How Protests Work

by Benjamin Studebaker

Eight protesters have been arrested for blocking a Washington DC highway. The protesters were objecting to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, as well as low wages. This offers us an opportunity to discuss protests as a tool for achieving political ends. How do protests work? How do protesters use protesting to accomplish political objectives?

Protesting is fundamentally different from other kinds of political speech. Many of us give our opinions on political issues all the time in both formal and informal settings, but generally speaking we do not compromise our daily lives for this purpose. We still go to work or school. We may have strong opinions, but our opinions do not prevent us from performing our social roles. To protest, one has to choose to devote one’s time exclusively to the act of political speech at the expense of one’s other social roles (e.g. being a student or doing one’s job). This makes the act of protesting an inherently disruptive act. Every person who is protesting is not working or otherwise contributing to society. For this reason, the act of protesting threatens the prosperity and order the state seeks to maintain–if large numbers of people are protesting, this constitutes an inefficiency. Protesting undermines the economic productivity of the protester.

However, it is for this very reason that most protests are short-lived. Most people cannot stay away from their jobs and other responsibilities indefinitely without risking being fired or incurring other social penalties. Consequently, the state can usually wait out the protesters. Sooner or later the protesters will have to return to their jobs and their daily lives. By allowing the protesters to protest without using force to silence them, the state can give protesters a sense of freedom without actually having to respond to the protests with policy changes. It is for this reason that the US constitution guarantees citizens the right to peaceably assemble:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Emphasis added. Yet, despite the state’s willingness to permit citizens to protest, the state takes great care to limit that right. In Cox v. New Hampshire (1941), the US Supreme Court  ruled that the government could place restrictions on the way citizens exercise their assembly rights to prevent protests from interfering with the “safety and convenience” of the general public. This includes the popular practice of requiring protesters to obtain permits. It is for this reason that the 8 protesters obstructing the highway were arrested–they did not have permits and were interfering with convenient public use of the highway.

Why do states find it important to protect public convenience? Because while protesters can only cause limited disruption by personally withdrawing from their economic and social roles, they can cause far greater disruption if their protests obstruct non-protesters from fulfilling their roles. The highway allows citizens who are not participating in the protest to go to work, to go to school, and to go to stores and buy things. Even when protests are very large, protesters are typically in the minority. If protests do not disrupt the wider economy, they will likely fizzle out. To have any real chance of being effective, protests have to inflict wider damage on the state by disrupting the lives of non-protesters and protesters alike. A large percentage of the general population must be impeded from going about its normal daily business. Obstructing highways achieves precisely that objective. Indeed, the more people depend on the highway to accomplish their daily tasks, the more effective obstructing the highway will be as a form of protest.

When protesters are only disrupting their own lives, the state can allow them to protest until they find themselves in need of money and are forced to go back to work. When protesters disrupt wider society, the state can be very seriously threatened. States will go to immense amounts of trouble to prevent protesters from disrupting wider society. During the Arab Spring revolutions, peaceful protesters frequently attempted to disrupt wider society by blocking major highways:

The Arab states went to a great deal of trouble to disperse protesters who acted in this way. They employed tear gas and rubber bullets. They arrested people. Occasionally, the even fired upon protesters. These showdowns resulted in two different kinds of outcomes:

  1. The military and police would refuse to carry out orders (or the regime feared that they would refuse to do so), resulting in the regime either acceding to some of the demands of the protesters (e.g. Morocco, Jordan, Oman) or dissolving itself (e.g. Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia).
  2. The military and police would remain loyal to the regime, violently suppressing dissent until the peaceful protesters took up arms, resulting in civil war (e.g. Syria, Libya).

If in any of these cases the protesters had abided by US protest laws, they would have been entirely unsuccessful in generating political change. The disruption they would have caused would not have been sufficient to pose an existential threat to the regime, and the regime would have been able to wait them out. This is what generally happens in the United States when people protest. Several million peopled throughout the western world turned out to protest the Iraq War in February 2003, but they had no discernible effect on US government policy. No matter how many people show up for the protests, the government can dismiss them as a loud minority. As pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Howard said at the time:

I don’t know that you can measure public opinion just by the number of people that turn up at demonstrations.

The point of protests is not to demonstrate the sheer number of people who favor or oppose any given policy or government. As a percentage of the total, even several million people is not going to be substantive in large modern democracies, and it’s very hard to assemble more than that number legally in any given place. So long as the government is not made to feel the pain itself through disruptions, it will dismiss the protesters as part of some radical fringe. And if the protesters make any attempt to inflict pain on the state, the state will accuse them of inconveniencing the general public and arrest them on those grounds.

For this reason, effective peaceful protest necessitates that the protesters are ready and willing to suffer for their cause. They must obstruct highways and railroads and do whatever is necessary to peacefully impede non-protesters from going about their daily business. They must do this knowing that the state will retaliate–they must be prepared to be attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets, to be arrested, to be hosed down, and even to be shot and killed. All successful protests from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Mandela to the Arab Spring have required that protesters break the law and pay the price. A lawful protest is no protest at all. It poses no threat to the system and the system can and will dismiss it. Successful protest and civil disobedience go hand in hand.