“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead
Call it the summer of our discontent. From the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina to the huelga general enacted by fast food workers in several major cities on July 31, the “peacefully in your face” ethos of 2011’s Occupy movement has been manifesting around the nation.
The major weakness of the anti-war demonstrations of the Bush era—as well as the TEA Party protests of the early Obama years—was that they could simply be ignored by the media and those in power. Hundreds of thousands of people protested the Iraq War, with no discernible effect of policy.
Compare that with the recent efforts of a relative handful of Florida college students, calling themselves the Dream Defenders, who staged an around-the-clock sit-in at the governor’s office, demanding a hearing on issues such as the Stand Your Ground law and the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline that exists in many low income areas.
For several days, Governor Rick Scott avoided the place altogether, and then finally acquiesced to a face-to-face meeting once he realized the kids weren’t going anywhere. Granted, they weren’t able to convince Scott to agree to any change in policy or philosophy—at the end of the meeting, his patronizing advice was for them to “pray” about the issues they had come to discuss—however, by forcing him to come to the table, the Dream Defenders have claimed a degree of political weight for themselves in the lead up to next year’s statewide elections.
If they can translate the energy of their peacefully aggressive tactics into an organized and concerted effort to address their issues, they might actually have a real-world effect on policy, depending on who exactly comes out on top once all the votes are counted. Mind you, this wouldn’t have anything to do with some “Mr. Smith Goes To Tallahassee” effect where Florida politicians suddenly transformed into public servants dripping with integrity, but rather would be a result of the principle which has animated all successful protest movements throughout history:
When changing policy becomes less of a pain in the ass to those in power than maintaining the status quo, policy will change.
This idea was evident during the civil rights movement, where peaceful demonstrators put themselves in situations where those in authority had to either let them be or deploy inhumane tactics to remove them. All too often, the choice was to deploy inhumane tactics, but all those dogs and fire hoses and billy clubs alienated the American people and set the conditions for the forces of institutionally sanctioned bigotry to fall.
In 2004, the Ukrainian people responded to Russian efforts to manipulate the outcome of their national election by crowding the capital by the hundreds of thousands. The “Orange Revolution” shut down all business—government or otherwise—in Kiev, and ultimately forced pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych to concede to his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko.
Both India and Egypt owe their independence from the British Empire to similar instances where a critical mass of people came together in such a way as to become a massive headache for the establishment, without resorting to violence. That last bit is vital, because resorting to violence gives the establishment freedom to respond in kind, putting the conflict on a battlefield where those in authority have the tactical, moral, and resource advantage.
From a tactical standpoint, state-sanctioned methods of violence have advanced to the point where realistically opposing a government force, whether it be state police, national guard or a battalion of light-armored infantry, becomes a losing proposition from the outset. No matter how plucky your ragtag band of Wolverines(!) may be, you will not come out on top in sustained combat against state forces. So, if you go that route, be prepared to die for your cause, because that’s where that road leads.
However, before you start painting your face like Dead Presidents and getting right with your maker, consider the fact that violence scares the shit out of people, and frightened people tend to cling to authority figures to make them feel safe. So when protest movements become violent—the Weather Underground of the 1960s serves as a prime example of this—they actually have the opposite effect than intended by their participants. Not to mention tarnishing whatever cause they think they serve with the moral fallout of their violent actions.
So we are left with non-violent civil disobedience as the only historically proven method by which people can force real world policy change. It requires a group of people with deep dedication to non-violence, and tactics designed in such a way as to force both the establishment and the media (one generally follows the other) to reckon with them.
Sometimes they have to endure discomfort like the Florida students who spent their summer vacation sleeping on a marble floor outside the governor’s office. Sometimes they have to endure handcuffs, as was the case for over 900 North Carolinians during the Moral Monday protests. Sometimes they have to endure violence, as was the case in Quebec last year, when students enacted a general strike to protest tuition increases.
But with persistence, change really can happen, one pain in the ass at a time.