participate in political discussions with the intent to understand and address an issue
– sign or raise a petition
– wear a button or put a sticker on your car
– write letters to your elected officials
– contribute money or time to a political campaign
– attend community and political meetings
– lobby for laws that are of special interest (equality rights for specific groups are special interest)
– demonstrate peacefully
– serve jury duty
– run for an office
– serve the nation through public service (military, police, medical, etc)
If you aren’t yet voting age, you can still do a lot of this stuff. I’ll add one more very important point for you guys and gals in particular:
– pay attention in Government – it will matter to you later
In the words of those Occupy protesters so many years ago: we are the 99%.
Start acting like it.
Ronin participates in politics every day. It’s exhausting, but it’s necessary. Read his thinly-veiled political writings on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and WordPress. Check out his travel photos on Instagram. Watch his writing advice videos on YouTube. Check out his official website for special news and events.
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