In a remarkable development in the midst of a pandemic, the United States is also witnessing one of the most broad, sustained waves of protest in decades. It’s been three weeks, and nearly one in five Americans says they have participated in a recent protest. Like many other academics studying protests and movements, I am often asked if protests work—an especially important question for the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests as they, like all crowded events, entail extra risk during a pandemic. Will all this accomplish something? The answer is, yes, of course protests work, but usually not in the way and timeframe that many people think. Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.
In the short term, protests can work to the degree that they can scare authorities into changing their behavior. Protests are signals: “We are unhappy, and we won’t put up with things the way they are.” But for that to work, the “We won’t put up with it” part has to be credible. Nowadays, large protests sometimes lack such credibility, especially because digital technologies have made them so much easier to organize. When it can take as little as a few months or even weeks to go from a Facebook page to millions in the street, as we saw with the Women’s March in 2017, a protest doesn’t necessarily make the kind of statement it did in the past, when they were much harder to organize. In comparison, the historic March on Washington, in 1963, took more than 10 years to go from being an idea to being organized, with many months dedicated just to the logistics, and with many obstacles before and during. When it’s that difficult to do something, just pulling off the march itself serves as an exclamation mark to those in power, whereas something that’s easy to organize is a mere question mark for the future: Maybe it will go somewhere, but maybe it won’t. Unsurprisingly, low-effort things don’t communicate credible threats. That’s also why things like apps that make it easy for people to contact their representatives don’t do much to help anyone’s cause—if an action is easy to do, legislators can also easily discern that it doesn’t necessarily represent a threat to their reelection. (Showing up at their office in large groups, though? That still bites because it represents a lot more work).