Is it true that “protest for justice doesn’t do any good?” No, a thousand times, no.
People in groups, in the streets – or in state houses screaming — articulating a strong political message changes the terms of how people see things, bringing out viewpoints that are not given voice in managed debate in ruling class media. People arguing passionately for a cause and sometimes putting their lives on the line – especially when their message hits deeply at a sharp fault-line underlying conflict in a society – can change how whole societies view whether what a government is doing, or not doing, is legitimate.
Street protest is not the only element needed for major social change, but it’s the one feature of mass political mobilization that’s essential. It’s so essential that people in most of the world know to gather together, raise demands, and make noise, marching together to show determination and urgency.
Two recent examples from within the United States:
One. In spring 2012, when the news spread that 17 year old Trayvon Martin had been shot in the heart by a vigilante, wanna-be cop named George Zimmerman, and that no charges had been filed in the killing, it struck a nerve. Was the life of a young black man really worth… nothing and of no consequence? Hundreds, then tens of thousands rallied, marched, made popular a hoodie as a symbol of protest, and demanded Zimmerman be charged.
That is the only reason there’s a trial going on now in Florida. And if the prosecution failed to put on a case convincing the jury beyond a reasonable doubt to convict, there better be more protest (see stopmassincarceration.org).
Two. Texas legislators tried to push through a law against abortion after 22 weeks, which would close down most of the women’s clinics, and enforce motherhood for thousands of women. Wendy Davis filibustered, and women — I know because I have friends who did this — jumped in their cars and drove from all over the state to fill the State House in support. This support for abortion galvanized others to stay up all night, and led to much different headlines. The bill, at that point at least, was stopped.
Just as important, people began to feel like the troops had finally come out to change the terrible direction of anti-abortion legislation, finally, and are echoing it elsewhere (see stoppatriarchy.org).
There is no substitute for determined protest against the outrages which come at us. The actions of a few can ignite the outrage of many. Otherwise, the status quo holds, and people conclude “there is nothing you can do.”
And it’s particularly important to come out at certain moments when days and hours matter.
Such as when the government of the world’s largest empire revokes the passport of a whistle-blower who happens to have exposed vast criminal surveillance of whole populations by that government, and threatens the governments of any country who might provide him asylum.