WILL MASS PROTESTS HELP OR HURT OUR DEMOCRACY? by Wyeth Taylor @ Skidmore College
The most central and important part of a healthy democracy is the engagement of its citizens, especially when those in power make decisions contrary to what citizen’s believe is in their best interest. When citizens lose the ability or motivation to make their concerns heard is when a democracy truly begins to collapse. Regardless of what the issue of concern is, the fact remains that as long as citizens have a voice they have the ability to make their representatives listen. Some of the most substantial social movements here in the US have banked on the success of peaceful protest. The Civil Rights movements and the Women’s Suffrage movement both fought for civil and political rights for oppressed groups through protest which eventually resulted in constitutional changes. This fundamental right is essential in all democracies, not only the US, as although the basis of a democracy is that citizens elect individuals to represent them, it is still necessary for citizen’s voices to be heard. Among the many different ways in which a democracy can be threatened, the ability to protest and speak freely without fear of retribution is incredibly important in order to enact any sort of meaningful change, and the fact that this remains the fact in the US is an incredibly important and hopeful one.
This past weekend I was able to attend a gun control protest in New York’s state capitol, Albany, a powerful response to yet another mass shooting as part of the movement known as March for Our Lives. This event was uplifting in a number of ways. The divisive rhetoric of politics today can create a hateful and exclusionary narrative at many events, and it was refreshing to see so many people hopeful the display would lead to bipartisan response and lasting change. The March for Our Lives movement also represents so much more than the ongoing fight over gun control. It overlaps with other issues such as campaign finance, which further emphasize the disconnect between elected officials and their constituents. It also draws upon the constitutionally granted rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly, and emphasized how incredibly important they are and how fortunate Americans are to have those protections
Listening to other students as well as several elected officials speak was an incredibly powerful experience. Knowing there are people who share similar viewpoints and believe in the same causes as you is a very compelling experience. Standing in a crowd of hundreds of people listening with somber faces as one high school student described the fear of sitting in class and thinking about where she would hide if someone entered her school with a gun was an experience I will never forget. Many people dismiss movements such as March for Our Lives because they believe they don’t actually do anything, and to a certain extent this is true. Those elected into office are the only ones with the power to make actual policy changes, and even if they believe in the change they face their own obstacles. Although my attendance at this event did not mean stricter gun laws will be passed or that there will be no more mass shootings in the US, it did allow me an opportunity to feel as though I had stood up for something which I strongly believe in and that is knowledge I will always have. Furthermore, even if one feels as though they will make no difference by attending this type of political event, it is certainly more than one can do by simply doing nothing at all. It is also important to think of the many people around the world who do not even have the ability to organize nevermind attend an event such as this, and that ability should prompt involvement, whatever the cause may be.
Although here in the US the First Amendment’s inclusion of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Speech ensure all citizens have the ability to peacefully protest anything happening which they may disagree with, there remain many other ways in which powerful actors in American politics work to smother certain movements or protests in a variety of ways. A blog for the Washington Post, “People Are in the Streets Protesting Donald Trump. But When Does Protest Actually Work?” stated, “civil resistance–where unarmed citizens confront opponents using protests, strikes, boycotts, stay-aways and other forms of nonviolent contention–is the most common form of struggle today.” This article discusses the challenges and ineffectiveness protest movements can have, leading to frustration among those who participate. While these are certain valid criticisms, it is important to think of those who are unable to even attempt to make a difference through this type of resistance effort, and also to focus on some of the positive outcomes. The Civil Rights Movement as well as the Women’s Suffrage Movement both achieved lasting change through efforts at non-violent resistance.
In a more global sense, “Why Civil Resistance Works” discusses other successes, discussing how “major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.” For countries which criminalize non-violent protests, either directly or through threat of retribution it can backfire and instead unify protesters and increase support for the movement, however protesters could also be forced to face high personal costs as a result as well.
Although there are certainly many issues here in the US which can be interpreted as threats to democracy, the fact that these types of movements are taking place is uplifting in several ways. Although mass shootings and pervasive gun violence are by no means a new problem, there was not this call to action during any of the past administrations. This overwhelming response will hopefully mark a new chapter in civic engagement in American politics, following other massive protests such as the Women’s March or the March for Science, that could potentially make our democracy better than ever.