The Power of the Protest

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The Power of the Protest

Power of the Protest

By: Ester M. 

Ester joined the JSA in the Racial Justice Task Force, with interest in political science, criminal systems, philosophy and writing!


I never thought someone could practice a great act of resistance simply by saying no to a school ride, but I was wrong. One year ago, in my school, my biology teacher organized a field trip to the zoo at night. 

Most of us were super excited about it, except for one friend of mine.

He said he would not go because he was against the mistreatment of the animals, and the harm the zoos cause to animals. 

It may not seem too much, but at that moment he used his right to protest an establishment that he knew caused harm, and understood that his participation would stray from his beliefs. It was small but very intentional. A protest, by definition, is a solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent. Protests are a form to raise a question and demand a solution. No matter how big or small, protesting is a way to challenge society’s norms in hopes to alter the opinion of those in power.

In this current time, we see that high-risk actions and mass participation equal movement credibility and long-lasting change. Moreover, in this new digital age, protesting has taken a form that transcends our communities and reaches international recognition. 

Let’s take, for example, The March For Our Lives, which started in March of 2018 and encouraged its participants to build awareness about gun violence in schools, mainly through social media. Just in Washington D.C., organizers estimated that 800,000 people attended the march, and at least 1.2 million people protested nationwide, after less than two months of organization.

On the other hand, The 1963  March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was considered as the largest gathering for civil rights of its time, had approximately 250,000 attendants after over three years of planning and preparation. This way we can see how social media has been a newer avenue to demonstrate movement building. 

Henceforth, we can think of protests in two ways: they change minds and make us think about how we can make the world a better place, or, they threaten political authority and force politicians to act.

Philosopher Henry David Thoreau writes in his book, Civil Disobedience, “All men recognize the right of revolution, that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable”.  

Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay his taxes, on the grounds that the money might be used to pay for the Mexican–American War, which he opposed. 

Although opposing the Mexican-American War and protesting for the Black Lives Matter may not have too much in common at first sight, looking further we can see these acts rely on the same basis of “power to the people.” 

Thoreau writes that “there will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher independent power.”

In summary, we the people are the true highest state in a democratic system, and we have the right to revolution and claim for justice. However, the government also has a weapon against revolution: repression which causes a decrease in protest spaces. 

Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, would explain better; he says the modern State is mainly defined by the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” 

For this reason, protests threaten political power undermining the legitimacy of the government’s authority, and since democracy works under organization, authorization, and people’s enthusiasm about it, without that, it cracks down. 

So we know Black people dying from police brutality is not something new, and with social media, mass protesting, and the consistent push of others from around the world, it has such a great proportion that forces the government to act. 

The Overton Window phenomenon explains this: When there’s public pressure for a major change in society, some things that used to be undiscussable, then start to be discussed. 

That is how movements gain force and change things. By the numbers, 69% of people agreed that Black people and other minorities are denied equal treatment in the criminal justice system, according to ABC News.

Protests have a unique way to move society forward and change some of its aspects. When people go out to the streets and demand justice, it is not in vain. We may not see answers in the short term, but it definitely shakes politicians and authorities, it threatens the stability of the system, so much to the point, everyone feels something should change. 

That’s what Thoreau, Weber and so many other scholars tried to theorize about. Protesting is the ancient art of claiming for justice, and we may disagree on what “justice” is, but everyone can see there is something to be done, and – in the name of democracy – we simply can’t standstill.