Friday, August 21, 2009

How Much Do Protests Matter? A Freakonomics Quorum

By Stephen J. Dubner

By Stephen J. DubnerIran's citizens take to the streets en masse after a disputed election. Gay men in Salt Lake City hold a kissing protest. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church voice their anti-just-about-everything views to military funerals and elsewhere.

Beyond the media attention they inevitably garner, what do protests actually accomplish?

We rounded up a few people who have thought a lot about this topic — Chester Crocker, Bernardine Dohrn, Donna Lieberman, Juan E. Méndez, David S. Meyer, and Howard Zinn — and asked them how much protest matters in this day and age, and why.

Here are their answers.

Howard Zinn is professor emeritus in the political science department at Boston University, and author of the book A People's History of the United States.

"Testing is always a gamble, but one worth taking, because if you don't take the risk, you will be stuck with the status quo and I suppose we all agree: the status quo is extremely undesirable."

Do protests work? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes very soon, sometimes there is a long-term effect. Sometimes you can see a direct connection between the protest and the result, and sometimes it's difficult to trace.

What this means is that you must not desist from protesting because you don't see an immediate result. What immediately looks like a failure may turn out to be a success. Testing is always a gamble, but one worth taking, because if you don't take the risk, you will be stuck with the status quo and I suppose we all agree: the status quo is extremely undesirable.

Some examples:

There was protest when the founding fathers concluded their work in drafting the Constitution in Philadelphia because there was no Bill of Rights. With the protests threatening the successful ratification (the vote was close in major states: New York, Massachusetts, Virginia) the Founders agreed they would add it, and they did in 1791.

The anti-slavery movement had to keep protesting for decades, from the 1830's to the early 1860's, until it had an effect on Lincoln and the Congress, first with the Emancipation Proclamation, then with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

The nation-wide strikes in the 1880's resulted in winning the eight-hour work day in many places. The demands of the Populist movement resulted in regulatory legislation in various states and resulted in national reforms years later in the New Deal measures to help farmers.

The sit-down strikes of 1936 to 1937 led to recognition of the C.I.O. unions and contracts and better wages and conditions.

The wave of protests in the early 1930's — by the Unemployed Councils blocking evictions; by the Tenants of organizations winning rent control in the Bronx, for instance, but also other places — led to the New Deal measures that helped the poor.

The various protests against racial segregation, taking various forms, are well known — the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the various demonstrations in the South — and all led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and various Supreme Court decisions that effectively ended legal racial segregation in the South.

The protests against the Vietnam War certainly helped Lyndon Johnson come to his conclusion in early 1968 that he would not run for president again, that he would begin negotiating with the North Vietnamese, and that he would not send more troops to Vietnam as General Westmoreland had requested.

The protests of G.I.'s during the Vietnam War — desertions, fragging, public disclosure of massacres — helped build public opinion against the war; and if you study the Pentagon Papers you will see how often the officials in Washington worried about public opinion, and why Nixon promised an end to the war, though it took years.

After the Vietnam-Watergate era, the protests of disabled people certainly led to the Disabled Persons Rights Act.

The feminist movement of the 1960's and 1970s undoubtedly led to affirmative action for women, moving more women into better positions in the economy.

There is much more historical evidence, but I am running out of space and time.

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