Protests Are An Important Constitutional Right – But Do They Work?

We live in a time of outrage.

Outrage at the endemic misogyny; women have been enduring levels of sexual harassment that would not have looked out of place in the 1970s. Outrage at social media faux pas; off-the-cuff blunders by celebrity methuselah so out of touch with the zeitgeist that they are blindsided by controversies the rest of us saw coming a mile off.

The rage we feel – at the news of now routine school shootings, of Blacks gunned down and then shot again by the casually reloaded pistol – is too real, too visceral. We recoil from the sight of resurgent fascism. Repackaged as an “alt-right,” populated by political actors affianced via a confederation of the misinformed and the genuine bigot. Outrage at the prejudice, at the stupidity, and at the flagrant racism.

It is so galling.

Rage Grit

Because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. That jarring lurch we felt in the pit of our stomachs as populism slammed the brakes and what seemed like a summer’s drive through a mountain pass. The sickening realization that the hard right’s wet dream to end all wet dreams had been fermenting while we slept, bubbling away on the fringes of impolite society like a million hissing cockroaches. They wanted to undo it all. The wanted to put history into reverse gear.

Or at least, they were trying to.

And so, we protest. We huddle in the virtual corners of social media searching for solidarity, eking out meaning via a hundred tweets and a thousand shared memes. And we march. We march as women, as children or minorities as students or parents. Sometimes, we even march together.

Oh Henry

And always the question, the nagging doubt at the back of our mind, the sweating palms of indecision.

Should I go, will it make a difference? Are protests mere vanity?

To be clear, protest is no panacea, no quick fix for that which ails society. And sure, it is at least in part an essential human hubris. Our collectivism is, after all, a function of our need to belong. We protest to make ourselves feel, to feel part of something, to feel part of a solution. We do so often without legitimate expectation; real change – we tell ourselves – is a fantasy. This is a rigged system.

When the author, tax resister, and wide-eyed transcendentalist Henry Thoreau wrote that the true “foundation of liberty lies in disobedience,” he articulated a sentiment deeply embedded in the American psyche.

“The obedient must be slaves,” he warned.

And so, it had been.

Civility Lost

By the time he wrote what perhaps remains his most enduring legacy – his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience – The events of 1776 had already taken on mythological tropes of Homeric proportions. A poorly-armed, badly-organized nation in the making had taken on the might of the British Empire. And, against all reasonable expectations, they triumphed.

This was Troy; this was the stuff of David and Goliath, the salting of Carthage, and the fall of Rome rolled into one. A nation occasioned by the notion of “no we won’t.” A moment in history where the idealism of the enlightenment collided with the intractability of the Colonial mindset. The obedient could be slaves if they so wished.

Americans never would be.

The irony of such sentiments was certainly not lost on an abolitionist such as Thoreau.

He noted:

“Action from principle. … The perception and the performance of right changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.”

For Thoreau, righteousness was inadequate to the task of fermenting discord potent enough to effect change. Action – the performance of right – was the missing ingredient. To change the world, one had to fight.

One had to protest. And protest they did.


A Century of Unrest

It’s not that protest was restricted to the civil rights movement. It is more a case of modernity being the nursery of such movements. In Europe, early mass demonstrations were almost by default a catalyst for revolution. Crowds large enough to cause disturbances were usually met with what Napoleon Bonaparte later referred to as a “whiff of grapeshot.” Having set the pace in 1776, the great American experiment spread to France in 1789, Italy in 1791 and Ireland in 1798. Clusters of upheavals followed suit. Italy, Spain, and Portugal in 1820. France Belgium and Poland in 1830.

And in 1848, the press for change was so great that it nearly overwhelmed the continent. Few nations were spared the upheaval.

Britain was one of those few.

Murder History

British history, according to Johnathon Swift’s Gulliver:

“Had been little more than a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments …avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition.”

By the middle of the 19th century, the United Kingdom had – in a fit of absent-mindedness — not only inherited an Empire but also instigated a system of parliamentary democracy. The world’s first. Unless you count Iceland’s, which frankly, most people don’t.

True, the franchise was severely limited in scope, and the institutions of power amounted to little more than a cesspool of corruption and privilege. But a rotten system is a system nonetheless, and as such, it was an institution that did not necessarily need overturning. Revolution was curtailed by the simple fact that built into the very fabric of British political life was a “get out” clause.

The system could be played.

Revolution Solution

The alternative approach took the form of mass protests denuded of most of its revolutionary zeal.

The conflagration of 1848 – that year that saw Kings deposed and nations fragment and coalesces and then fragments once more – remained confined to the continent of its birth. In both the U.K. and the United States, a levee constructed from the ground bone meal of proto-democratic institutions offered a bulwark against radicalized violence. Why risk one’s life to overthrow a government when an election lurked around the corner?

During the Napoleonic wars, fears that revolution would spread to the United Kingdom inspired the introduction of draconian laws curtailing both free speech and movement. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, such laws were relaxed, and the pressure for reform grew. In 1838 a petition or ‘people’s charter’ signed by 1.3 million workers was presented to the government led by then Prime Minister William Lamb.

And, while we’re on the subject of British things you might have missed, yes, there was a “Prime Minister Lamb,” and a “King Steve,” too.

Here was a new form of ‘revolution’ at play. Far from wishing to overturn the intractable orders of the past the “Chartists” – as they were known – wished instead to modify existing regimens using peaceful means. Their demands were not even that unreasonable.

Reply and Demand

They campaigned for universal (male), suffrage. They called for the introduction of the secret ballot to prevent the undue influence of all-powerful landlords. Property qualifications for MPs had to go they insisted, and a salary had to be attached to the position so that ordinary workers could take up seats in parliament without risking financial ruin. Constituency boundaries – many of which had remained unchanged for centuries – had to be redrawn to reflect the demographic realities of the day better. And lastly, as a bulwark against corruption cronyism, they demanded annual elections.

The government refused to even look at the petition.

Two more Charters were organized, one in 1842 and another in the aforementioned year of revolution, 1848. Neither attempt was any more successful than the one that preceded it but that – as it turned out – was somewhat beside the point.

By 1867 constituencies had been rationalized and working men were granted the vote. Full male suffrage granted in 1918. The secret Ballot was introduced in 1872, the payment of MP’s in 1911. Votes for women – conspicuously absent from Chartist demands – were granted in 1919 after a campaign of civil disobedience by the Suffragettes foreshadowed #MeToo by some decades.

The British government backed down from his long-held position that women simply weren’t cut out for politics. They were granted voting rights equal to those of men in 1927.

Strike One

As societies liberalized, they were forced to remove long-established tropes of the past. Sedition clashed with utilitarian notes of free speech and was found wanting. Attempts to prevent collective action proved to be more trouble than they were worth. Gagging acts disintegrated, excessive duty on pamphlets evaporated. As we moved into the 20th century, strikes became an all too familiar feature of American life. The Anthracite Coal strike of 1902, the Steel Strike of 1919, railroad shop workers in 1922 and textile workers in ’34. The peak of labor’s power, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, saw as much as 60 million lost workdays a year, or 0.4 percent of the total number worked economy-wide; the record itself was set in 1959.

Those of the right who long for a return to the 1950s might want to reconsider.

Collective action – today far below its peak by a factor of 10 – was, however, only ever an expression of the familiar. Unions dragged workers from virtual slave wages of the 19th century to levels of prosperity almost unheard of. And they had done so one strike at a time. It was natural for the working class to continue to fight for their slice of the pie in such a way.

The civil rights protests were a different beast altogether.


On August 28, 1963, some 300,000 men marched on Washington. The protest carried with it the familiar metallic tang of a labor dispute and to be sure; the demonstration was in part an appeal for jobs. And yet the word “jobs,” was only one half of the banner this loose association of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations had agreed to march under.

The other was freedom.

Labor movement agitator Asa Philip Randolph and civil and gay rights advocate Bayard Rustin organized the march. But it is Martin Luthor King Jnr who is most closely associated with the event because on this day, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial he shared his dream with the assembled crowd.

The one that has yet to come to pass.

The agitation continued unabated; in 1969, 500,000 Americans marched on Washington to call an end to the Vietnam war. The war continued regardless. In 1982 one million protested the very existence of nuclear weapons. U.S stockpiles remained virtually unchanged. In both 1987 and 1993, a combined total of 1.2 million Americans descended on the U.S capital demanding equal rights for Lesbian and Gay rights. Such rights were not granted.

Not there and then at any rate. Because that is not how protests work.

Social Equations

It’s tempting, and perhaps even comforting to think that just because the social sciences are not all that scientific that they, therefore, must lack efficacy. Weaponised information aside – which is after all the most modern of blights – the art of influencing the masses has a history that is peppered with lamentation. Propaganda theory is closely associated with the maxim that one cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Tipping points exist, hard limits beyond which even the most cunningly woven narratives unravel like the frayed carpets of once magnificent — now moribund — hotel lobbies. It is, however, the recognition of such limitations that dictate the direction of the progressive agenda. We rarely meet intractable positions head-on. Instead, governments prefer to take the scenic route using a tried and tested formula.

Suggestions of statutory progress are disseminated, debated, enforced, and then left to brew.

For a few decades or so.

The decriminalization of same-sex relationships that took place in the U.K. in 1967 is a case in point. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was not restricted to the gay community. While gay men were freed from the jeopardy and stigma of unwanted pregnancy, the risk of arrest and public disgrace was all too real. The number of prosecutions of males in same-sex relationships began to rise to untenable levels, and politicians decided to revisit a debate that began in the previous decade.

An oh-so British committee report was set up in 1954 – a year that saw over one thousand men in England and Wales in prison for same-sex acts. It ended in 1957, with the stunning recommendation that same-sex behavior between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offense.

Wolfenden in Sheep’s Clothing

This Wolfenden report – so named after its author Sir John Wolfenden – was inspired in part by several high profile trials, not the least of which included British mathematician Alan Turing, a man rightly regarded as having played a pivotal role in winning World War II for the Allies.

Whether or not the fact that Turing had committed suicide in the same year that the report was commissioned – or indeed that Wolfenden’s son was himself a confessed homosexual – affected the report’s findings is unclear.

What is clear is that whilst there was little initial enthusiasm to enact upon the report as the years ticked by the need for reform grew. By 1966, conservative politicians such as the Earl of Dudley were furiously backpaddling leftist attempts to legislate on the issue.

In June of that year, in a withering display of flagrant bigotry, Dudley stood before parliament, protesting moves to decriminalize homosexuality on the grounds that he:

“[Could not] Stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world, and they are, unfortunately, on the increase. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them; in fact, that is a place where many of them like to go—for obvious reasons.”

The Bill passed by a whisker in the end.

Forty-six years later same-sex marriage was legalized in England and Wales.

Linked Sin

That the link between debate, legislation, and normalization is understood – and has been for some time – as a legitimate tactic in affecting change. Its efficacy has been demonstrated time and time again. And not just in, matters pertaining to sexuality.

President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order to end discrimination in the Armed Services marked the start of a process that was to dominate U.S politics for decades. Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Greensboro, Wallace. Such moments in U.S. history remain so profound that a mere mention of the associated proper noun is sufficient to convey meaning.

And all led inevitably to the same place.

Three hundred and nine days after Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln monument and shared his dream with an expectant crowd, President Lyndon B Johnson signed into law a second Civil Rights Act. It forbade employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was also set up, tasked with addressing abuses of the new law.

It did not end racism or even come close to addressing the income disparity between White and Black Americans. But then, nobody in Washington had expected it to.

Relative Calm

July 3, the day after Johnson signed the Act into law. The number of overt and not so overt racists remained unchanged. It was the Earl of Dudley’s denunciations that were most indicative of the public mood. It was parliament that was out of kilter and we know this,

Because we see this sort of thing every day.

The racially charged eruptions of octogenarian relatives giddy on Thanksgiving turkey and diabetic pumpkin pie. That one cousin who makes inappropriate ‘bums to the wall’ jokes whenever a gay loved one enters the room. Our alt right landlords and the humorless teachers who sport star spangled cufflinks on their JCPenney blazers. The zealots, the Fox-watchers, the goggle-eyed and the twitter-typists. Such people are unlikely to be swayed by legislation.

History cannot move them. Just as Canadians cluster at the borders of the U.S. to avoid the tundra to their north too do conservatives cling to their past with the tenacity of a full grown barnacle. Stoic and unrelenting, new-fangled ideas of inclusivity has no more effect on them than an all Banana diet has on a constipated chicken.

To them we can only sigh despondently; rolling our eyes at one another as we sip pumpkin spice lattes from paper cups made from renewable sources Progress moves on.

They die off.

Mortal Spoil

Which is a sad and callous admission of course but no less true because of it. In June 2015, same-sex marriage was established in all 50 states. The twin mass-protests of 1987 and 1993 created a pressure wave that was surfed by LGBTQ activists all the way into the 21st century and beyond. Over the decades they inflicted pinprick attacks, engendered debate, acted with just outrage. Above all, they maintained a visible presence in society that cut across social mediums ranging from televised debates to sitcom plot twists.

As the hard crust of homophobia softened, the debate picked up in earnest.

And the statutory battle was won.

It might be – for some – disheartening to think of progress in terms of decades. We live in a world permeated with quick-fix immediacies. We want things now. Yesterday would be even better.

And yet, it can hardly be surprising. Addressing societal contradictions is never easy. Because again, conservative voices want things to remain the same. They chase the moth chewed motifs that shaped them during halcyon days of a youth they can never reclaim.

They do so with a fervor that borders on self-determined apotheosis.

But that’s Ok.

Snakes on the Brain

Because such battles are as numerous as the fallen leaf come the autumnal months. Progress is an Ouroboros writ large, a never-ending circuit of cultivated outrage forming from the frothed-up spittle of a victory just won. In 2017 — in near compulsive allergic reaction to the election of a flesh-toned Bullwinkle — over 5 million women marched. The #MeToo movement that followed brought low men of power in ways that had never been seen before. Roger Ailes, Bill O Reilly, Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein; to name but a few.

Gone. Finished.

The President of the United States might be next.

The recent demonstrations in favor of gun control, moves to affirm the rights of transgender people, protests against corruption and crony capitalism. Such issues might take years to resolve. Before controversy is bleached out of them, decades may pass.

But they will resolve. History demands it.

So, don’t say that protests never work.

Say rather that progress takes a little time to come to full maturity.

Featured Image Via YouTube Video.

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