aNewDomain — Last weekend at least a million Americans marched against the inauguration of Pres. Donald J. Trump and what they believe he represents.
They didn’t just protest against the new government, though, they protested for such all American ideals as diversity, tolerance and human rights.
A mass protest of this kind and size hasn’t been seen in this country since at least Vietnam.
But it wasn’t the first inauguration protest.
After Pres. Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2008, the Tea Party came into the world. It probably would’ve failed, amounting to little more than a weird Revolutionary War cosplay in our memories. But Fox saved it, thanks to its host Glenn Beck who kept boosting it and boosting it.
Whoever is in power on the inside always makes sure to denigrate the moral rightness of everyone challenging it from the outside.
The conservative side of my news feed today is full of long-suffering, head-shaking acrimony for the protesters.
They seem to have a hard time telling the difference between the marches and the riot. The right-leaning media doesn’t help, either. Most focus on the few incidents of violence and property damage and ignore the fact that the actual march was largely unmarred by it.
And then there are those who marched — or wanted to march — and they look at that peacefulness in a different way. When we wake up tomorrow, they say, Donald J. Trump is still going to be President. So what’s the point? Why bother?
When you look at it honestly, that actually is a really good question.
Are conservatives right?
When nobody is really interested in having a civil discussion, which happens a lot lately, I try not to argue.
But that’s just another kind of ‘why bother.’
But there’s an art and a science to protest and civil disobedience.
Conservatives have mastered this much of it: They know that the best way to kill a protest movement is simply to ignore it.
Consider: Last weekend, a million plus Americans spoke out, blew off season, and somehow managed to come together in a way that was pretty historic and full of energy, hope and peace. That was the real story.
But the news didn’t focus on that story. The media just covered the silly debate around whether Trump and his press secretary lied about the size of the inaugural attendance.
Distract, redirect, ignore. It’s so effective. And even for a big movement like the one we just saw come together last weekend, well, that’s Kryptonite.
But Americans aren’t neophytes in this game. We know how to wage successful protest movements. We’ve been doing it in a more or less ongoing way ever since our nation’s founding. Some protests work, other’s don’t.
But success, if you really drill down, isn’t at all random.
Every single successful American protest movement throughout history shares these elements. So instead of asking, why bother, it may make more sense to ask whether the protest movement we just witnessed has what it takes.
1. Staying Power
There’s Occupy Wall Street. It didn’t really change any single particular policy change or even get anyone convicted for his or her role in the 2008 financial crisis.
But it did get millions of Americans to think about and really understand issues of income inequality, some of them for the very first time. These issues remain a mainstay of political conversation. They achieved that because they didn’t march for a day and then go home.
They didn’t go home. They never went home,. These leaders, who had a hard time even agreeing on what they wanted or how to lead, in the beginning, cut their teeth on Occupy. They slowly learned how to organize and how to resist.
And they are still around.
And those same leaders who are now taking on specific problems that need dealing with. Like student loan debt. That movement’s not going anywhere.
Abolition took decades. So did the struggles that led up to th1964 Civil Rights Act. In many ways, those protests are still ongoing. They need to be. Occupy and civil rights and abolition had staying power. Without it they’d be all washed up.
2. They cost people money
The Montgomery bus boycotts damaged revenues. Those boycotts had all the staying power I just talked about, of course; people carpooled or walked miles to and from work each day for months to keep them going.
But they hurt the bus system a lot more. They hurt it financially so much that their oppressors had to change. What choice was there?
The Woolworth’s counter demonstrations disrupted business, too, resulting in all kinds of real monetary losses. That protest forced changed at a corporate level.
And then there’s Glenn Beck.
A petition targeting any company that advertised on his program helped take down Beck’s platform on Fox News. Fox might have liked him a lot. But if they couldn’t sell ad space, the main profit driver, the top brass had to force him out.
Look at Nike. Just the accusation of child-labor exploitation forced Nike to rethink and completely overhaul its business practices.
All these boycotts worked because they went after today’s profit’s as well as tomorrow’s reputation. That’s a weapon any successful protest needs to wield.
3. They shame people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the main goal of a peaceful resistance movement was to “to awake his sense of shame.”
Our modern political adversaries, regardless of where we’re coming from, can seem pretty shameless these days. But they really are human beings, just like us. They want to think of themselves as good people.
The Pettus Bridge incident is still usually referred to as Bloody Sunday. As a result of the TV camera that recorded the violence on screen and forced people to look at what they actually were doing to the peaceful people of Selma, there was rapid change.
During the election cycle, remember, Black Lives Matter protesters constantly showed up to interrupt and disrupt both Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s rallies. Sanders, at one event, replied loudly that “all lives matter,” but he just said that once. And in the end, the disruptions made him change at least his talking points on the issue.
He’d been educated by protest.
As for Clinton, she was publicly shamed and had to move her position to a more actively social justice agenda.
Gandhi’s hunger strikes were a constant thorn in the side of the British regime in India.
He became an embarrassment. As embarrassment requires shame, he won in the end.
4. And they never stop disrupting
When you want to bring an end to business as usual, a good idea is to interfere with business as usual.
Great Britain was a slaving nation until as late as 1833. When it finally decided to end the practice, it not only halted its own slave trade, it started tackling foreign slave trade, too. It beganboarding and confiscating slaving ships in international waters.
And you know the robust counter-protest movement that’s formed against the activities of Westborough Baptist Church? When protesters arrive at a funeral with their anti-gay messages, they found the entrance paths blocked by counter-protesters who brought messages of love.
While peacefully assembling large numbers of people to stand in front of courthouses of civic buildings, King was arrested on multiple occasions. These gatherings disrupted Southerners’ ability to feel good about fighting him. They disrupted any ideas they might have about his being violent, dangerous or bent on destruction.
5. They go the distance
King is not the only man to ever go to jail for defending a belief.
Tim DeChristopher went to a land auction in 2008 and bid on several properties without intending to pay for them. He was arrested and served jail time. But his protest worked. After he won an environmental review, those sensitive lands were pulled back from the auction.
King wrote many times in one way and another that the job of the protester was to show that he could endure more punishment than the authorities could dole out.
Eventually, you have to look at your own behavior and grow uneasy with it.
King did a lot of his writing and thinking from jailhouses, so much so that to this day a big article of street cred among protesters is whether you’ve been arrested for your work yet.
Gandhi was willing to starve to death for his point. Before they became ashamed of themselves, the British force-fed him, hardly a more comfortable fate. But he prevailed.
Thích Quong set himself on fire and burned to death in his Vietnam protests. Militias fought in the Civil War and Revolutionary War with endless energy, never stopping despite starvation, failing weapons and, in the case of the Civil War, unthinkable death tolls.
There is that unknown Chinese student who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.
And after ruthless and angry white men assaulted them over and over, someone finally came to the defense of the beleaguered Woolworths protesters — they were a group of white women from a nearby college.
Protests are often a matter of how much you can take.
Your reputation will be smeared. Your character and maybe even your person will be assassinated. You will be incited to violence. You will suffer counter-protests, including raging and hellishly violent ones like the bombings and arsons black churches faced in the 1960s and 2010s.
It takes a combination of endurance, longevity, shaming, disruption and cost to bring things together into an effective protest.
6. The 11 million protester formula
Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist and the co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works, points out that, when the numbers are especially stacked against them, all it takes is a certain percentage of the protesting population to win.
“Researchers used to say that no government could survive if just five percent of the population rose up against it,” she says. “Our data shows the number may be lower than that,” adding:
“No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population … but get this: every single campaign that exceeded that 3.5 percent point was a nonviolent one. The nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns.”
If 3.5 percent of a population maintains peaceful protest and disruption strategies over time, it is deadly.
There are 325 million Americans right now. To be inexorable, the current protests need about 11 million people to win.
Those 11 million people need to march every single day, disrupt social systems and cost their oppressors money every day, every single day.
It sounds like a tall order and it is. The political protest scene is divided. Getting anyone together in those numbers is a remarkable feat.
But it happens. Yes, 51 percent of eligible Americans didn’t vote in the presidential election, even though all they had to do was mail in a ballot or stand in line. They didn’t bother.
But there’s energy in these protests, as last weekend showed. The trick is to keep them coming back. And there are so many things to fight for, and so many political actions and causes to throw your boycotts, disruption and marching behind.
You can choose to stand up for everything from rights for fetuses, to global warming ,to the right to vape in college classrooms, to health care, to human rights, to protecting free speech and civil rights for everyone. You can stand up for it all, or be a specialist.
But march for something. Don’t just march against something. The latter is easier, but unity around a clear vision for a better future is stronger and will last longer.
Amovement that can bring together people of color, smokers, pro-life activists, health care supporters, debt-free protests and so many other groups, which normally wouldn’t mix, is a powerful movement.
The movement has potential, at this moment.
At the end of the day, that is why you should bother.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
Watch Erica Chenoweth’s TED Talk on the magic of that 3.5 percent number below.