Do Street Protests Still Work? 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 discusses the nature and efficacy of today's protests.
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Do Street Protests Still Work?

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Do Street Protests Still Work?

Do Street Protests Still Work?

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(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Man: Bring the troops home now.

Unidentified Woman: What do we want?

Crowd: Peace!

Unidentified Woman: When do you want it?

Crowd: Now!


Protesters marking the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Crowds gathered in Los Angeles, London and even Glasgow over the weekend. Now, tomorrow the actual anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion is expected to bring out even more people who want their voices heard, a change in policy, and an end to the conflict. So they will take the streets with banners and bullhorns, and then what? What will happen?

Five years ago there were protests twice the size in twice as many cities, and the invasion still happened, and when you think about the power of protests past, like the civil rights marches that led to laws being changed, in 2008, what purpose does protesting serve? Our next guest is currently researching the state of protest in America. Dana Fisher is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. Hi, Dana.

Dr. DANA FISHER (Sociology, Columbia University): Hi, Alison.

STEWART: So, in modern America, I would say the '60s are seen as sort of the glory days of protest. The March on the Mall in Washington, I can remember my grandmother telling me about going there. What about that period made activism so effective?

Dr. FISHER: Well, there were different reasons why activism was so effective in the '60s. There was a confluence of multiple social movements at the same time. Obviously, the civil rights movement galvanized many people around the country. There was the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam. There was the environmental movement, and the women's rights movement, which came on the tail end of that.

But I think that probably one of the big things that galvanized so many people at the March in Washington was the real threat that they would be affected by what was taking place. They would be affected by unequal rights, they would also be affected by the draft, and young people took to the streets in droves because they were really afraid about being sent to Vietnam, or having partners, friends, boyfriends, family members sent off to fight.

STEWART: That's so interesting that you bring that up, because we were having a conversation about it in one of our meetings, and we were talking about the motivation of the protesters affecting the protests' efficacy, because you look abroad, you see protesters in Tibet now, and Myanmar - Burma, and, you know, it's about life and death issues, but, you know, to be frank, in the United States people are going to protest tomorrow, and then jump in their SUVs and go home.

Dr. FISHER: Exactly.

STEWART: Now, the protests from the '60s had what you would call two critical factors for effectiveness - critical mass, and letting the powers that be think change is their only option. Can you explain those two?

Dr. FISHER: Certainly. I mean, the idea of having a critical mass is the idea that there needs to be a large number of representation of the population who are willing to take to the streets, and sacrifice their time, at least. In most cases, you need to show there's a critical mass. You need more than just people coming out on one day. You need to have sustained actions. So that even though there is a March on Washington one day, what you need is then the people who went down to Washington to protest, you need them to go back to their home towns and continue to express their dissatisfaction with whatever they're protesting.

In addition to that, this idea that people need to be willing to show the powers that be that change is the only option is about making it clear that they're not going to take it anymore, and that again involves a sustained action. It can't just be about one day taking it to the streets, and then, again, like you were just saying, Alison, getting in your SUV and going home.

STEWART: Using those criteria, I'd love to look at a couple recent protests with you. In Jena, Louisiana, last fall, we all saw 20,000 people rallied in that town over what was seen as an injustice in the legal system, based on the race of some kids who became known as "the Jena Six." Al Sharpton went as far to say that this was the "dawn of a 21st century civil rights movement." Why didn't that crystallize, in your opinion?

Dr. FISHER: Well, my opinion - the case with the Jena Six, it was a very isolated event in terms of national politics. I mean, certainly it galvanized thousands of people, people all over the country were outraged by the way that these six young people were being treated. At the same time busing in, you know, through Sharpton's work, bussing in people from outside of Jena, Louisiana, to protest, and have just 20,000 people there for one day, really doesn't create sustained movement.

It certainly shows outrage. It certainly shows people around the country, because the media picked it up so much, that there were many, many people who felt that injustice had happened, but nonetheless I don't think that this expresses a critical mass. I mean, 20,000 people in a small town certainly represents a critical mass if you're talking about 20,000 people from this town in Louisiana, but they weren't from that town in Louisiana.

The other thing is that 20,000 people in a small town need to be involved in sustained action, as I said before, because sustained action shows a dissatisfaction with the powers that be, and a willingness to go to lengths to show that change needs to happen. One day doesn't really show that.

STEWART: Now, when you look at the numbers of the global anti-war protest, before the war even started, back in February of '03, the number of people that turned out compared to this past weekend's numbers, I mean, the numbers in '08 - they really do pale. So, I'm curious - what role does hope play? Or the possibility of change? Is that what's needed to call to action versus OK, I just protested the war, but obviously it's still going on?

Dr. FISHER: Well, I mean, let's compare February 15th, which is I think the big day of action you are talking about.


Dr. FISHER: The February 15th Global Day of Action in '03 brought out millions of people around the world to try and stop something from happening, to try to stop an attack on Iraq, you know, the United States going to war, and then all the different countries coming in to support the United States. In '08, what's happening is people are trying to say enough is enough, and I think that hope plays a role in getting people in the streets, hope in terms of people thinking that their voice matters.

But I think that at this point there are so many less people taking to the streets because - it's a lot easier to conceive of the idea that going in the streets, you know, showing your opinions may stop a policy that hasn't yet been enacted, rather than taking it to the streets to get, you know, the Bush administration to pull out. So I think that people may be taking it to the streets to just show that there's a sustained dissatisfaction with the way Iraq is going, with the American policies, with the war, but I'm not sure how much people really think they're going to stop the war by taking it to the streets.

STEWART: We're speaking with Dana Fisher, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, who is researching the state of protest in America. What do you think was the last really effective large-scale protest? I threw this question out at a dinner party the other night, and a lot of people were all about the same age, they - we said apartheid, divestment, South Africa's students getting involved in that in the late '80s.

Dr. FISHER: Well, I think that that would be a good example. I mean, because it fits the criteria in a lot of ways, because - I would actually say that probably we need a third criteria here.


Dr. FISHER: Which would be this idea of sustained action, because you had a critical mass, particularly students on campuses who built these shanty towns, and really continually embarrassed and made it clear that they were out there supporting divestment from South Africa, and they were against apartheid, and against their universities investing in anything that was related to the regime, and I think it's the fact that, you know, I think that worked very well because it met these three criteria.

I'd probably say the globalization movement in, you know, the late '90s. You know, '99 in Seattle was a very good example of the beginnings of a movement that had a lot of potential. The reason that that movement ended, and ended the way it did, and you know, I'm sure there are a lot of listeners who don't believe the globalization movement ended, but let's just say the cycle of protests waned is because of September 11th, and then because of the war in Iraq. So a lot of citizens, their attentions were shifted away from corporate activity and globalization, and they started shifting towards this idea of war being waged in a different part of the world.

STEWART: Can I just bring it down to a really crass idea that part of it is the economy, stupid? That economic boycotts as opposed to marching in the streets in 2008 might be more effective?

Dr. FISHER: Well, I think that's a perfectly legitimate claim. I mean, boycotts and buy-cotts certainly have, you know, have an effect, and people feel like they can really see a difference. You know, buying a Prius and then using less gas, or choosing to purchase only organic milk because you believe in the practices of organic and locally owned, you know, local growers, makes a lot of sense.

You can express your political leanings using your pocket book, using your wallet. Whereas if you go and take it to the streets and protest it, there's not a lot of - there's not a lot of the sense that you're going to be effective. I mean, people - most people haven't experienced the feeling that their taking it to the streets matters so much.

STEWART: Dana Fisher is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. Thanks for being on the Bryant Park Project this morning.

Dr. FISHER: Thanks a lot, Alison.

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