Get Up, Stand Up

Gaby Viera, Spring 2015

By: Gaby Viera, TC ’18, for the Spring 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Get Up, Stand Up

The signs. The chants. The cries. The people. The masses and masses of people—hopefully, that is. For centuries, protests and rallies have been relied upon as a crucial tool for inciting change in an unsatisfactory system. It signifies the presence of a true collective voice when the public assembles in support of a single cause and in force. A successful protest generates power behind the movement, a power that grants the movement vaster influence, and ultimately, its desired change.

Still, people raise questions about not only the value of protests, but also the implications of this form of persuasion. Unsurprisingly, standing with signs on a street corner singing out rhymed complaints and demands appears nonsensical and futile to some, particularly when the protesters’ numbers are small. Victory obviously isn’t immediate in most cases. It takes time and sometimes never comes, which can lead to people perceiving protests as wasted effort. Others fear protest in all its forms, believing that a collective attempt to motivate change and progress in a system may lead to its breakdown by rebellion and result in anarchy. Nevertheless, while the value of the protest has been lost to some, it has appeared to have found rebirth in minority and youth communities, as many contemporary social movements have recognized the method’s power and adopted it.

The sensation of duty paired with a hint of rebellion has been revived in the present arena of social issues, attracting an overwhelmingly young population. Surprise: the youth who are so often written off as apathetic can be a cause’s most powerful asset. They possess both the passion and boldness to demand change from their government and the capability to rally and project their views with their entire generation by using social media. An overwhelming dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs has placed the youth at the forefront of the protest scene, as they adopt the timeless technique with the belief that it remains just as vital a tool for motivating change as it has been in the past.

History has shown time and time again that demonstrations can have unbelievable influence. As long as there has been a reason to fight, people have gathered in protest for that very purpose. Protest provides a method by which a cause may become visible to the public. Daniel Gillion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered a process for measuring the political effectiveness of the protest, ultimately determining that it continues to serve as an extremely useful resource, particularly for raising awareness of societal inequality against minorities. Additionally, he considers protests to be as valuable as voting itself, as the magnitude and message of the protest may reveal the public’s interest to politicians and increase the cause’s credibility. Studies show that when these actions take place, politicians are more likely to support policies that work in favor of the cause, again particularly in the case of minority groups. Demonstrations so often captivate our government, the public, and the media by humanizing the cause in question and almost always providing a new perspective on the issue for at least one outsider.

Protest has certainly led to explicit and considerable changes in the past. Massive rallies in 2000 fruitfully prevented the World Trade Organization from approving policies that would have proved harmful to workers and the environment. Internal records reveal that protests in the ’70s were what ultimately convinced Nixon to end the Vietnam War rather than accelerate it. Moreover, decades and decades of protests and grassroots movements were critical to achieving workers’ rights like the organization of unions and improved wages and working conditions, civil rights like a bill for universal enfranchisement and the eradication of legal segregation, and practically any social program that currently exists in our government.

Today’s protests resemble those of our nation’s grassroots past, from the gay rights movement to the Ferguson protests to the fight against climate change and the struggle for immigration reform. Recent protests against police brutality have prompted a much-needed dialogue on race and policing, while spurring the formation of newfound alliances and engaging a fresh activist generation. Similarly, the environmental movement has drawn millions and has placed the battle against climate change on the nation’s agenda. And more than any movement today, the fight for immigration reform has adopted classic grassroots methods in demanding institutional change, experiencing countless advances and drawbacks alike.

The immigration battle has endless facets and encompasses countless issues in need of reform, but everyone has undoubtedly heard of the Dreamers. The youth involved in advocating the Dream Act are at the heart of one of the boldest social movements today. Young, undocumented immigrants immersed in the philosophy of the American protest culture of the past have acted as the instigators of a movement that has ultimately pressured the government to fashion a legal route for provisional immigration relief. The Dream Act, while never effectively enacted, has made the opportunity for temporary deportation relief and work permits a conceivable idea. Young activists have dominated the movement with sit-ins, strikes, and various other demonstrations in efforts to pressure current politicians to support their cause. They have flooded social media and used a diverse array of civil disobedience strategies and tactics. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other civil rights leaders, the Dreamers have effectively utilized various mobilizing approaches in their efforts inspire change.

And the examples don’t end there. Grassroots movements have again emerged into the present political scene, prompting conversations that have initiated a newfound awareness of all kinds of inequality. So evidently, the protest as a mode of political expression should live as long as society changes, and adapts, and continues to have imperfections; in other words, this form of expression should never die. It inspires fervor in supporters and keeps people engaged, while sparking important partnerships. These demonstrations attract media coverage for movements that may not otherwise be able to afford it. They provide elected officials with the motives necessary to pursue certain just actions that may not be politically expedient, and at times they persuade elected officials without strong sentiments or attachment to the cause to consider their demands. Protests have even had the power to change the governing party and at times the governmental system altogether.

The protest is unquestionably one of the most powerful devices for a social cause, and we as students play a huge role in its implementation. When ardor is present among the youth, we become the most influential agents for change in a movement. We are the voices of the future, so when we speak, people listen. Regardless of the issue being protested, the youth are consistently the driving force behind the protest, a force that invigorates it and turns it into the indispensable resource that it has always been for social causes. Anthropologist Margaret Mead makes this clear in her evaluation of demonstrative action, stating what all us romantics want to hear: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Get Up, Stand Up

Image: Leonardo March