Our democracy demands that people are permitted certain inalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to name a few. The U.S. Bill of Rights states that there should be no prohibition on the free exercise of speech, press, or the right to assemble.
For over two centuries, Americans have gathered to express anger and dissatisfaction in order to change their government intuitions.
So, it should be no surprise that many of the worlds largest acts of dissent have taken place in the United States. From the more than 200,000 individuals marching for Civil Rights in 1963, with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.- to the nearly 4,600,000 million people who marched in Washington for women’s rights in January 2017 – each serving as defining moments in American history.
The four largest protests ever recorded have all occurred within the last two years – gathering an estimated 9 million people onto the streets of one of the most powerful cities on earth – Washington D.C.
While attending the 2018 March for our Lives assembly in D.C, Senator from Hawaii, Brian Schatz said “This is bigger than the United States Senate, this is bigger than politics,” .
Components of a Protest.
The act of assembly remains one of the most popular and effective modes of political expression. When a mass of people with similar concerns band together to fight injustice, powerful people take notice. It reminds them that the citizenry is ultimately in charge and the only special interests they should be concerned with are those of the voters.
This increased rate of mass assembly is no coincidence. It is an example of growing dissent and anger among Americans surrounding the function and practice of their government.
It is clear that protest is a necessary form of dissent and a limb of the American body politic, but how are protests built? The makeup of a protest includes a few key elements;
A message of change/injustice.
A protest exists as a result of unmet needs or unmet justice. A successful protest requires a cohesive message and set of goals before any group of folks can be considered a true and legitimate political protest.
A single apparent leader or group of leaders representing mass dissension.
It is essential that a protest and/or political or social movement have particular voices to lead the issues. In Florida, after the Parkland shooting, the students had reason to take charge because of their direct and relevant experience with the issue. This gave them the credibility necessary to represent progressive gun legislation.
An organized call to action.
Anyone can stand outside with a sign and get others to do the same, but unless you have a follow up call to action that corresponds with your assembly, you will not be successful in meeting the needs of your group.
In recent years the amount, size, and intensity of public assemblies has increased. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 1 in 5 Americans attended a protest or a rally in the past two years, with about one-fifth of that group attending for the first time – that is a-lot of sign making!
Samantha Pearl, a young activist in Wheeling, West Virginia describes becoming more politically engaged when asked about her civic behavior since the 2016 election.
“I have 100% become more politically minded. I used to never even worry about what was happening in the news or how our situation was politically. Nothing really happened to make me pay attention; however, when our country went so far gone as to elect an incompetent, childish leader who actively insults and infringes upon the rights of others, I had to pay attention. I had to get angry. And I absolutely had to do something about it.”
Pearl’s civic anger and discontent are not displaced nor uncommon. Many Americans today, regardless of party, are unhappy with the political landscape and are taking to the streets to demand change.
But, in recent years people have become more critical of public demonstrations, many considering ralliers “more extreme in their views,” than in previous years.
The belief that modern protests are more extreme or perhaps violent, however real or imagined, highlights the difference in how people believe others should express political discontent.
Pearl expresses her belief in the importance of protest and legal action during her acts of civil unrest.
“Protests are the first step. It is to use your voice to express your dissatisfaction with something. If nothing changes after your unrest is known, then you take more legal steps to write to your representatives or try to make change happen yourself.”
The identity of the United States has arguably never been as uncertain as it is today. Who we are and what we represent, are constantly being redefined – leaving much about our future in the hands of those with the most to lose.
Protesting the government is controversial – sometimes even considered treasonous, but it is nevertheless fundamental to the integrity and perpetuity of our Nation.
America was created by protest, after all.