Saturday, March 5, 2011

What Good Does A Protest Do?

Last Thursday, March 3, 2011, a small group of students managed to sit on the ledge of Wheeler Hall at University of California, Berkeley to protest the rising tuition and other related issues.

According to San Francisco Chronicle,
Eight protesters who spent more than seven hours on a fourth-floor ledge at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall returned to terra firm at 9:20 p.m., greeted by the enthusiastic cheers of a band of fervent supporters on the academic building's steps.

As part of the agreement for the activists to depart peacefully, university officials apparently have agreed to drop charges against several protesters for this and other demonstrations in the past year.

The resolution follows an often tense stand-off, with police in riot gear at one point clearing demonstrators away from a portion of Wheeler Hall's steps.
Wheeler Hall was closed for the rest of the day after the sit-in and there were at least three helicopters circling over Berkeley.

Helicopter in Berkeley 3 March 2011_0019

Next day, after the peaceful resolve, things seemed went back to normal, or usual.  Someone I know wondered philosophically: "What good does this protest do?"

This question has been repeated posed to activists of any convictions.  Last month, after the departure of Mubarak from Egyptian presidency, Berkeley resident and writer Steve Masover wrote an excellent blog, which can be a perfect answer to this musing:

Lessons from Egypt: demonstrations work -- What good comes of all that protesting?

As a longtime activist I have often gotten this question from all sides: what good comes of all that protesting?

On the one hand there are people who don't participate in grassroots politics and think those who do are wasting their time (despite all the obvious counter-evidence; if you don't know what I mean by that, keep reading).

On the other, pickets, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations through all the months and years when nothing much comes of them leaves attendees and organizers alike discouraged by the seemingly-poor return on investment ("ROI" as the business folk would have it): the microscopic changes (if any) effected by effort that is actually pretty taxing, on a personal level.

Yes, it's true. It takes a lot to organize even an 'unsuccessful' movement. This isn't contradicted by the welcome social aspect to grassroots politics: hanging out with people you like (or at least a mix of people that includes some you like!), and the camaraderie of roughly aligned beliefs about what's good and important. Countering these pluses, though, is the time, attention, and energy that get debited from other stuff you might like to do. Raising kids, lying on a beach, finishing school, writing a book, learning to cook, climbing a career ladder, sailing a boat, bowling.

Is it worth the effort, the sacrifice, the time? Or is demonstrating an exercise in futility?

The answer seems obvious this week.

Every so often we get unmistakable evidence that, whatever else demonstrations might be, they're not futile. Evidence of just this truth unfolded in North Africa -- Tunisia and Egypt especially (so far) -- in the early weeks of this year. And here comes Algeria.

So if the answer is obvious, why all this typing? For me it's worth typing about because people forget. I've heard the "what good comes of all that protesting?" question come from people who may have been in grade school in 1991, but can't possibly have missed reading about mostly-unarmed masses defending a Soviet government against what amounted to a KGB coup, so it could dissolve itself later the same month. Perhaps they're taking the long view of history, knowing now that the KGB would rise again in the person of Vladamir Putin.

But for all the compromise and backsliding inherent in human affairs, how can anyone think that no good came of the Civil Rights protests in the U.S., or the worldwide protests that helped the A.N.C. and their allies bring down P.W. Botha and South African apartheid? Let alone the Velvet Revolution of 1989? Or resistance to British colonizers in Ghandi's India?
Therefore, speaking out, we must.  Act now, before California degenerate into something like Wisconsin, and before we, Americans, have to act like Egyptians and Libyans.  It's both our civil right and our civic duty.