How to Have a Successful Protest

Not all protests are successful. It doesn’t matter how many people show up, how thoroughly the event is covered, how fervently the protesters feel or how eloquently they speak. Unless what’s being protested changes, protesters cannot consider their efforts complete — or successful.

Millions of people across the United States will take to the streets this Saturday to call for an end to gun violence in general and school shootings in particular. March for Our Lives anticipates half a million participants in Washington, D.C. alone. Hundreds of other communities will host simultaneous events, including marches in Eugene and Corvallis.

Tomorrow’s activities must be seen as the beginning of an effort, not the end. If everything goes well tomorrow, a movement will be born for some new people. For others, the movement will continue with new supporters joining in. Some will leave exhausted and frustrated that their efforts haven’t been sufficient. Every battlefield has casualties.

Reinforcements must outnumber those who are left behind, or the effort will not succeed. It won’t be a movement if it doesn’t keep moving.

A protest march is referred to as a collective action, but that’s often only half true. It’s certainly collective. The actions required to change the status quo will take place later, after the TV crews have left — if they happen at all.

After each instance of this recurring tragedy, we hear a hollow echo, when “thoughts and prayers” aren’t accompanied by new actions. Marches and protests can reverberate with the same vacuity if they don’t spawn altered behavior.

It’s not enough to hope that others will change. Magical thinking is no substitute for hard work. A protest march is a networking opportunity, to see what others are saying and doing, to not feel alone in your own effort and resolve. If participants don’t leave the event with renewed commitment, then the gathering will have served no useful purpose.

To protest that protesters cannot make change is to step into the center of that echo chamber, where the only voice you can hear is your own. It’s not true. Our associations and expressions are not regulated or impeded. We cannot claim we’re powerless. The field may sometimes tilt against us, but we must not allow disadvantage to debilitate.

We can vote. We can write to our legislators. We can talk to our neighbors. We don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations with those who may not agree with us, but that may be the only way to make change really happen.

Status quo is majoritarian. If and when voices and money and influence move to the other side, things will change. Red Rover, Red Rover, let others come over.

Who do you know who might not agree with you on this topic? How can you bring it up — not to change their mind but to learn from them? How do they see things differently? Take those insights to refine how you think and what you say.

Those uncomfortable questions cannot be avoided — not if a protest has any hope of succeeding. If each side retreats to its own comfortable echo chamber, the status quo is effectively affirmed. A protest must not devolve into a whine-fest, celebrating the losing side’s victimhood.

Fifty years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent more than his thoughts and prayers to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. He sent himself. He showed up, even though he had plenty of other things to do.

His team was planning a major event. The “Nonviolent Poor People’s March on Washington” was to be held in less than a month. King was assassinated before that march occurred, but the movement that had grown around him did not stop.

Mark the tragedy that befell Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida five weeks ago, and Umpqua Community College in Roseburg before that, and Thurston High School in Springfield before that.

Don’t mark those moments as the end of anything, except of too many innocent lives. Mark them as the beginning of a movement that insists things can change and we’re willing to be different ourselves to achieve it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.