The Relevance of Peaceful Protest

The Relevance of Peaceful Protest

The First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing a law restricting (among many other things) the “right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

When Americans go to protest, the successes of other peaceful protesters such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi,  provide the motivation and assurance that the best way to fight oppression is, in fact, not to fight at all. However, with the riots of Ferguson, Milwaukee and Charlottesville still fresh in the memory, it may lead potential protesters to wonder if passive resistance is still effective, despite being, arguably, the most democratic method.



Different Solutions for Different Audiences

As the First Amendment states, people have the right to peaceably assemble to petition the government. While peaceful assembly is certainly the more moral route to advocate for legal or political change, it may not be the best way to sway a public mindset or convert those with contrasting ideologies—especially in an era of hyperpolarized politics. The physical world of government buildings, senators and legal documents create laws and policies, so protesting them in the physical world sounds reasonable. However, the public mindset cannot be changed through only a physical demonstration of advocacy.  Ideas and positions are borne through religions, childhood upbringings, television and an innumerable amount of social media platforms. Changing minds through so many fronts may take a solution more complex than getting a large group congregating in one place and voicing grievances.



A Plan of Attack

If the change in question is political, the success of the protest also depends on the figureheads, messages and requests being made. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s protests took their nonviolent requests of moral and societal change public. They succeeded in large part because they appealed to the humanity of their listeners, not the politics. Additionally, their pleas for moral and societal change were tied to specific legal requests. End the British occupation of India. Abolish Jim Crow laws. Those who wanted to align themselves with a position not only had the moral right and motive to do so, but a leader to follow and a tangible goal to strive for. Unsuccessful protests, or at least those that end ambiguously (such as Occupy Wall Street) could have been aided by a public leader rallying for a specific legal change.

Alternatively, a good example of a successful petitioning can be found in last year's “It Is Time AU” video—recognizable leaders publicly requesting specific policy changes with a justified, moral appeal. Obviously, most movements and protest go deeper than only changing laws and following leaders, but if a problem is so significant that it necessitates a literal rally, then its followers have to have an achievable goal and a leader willing to take it there.  



A Time For Peace

The final case I would make for peaceful protest is the effectiveness of introspection. Fighting, whether in trenches or comment sections, consist of volleys each side striving to damage the other. It does not result in the victory of the right, only of the strong. But nonviolent protest (particularly against a violent opposition) can inspire introspection in opponents, addressing the morality behind the issue at hand. It leads those who disagree to question the moral superiority they previously held and can pull sympathizers out from the woodwork of deeply-rooted traditions that have been held otherwise. When tensions rise, what attracts the most attention is a cool, calm head and a petition made in peace.


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