While the demonstrations of the 1960s brought about historic change, more recent examples of collective activism seem to have had a smaller impact. Columbia professor Dana Fisher says today's protests lack the numbers of attendees, duration and galvanizing confluence of social movements that made rallies decades earlier so powerful.
Fisher says that adding to the magnitude of 1960s demonstrations were people who had dedicated their lives to pushing for civil rights, anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, early proponents of the environment al movement and those fighting for women's rights. "What galvanized people to march on Washington was the sense that people's lives would be affected," she says. "Young people took to the streets in droves because they were afraid they'd be shipped off to Vietnam."
Today, Fisher says that when you look abroad, protests are about life and death issues, whereas the stakes of protest here are a lot lower. As a result, she says, protests last one day at most and lack the broad attendance by passionate people that typified more effective rallies decades earlier.
"There needs to be a representation of the population that's willing to sacrifice their time, at least," she says. "You need people coming out on more than one day. You need sustained action. You need people to go home and continue to show their dissatisfaction. They need to make it clear they're not going to take it any more. They need to show politicians that change is required."
For an example of a modern protest that probably missed the mark, Fisher points to Jena, Louisiana, where 20,000 people marched last fall to protest the treatment of several black high school students. Al Sharpton called it the dawn of a 21st century civil rights movement, but Fisher says the Jena event was an isolated event in national politics.
"People were outraged the way the youngsters were treated. But busing people outside of Jena to protest, and having them there for only one day, doesn't show sustained action." Certainly, Fisher says, many people clearly felt injustice had occurred. "Twenty-thousand people from a small town in Louisiana is a big deal. But these people weren't from a small town in Louisiana."
Fisher says one of the last truly effective American protest movements was the fight against apartheid, in the late 1980s. "Students on campus built shanty towns, continually embarrassed administrators and made clear they were supporting pulling out of investments in South Africa," Fisher says. "I think that worked very well." She says the globalization movement, which peaked in 1999 in Seattle, also had a lot of potential. But she says that cycle of protest waned because of 9-11 and then the war in Iraq, when citizens focus shifted from corporate misbehavior to war.
Fisher says that though the global day of action against the war in February 2003 brought millions of people around the world to the streets, that war still went through. Now, in 2008, on the fifth anniversary of the war, there is hope the same number of people will come out in the streets to call for that war's end.
"But I think that at this point," Fisher says, "there are so many less people taking to the streets, because it's a lot easier to conceive of stopping a policy that hasn't happened to make the Bush administration pull out."
"I'm not sure how much people think they're really going to stop the war by taking to the streets."