As part of the Women’s March millions of people took to the streets across the world on Saturday; it was a galore of pink home-knitted “pussy hats” and witty signs, but did it mean anything? Will it lead to change?
In a liberal democracy, political dissent by citizens can take the form of writing letters, lobbying, or voting representatives out at the ballot box. These act through intermediaries. Direct action – boycotts, demonstrations and strikes circumvent these. Street protests are a way of physically manifesting a group’s opposition to an idea – letters can be thrown out, elections come around every four years or so, but large groups of people shutting down streets in response to an issue are harder to ignore.
It’s not always about the instant gratification of legislative change. After all, doctors protested for months last year to little avail, student fees were raised despite protest, and troops were deployed to Iraq despite protest; however, a slow attrition of opposition can eventually lead to a sea of change. Women’s suffrage was achieved by protests, and protests advanced civil rights for ethnic minorities, addressed AIDS funding, and led to the overthrowing of autocracies in favour of democratic elections. Successful campaigns of change are built on sustained organised dissent, but they rely on the spark of protest on the streets to bring the issues into focus. Demonstrations ensure that those in power know that their problems won’t be going away. It’s no coincidence that the first thing on a despotic agenda is to limit the rights of people to peacefully assemble.
“White moderates”, wrote Martin Luther King Jr, were the greatest hurdle to the black Americans’ goal of equal rights. His words are just as applicable to other types of moderates – the kind of person who is “more devoted to the absence of tension than to the presence of justice”. Some of those who railed against the Women’s Marches agree with the need for equality, but question the “methods of direct action”. Dr King writes that these are the people who believe they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”, ’allies’ who preach waiting “for a more convenient season.”
There will of course never be a ‘convenient season’ for any sort of protester – any public show of opposition is bound to bring tension and disrupt traffic. Likewise, single protests cannot solve all the world’s problems. A protest about equal pay in the UK is unlikely to do much for oppression in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless; there isn’t some pot of equality that will run out. If you disagree with the ideals that those in power broadcast, it’s not enough to stay at home and voice that disagreement in private or via Facebook likes. It behoves you to turn up and keep turning up – to write letters, make calls, and to vote (even in the boring elections); to be visible in your dissent.