Opinion | I Was Wrong About Why Protests Work

All of them seemed to emerge from nowhere and grow quickly, using the powers of digital technology. Social media amplification allowed movements to bring important but largely ignored issues to the forefront of the public discussion — as, for example, Occupy did for inequality — but it was also crucial for handling the logistics of a big protest: getting the word out, coordinating and pushing back against official narratives and even the disdain and dismissal that often came from traditional media.

As I studied many of these movements, I noticed more common patterns. The quickly sprung large movements often floundered for direction once the inevitable pushback came. They didn’t have the tools to navigate the treacherous next phase of politics, because they hadn’t needed to build them to get there.

In the past, a truly big march was the culmination of long-term organizing, an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence, indicating prior planning and strength. Large numbers of people had gotten together and worked for a long time, coordinating, preparing — and getting to know one another and making decisions. So they didn’t just manage to hold a protest; lacking easier ways to organize, they ended up having to build organizational capacity, which then helped navigate what came after.

But since the early 2000s, a big protest has started to feel more like a sentence that begins with a question mark. Newspapers still remark on their size — and many of them are very large — but I’m less impressed now by mere size: The global Occupy demonstrations, the Arab Spring protests and the Women’s March in 2017 all could lay claim to being larger than any previous protest. Maybe they would go on to build more sustained power, but maybe not.

So I concluded that although today’s big protests look the same as those in the past, the different mechanisms that produce them — in particular, the internet and lately, especially, social media — help determine whether governments or other authorities will see them as a genuine threat or just something that can be dismissed like a focus group.

This doesn’t mean I’ve come to think that protests are pointless or that big marches don’t mean anything. They do. I still think demonstrations, marches and other forms of mass mobilization matter; they build solidarity, change lives and highlight dissent. It’s just that they have different trajectories and dynamics now.


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