Power to the people?

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The right to a peaceful protest is an intrinsic part of democratic society – as well as a long and respected tradition within the UK, enshrined in the Public Order Act 1986. And the success of protest is evident. From the peaceful protests of the suffragists and less-than-peaceful dissent of the suffragettes, to the Poll Tax riots in 1990, demonstrations have been shown to be effective at enacting change. However, recently there have been fewer and fewer instances of protests affecting, let alone shaping, government policy. Why? And how can we change to make change more likely?

In 2011, millions of Egyptians demonstrated what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless”, with protests which were notably peaceful on the protesters’ side, and violent on the side of the authorities. These protests led to President Hosni Mubarak being forced to resign. So if it was possible for peaceful crowds to unseat Mubarak, how easy it should it be for protesters to persuade a democratically elected leader to retreat from comparatively tame unpopular policy? Apparently not as easy as it first appears. The Stop the War coalition led to two million people marching in London against the Iraq War on 15 February 2003. Nonetheless, the Blair government is remembered largely for entering the war that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as illegal.

Bristol’s Stop the War Gaza protest, 2018

Another, more recent example can be found with the millions who took to the streets for the 2018 Women’s March, a year after the first event opposing the newly elected US President Donald Trump. Demonstrators surged into the streets in protests in American cities across the US, with simultaneous rallies in Europe, Asia and Africa turning the event global. Authorities estimated that well over 100,000 people attended the New York rally and that some 300,000 showed up in Los Angeles. And yet, despite the success of the #MeToo movement, those phenomenal protests against Donald Trump do not seem to have affected the president. He addressed the Women’s marches last year by suggesting that people who turned out should have expressed their feelings at the ballot box. And in many ways Trump could afford to mock. A leader who has received 63 million votes is in a more legitimate position than the unelected dictator who uses force to control.

Seattle Women’s Rally 2018

It is not due to the size of the protests or the strength of the cause therefore that change has not been been as extensive as maybe it could have been. So why did past protest work where recent activism struggles? The question is explored, and partially answered, in Zeynep Tufekci’s “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest”. She argues that digital-age movements tend to be organisationally toothless. This turns a good cause into an event that barks at power but doesn’t bite to force ultimatums or chew through complex negotiations. Research on disruptive protest by Professor Abhinav Gupta in 2015 found that disruptive protests on their own aren’t effective; for wide-scale change they needed to be combined with “evidence-based education” – the ‘biting’ often lacking in ‘wildfire’ protests that burn out as fast as they spread.

Bristol’s Stop the War Gaza protest, 2018

Protests can be the most empowering, turbulent and memorable of political events, but it would appear there is no point raising awareness for a campaign if the structure for tackling an issue at the negotiating table is nowhere to be found. Campaigns such as #MeToo have, and will continue, to succeed as the strength of the movement lies in organisation, endurance, and an issue that warrants support: the hashtag is still here. For change it seems, the people must raise awareness for a compelling issue, and be prepared to support the discourse, not just the demonstration.