Let's admit it: Picking up a picket sign and spending hours marching out in the 105-degree heat or the -15 degree frost, screaming your lungs out, does not seem like a particularly natural thing to do. In fact, when people do this sort of thing outside of the context of a protest event, it's usually a cry for help. So why do we protest?
1. Protest events increase the visibility of the cause.Policy debates can be abstract, and even seem irrelevant to the people who are not most directly affected by them. Protest events put warm bodies and heavy feet out there representing an issue, taking up real space and real time, attaching the cause to real faces and real voices who care enough about the cause to go out there, if only for a short time, and be ambassadors for it.
So the media notices when a protest event happens. Bystanders notice when a protest event happens. Politicians notice when a protest event happens. And if the protest is staged well, it will invariably make somebody look at the cause with new eyes. Protest events are not persuasive in and of themselves, but they invite persuasion. They invite change.
2. Protest events demonstrate power.The date was May 1st, 2006. The U.S. House of Representatives had just passed H.R. 4437, a bill that essentially called for the deportation of 12 million undocumented immigrants and the imprisonment of anyone who might help them. A massive group of activists, predominantly but not exclusively Latino, planned a series of rallies in response.
More than 500,000 people marched in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, and millions more throughout the country--even several hundred here in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi.
The death of H.R. 4437 in committee was pretty much a given at that point. When large numbers of people take to the streets in protest, politicians and other key decision-makers notice. They don't always act, but they notice.
3. Protest events promote a sense of solidarity.You may or may not feel like part of the movement even if you happen to agree with it. It is one thing to support same-sex marriage in the comfort of your own home and another thing entirely to pick up a picket sign and support it in public, to let the issue define you for the duration of the protest, to stand together with others to represent a movement. Protests make the cause feel more real to participants.
This gung ho spirit can actually be dangerous. "The crowd," in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, "is untruth"; or to quote the great philosopher Sting, "people go crazy in congregations / they only get better one by one." When you become emotionally engaged in an issue, remaining intellectually honest about it can be a challenge.