‘Politics by other means:’ The history and evolution of protest in the U.S. | St. Louis Public Radio

‘Politics by other means:’ The history and evolution of protest in the U.S.

Sep 1, 2016

Are protests effective agents of social change? What actions are justified during a protest? How does the language used to describe protests impact people’s perceptions of certain events?

Throughout history, individuals have joined together in groups of various sizes to protest against powerful authority figures or perceived injustices.

From the Boston Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, protests have played a key role in social movements within the United States for over 200 years.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the history and nature of protests with two experts: Professor Sunita Parikh of Washington University and T.V. Reed, author of "The Art of Protest."

While the basic idea of a protest has stood the test of time, shifts in technology and social attitudes have inevitably changed the way we think about protests. Parikh and Reed agreed that one of the main functions of civil demonstrations is drawing attention to some activity or injustice.

For this reason, famous protests of the civil rights era were made famous because they were picked up by the national media. They got the attention of the country by attracting the attention of the media.

Today, Parikh and Reed explained that social media play an invaluable role in social movements because activists are able to broadcast demonstrations and gain audiences on their own.

Speaking about the events following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Parikh said: “Had it not been picked up through social media, then you would have had fewer traditional media showing up.”

The question of leadership often arises in response to protests like those held by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. These movements represent unique organizational forms because they typically do not have a clearly-identified authority figure or spokesperson.

Although we tend to associate major social movements of the past with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Reed explained that these kinds of figures are the exception, not the norm.

The illusion of spontaneity that accompanies many protests, however, is often the result of careful planning and behind-the-scenes organization.

"There's an awful lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a movement before it emerges into the public imagination." -T.V. Reed

“Spontaneity is sometimes exaggerated,” Reed said. “There’s an awful lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a movement before it emerges into the public imagination.”

There are a variety of measures by which a protest is deemed successful or unsuccessful. Parikh said that in her work, a common standard for success is often simply whether or not the event actually takes place. Reed used the example of Occupy Wall Street to show how even movements that do not have specific demands can be marked as a success if they get people talking about a particular issue.

Protests can take any number of forms, and some of those forms can be quite controversial. People often hold strong opinions about whether or not activists are ever justified in employing violent measures, and civil disruptions like blocking traffic also raise critiques.

“You’re in a no-win situation because if you behave well then you don’t get much publicity, and you probably won’t get what you’re looking for because you didn’t get it before,” Parikh said. “If you behave badly, you will at least get some publicity and – yes – you will definitely raise some animosity against you.”

The language used to describe protests also has a significant impact on the way organized actions are perceived, according to Parikh and Reed. A single event could be described as a protest, uprising, disruption or riot. Terms like “disruption” and “riot” have negative connotations in the U.S., while protests and uprisings are often seen as more legitimate, Reed explained.

While she has heard arguments for and against particular types of demonstrations, Parikh said she hopes for those confronted with activities of protest to consider them what sociologist Charles Tilly called “politics by other means.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.