The week following US President Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ in January last year, myself and a friend jumped on a train straight from our college to London, hastily made cardboard signs in hand. The day before, we had decided to attend an emergency protest outside the Houses of Parliament against Trump’s executive order and, in turn, our Prime Minister Theresa May’s complicity in the face of such transparent Islamophobia. The demonstration had been organized using social media by left-wing journalist Owen Jones just two days prior. Despite the short notice, an estimated 40,000 defiant Brits turned out in solidarity with our Muslim-American brothers and sisters.
Once caught up in the atmosphere of the immense crowd, it was hard to ignore the cathartic nature of the protest. Finally, all the frustration, anger and despondency I had felt was being channelled into action and being surrounded by like-minded, resilient individuals, I was filled with a renewed sense of faith in our society and our future. But, outside of catharsis, do protests and demonstrations really have a purpose in contemporary society?
In the last several years alone, we have seen a staggering volume of demonstrations, protests, and riots in response to the turbulent social and political climate. To name a few, the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the Ferguson riots of 2014-15 and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement, Poland’s strike for reproductive rights in 2016, the internationally observed Women’s March in January last year and most recently the March for Our Lives in Washington DC for more stringent gun control legislation, which dominated world news.
Many such movements are often deemed as merely a collective outpour of emotion, angry mobs roaring an empty sentiment into the void, the movement ultimately proving ineffective in provoking social or political progress despite seeming to tick all the boxes. Sometimes, demonstrations look great on paper; significant turnout? Check. Clear goals? Check. Mainstream media coverage? Check. Witty, topical placards scrawled in sharpie to really stick it to the man? Double check. Regardless, they can still fall flat and fizzle out.
Possibly the best example of this is the Occupy Wall Street Movement, dubbed, “we the 99%”, which began in New York during the autumn of 2011. The movement aimed to tackle wealth disparity and corruption, hoping to limit corporate influence on politics and bring about greater equality in the workplace. They did manage to bring these issues to light, generating unprecedented media interest in income inequality and corporate greed; their message even managed to reach the highest office in the country, prompting an official statement. Ultimately, however, the movement failed to result in any change in policy or legislation.
The failure of Occupy begs the question; if a movement of such grand scale fails to enact change, then how can any other ever hope to succeed?
Where I think we trip ourselves up regarding protests is in our expectations. The very sentiment that Occupy failed in enacting change is proof of this; Occupy Wall Street didn’t end wealth disparity or political corruption, and so it was a giant waste of time and resources, yes? And yet, nearly 7 years on, “the 1%” and “the 99%” are now ideas which are not only widely accepted, but commonplace in the political sphere, and were even at the core of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. The movement managed to unite citizens of all colours and creeds, attracted people of all ages and political backgrounds and invited everyone to join the conversation.
It is within these crucial elements where I believe real social change lies. Generating discussion, encouraging media coverage of issues that are important to us, coming together in spite of our differences, and simply using our voices are impacts which resonate with others and create a ripple effect. Even if we can’t solve all the world’s problems by simply taking to the streets with our homemade banners and signs, we can be the change we want to see. Protests, above all, are about sending a message, whether it’s one of defiance or solidarity. What it is imperative is that we do not give up and succumb to despondency because, before all else, we have a responsibility to be on the right side of history.
And, after all, if Donald Trump is asking us to stop, we must be doing something right.