Conard is a junior international business major and a business minor and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
If the year 2011 could be deemed anything, it would be the Year of the Protest. It saw protests attempt to bring down governments across the Middle East and North Africa, set fire to Greece and occupy Wall Street and state capitol buildings across the country. The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to “peaceably assemble,” and apart from a few dark times in history (looking at you, John Adams), we’ve been able to do that successfully. But does protesting really affect any change? I would argue yes.
Is it possible to think back before September, when Wall Street hadn’t been occupied yet? Whether you think the protesters are freedom fighters or smelly hippies, you can’t deny that they’ve had an effect on the political discourse in this country. Income inequality is a fact in American life, and to think that #Occupy hasn’t played a role in bringing the issue into the public square is delusional.
Even where dissent is not constitutionally protected, protests had an effect this year. Tunisia started the trend, sparked by one single man martyring himself through self-immolation to protest unemployment and local police harassment. It ended up taking down an entire government. Egypt fell next, with hundreds of thousands taking over Tahrir Square to rally against Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, which was a sham of a democracy.
But protests are not always effective in achieving their goals. Wisconsin citizens railed against Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” in February 2011 as thousands filled the state capitol in Madison. Despite the media attention the protests gathered, it was not enough to stop passage of the bill.
Citizen uprisings from Bahrain to Greece in the past year have inflamed passions (and cars), but done little to nothing to achieve their goals.
Protests are great at getting their messages rolling. They can spark a discussion where there was none previously, and if protesters have enough in common with those in power, such as their legislators or their armies (in Egypt’s case), real change can be affected. If protests stay peaceful and relatable to those watching at home, the message can come across clearly and truly resonate with the people, even those who are not in the street with them.
Occupy Wall Street is not even a year old, and it has time to adapt, grow and perhaps gain a leader in Congress that’s able to advocate for it. That alone would be an incredible goal for a protest that started as a simple citizen gathering in Zuccotti Park. Protests are great at advocating their messages, but unless they resonate with the people and the leaders, they are just another mosquito buzzing around the elites.