Do Protests Even Work?

It sometimes takes decades to find out.

Kate Sterlin

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).

Indeed, the past few decades in the United States have featured many large and widespread protests without corresponding immediate change. Large numbers of people marched around the country in early 2003 to oppose the impending invasion of Iraq, but the war and the occupation proceeded anyway in March of that year. The Occupy movement in the United States saw marches in 600 communities and 70 major cities quickly, and then went global, but inequality has gotten worse since then. Neither numbers nor streets are by themselves magic wands for change.

What about when protesters do things that are difficult? When protesters undertake acts that risk jail time, like the Catholic pacifists who broke into nuclear-weapons facilities to smear them with blood, or even death, like holding marches when a government or its paramilitaries will shoot and kill? Clearly, high-risk actions, especially if they inspire mass participation, have the potential to be more piercing in their impact. In 1986, millions of Filipinos protested attempts by President Ferdinand Marcos, who’d been in power for 20 years, to continue his rule through a marred election. They certainly risked being shot at, something that had happened before. This time, though, Marcos realized he could no longer control the country and fled instead.

The current Black Lives Matter protest wave is definitely high risk through the double whammy of the pandemic and the police response. The police, the entity being protested, have unleashed so much brutality that in just three weeks, at least eight people have already lost eyesight to rubber bullets. One Twitter thread dedicated to documenting violent police misconduct is at 600 entries and counting. And nobody seems safe—not even a 75-year-old avowed peacenik who was merely in the way of a line of cops when he was shoved so violently that he fell and cracked his skull. Chillingly, the police walked on as he bled on the ground. After the video came out to widespread outrage, and the two police officers who shoved him were suspended, their fellow officers on the active emergency-response team resigned to support their colleagues. Plus the pandemic means that protesters who march in crowds, face tear gas, and risk jail and detention in crowded settings are taking even more risks than usual.

Sustaining such widespread protests for weeks under these difficult conditions is no easy feat, and there are indications that these protests are already having immediate impacts. In Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd was the initial spark, the mayor called for sweeping structural reform, the city council passed a resolution to disband the police force and replace it with a community-led model, and the police chief pulled out of negotiations with the police union. Many other localities have been considering similar initiatives to scale back police departments.

Does that mean high-risk or difficult-to-pull-off protests can always work to scare authorities into implementing change? We can’t just say yes, because the authorities have another option to meet such actions: Make them even higher-risk through repression until the protesters give up.

Sadly, repression works. No matter how brave the protesters may be, a state often has a lot more capacity to inflict costs than ordinary protesters have to withstand them. During the Arab Spring, about one-third of the citizens of Bahrain marched for months on end—a staggering number, comparable to more than 70 million people marching in the United States. Instead of buckling, their government responded with widespread arrests, torture, and executions, even of teenagers, finally silencing the weary population. In Egypt, after a military coup in July 2013, at least tens of  thousands of protesters, including many women and children, camped out at Rab’a Square, in Cairo, to oppose the coup. In response, the military and the police opened fire, gunning down an estimated 1,000 people in a single day. Unsurprisingly, protests mostly died down, and the country has since been ruled by a ruthless military dictatorship. These are not historical exceptions. In 1989, the Chinese government killed hundreds or, by some estimates, even thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square, where about 1 million people had peacefully assembled for months, crushing the pro-democracy movement.

So why don’t authorities always ratchet up the repression until people give up? Why do they sometimes give in to protest movements? The key to understanding that is also the key to understanding the true long-term power of social movements. Movements, and their protests, are powerful because they change the minds of people, including those who may not even be participating in them, and they change the lives of their participants.

Kate sterlin

In the long term, protests work because they can undermine the most important pillar of power: legitimacy. Commentators often note that a state can be defined by its monopoly on violence, a concept going back to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and codified by the sociologist Max Weber. But the full Weber quote is less well known. Weber defined the state by its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” The word legitimate is as important as the words physical force, if not more. Especially in the modern world, that monopoly on violence isn’t something that self-perpetuates. Violence doesn’t just happen; it has to be enacted and enabled by people. The Soviet Union did not fall because it ran out of tanks to send to Eastern Europe when the people there rebelled in the late 1980s. It fell, in large part, because it ran out of legitimacy, and because Soviet rulers had lost the will and the desire to live in their own system. Compared with Western democracies, their system wasn’t delivering freedom or wealth, even to the winners. If the loss of legitimacy is widespread and deep enough, the generals and police who are supposed to be enacting the violence can and do turn against the rulers (or, at least, they stop defending the unpopular ruler). Force and repression can keep things under control for a while, but it also makes such rule more brittle.

Legitimacy, not repression, is the bedrock of resilient power. A society without legitimate governance will not function well; people can be coerced to comply, but it’s harder to coerce enthusiasm, competence, and creativity out of a discouraged, beaten-down people. Losing legitimacy is the most important threat to authorities, especially in democracies, because authorities can do only so much for so long to hold on to power under such conditions. Maybe they can stay in power longer in part through obstacles such as voter repression, gerrymandering, and increasing the power of unelected institutions, but the society they oversee will inevitably decline, and so will their grasp on power.

In that light, focusing on legitimacy as the most robust source of power, it becomes clear that the Black Lives Matter movement has been quite successful in its short life. It should first be noted: This is a young movement, but it did not start this year. The current wave of high-risk protests is a crest in a movement that goes back to the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and that spread nationwide after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. Understood in their proper historical context, Black Lives Matter protests are the second civil-rights movement in postwar America, and measured in that light, they are more and more successful in the most important metric: They are convincing people of the righteousness of their cause. In the long run, that’s of profound importance.

Protests are a grab for attention: They are an attempt to force a conversation about the topic they’re highlighting. By themselves, streets don’t magically hold any particular power beyond their ability to start that conversation and frame questions for broader society. Successful protests are the ones that win that conversation and in the framing of the issue, and by all accounts and measures, Black Lives Matter protesters are succeeding. By 2016, 40 percent of  Americans had reported supporting the movement. Currently, two-thirds do, (compared to a mere 31 percent who oppose it). Similarly, another poll found that 76 percent of Americans (and 71 percent of white people) thought racism was a “big problem,” a striking 26 percent increase since 2015. For the first time, a majority of the country also supports removing Confederate statues from public places, a 19 percent shift since 2017, when 39 percent did. Conversation sparked by protests can also move what is often called the “Overton window”—what’s seen as acceptable and reasonable in the public sphere. Right now, major newspapers are publishing op-eds calling for abolishing or defunding the police, while conservatives are publishing many pieces arguing that we should instead focus on reforming the police, and that abolition would go too far. Reforming the police as the minimal, conservative position is a striking shift in the Overton window in just a few years.

Protests also work because they change the protesters themselves, turning some from casual participants into lifelong activists, which in turn changes society. This is especially salient when a movement opposing police brutality and misconduct is met with more police brutality and misconduct. Peaceful protesters across the country have endured tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons, and this is no doubt part of the reason people are changing their minds. If the police will do this to protesters in broad daylight with cameras in so many hands, what else is happening to black or other vulnerable communities when nobody is around to film the interaction?

This gets to the final reason that protests work: Collective action is a life-changing experience. To be in a sea of people demanding positive social change is empowering and exhilarating. Protests work because they sustain movements over the long term as participants bond during collective action. In scholarship, this is called “biographical impacts,” and research demonstrates that, as one would expect, movement participation can be life-changing for many. The “new left” protests in the United States in the 1960s may have involved as little as 2 to 4 percent of the population, in contrast to the current ones, which are perhaps as high as 20 percent. Yet, those protests had long-lasting effects on U.S. society through its participants' lifelong impacts.

Kate sterlin

Black Lives Matter protests are also succeeding in creating a generational shift: Civiqs, an online survey research firm, found that 65 percent of people under 34 support for the Black Lives Matter movement, while just 19 percent oppose it. Such generational shifts are important not just because young people are the future, but also because a shifting culture also affects people who are older or in positions of power. Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News, dubbed the platform for the alt-right by Trump’s strategic advisor Steve Bannon, had once famously said that all politics is downstream from culture. When Barack Obama started his first term, he had not come out in support of same-sex marriage, but even by then, young people were broadly in favor of expanding such civil rights to gay people. Just this month, without much fanfare, the U.S. Supreme Court, where the majority of justices were appointed by conservative administrations, voted to expand employment protections to gender identity and sexual orientation—thus including LGBTQ rights in the broad umbrella of civil rights for workers, only a few years after it ruled to make same-sex marriage the law of the land. Once culture shifts, the rest can unravel quickly.

Do protests work? Yes, but not simply because some people march in the streets. Protests work because they direct attention toward an injustice and can change people’s minds, a slow but profoundly powerful process. Protests work because protesters can demonstrate the importance of a belief to society at large and let authorities understand that their actions will be opposed, especially if those protesters are willing to take serious risks for their cause. Protests work because they are often the gateway drug between casual participation and lifelong activism. And, sometimes, protests work because, for that moment, the question in the minds of the protesters is not whether they work short term or long term, but whether one can sit by idly for one more day while a grave injustice unfolds. And perhaps that’s the most powerful means by which protest works: when the cause is so powerful that the protesters don’t calculate whether it works or not, but feel morally compelled to show up and be counted.