The US populace is rising. Practically every weekend I’m seeing some large scale protest or another, and during the week, spontaneous upwellings are appearing at lawmakers’ offices, in city squares, and in the strangest places across this great nation of ours. This is super great, but it also reminds me that protest tourism is a very real phenomenon, and also a very real problem. So as we celebrate a more engaged public, let’s try to avoid having that slide into protest tourism, yeah?
What exactly makes ‘protest tourism’? You’ll encounter a lot of definitions, but broadly I think of it as showing up at any and all protests because protests are fun, and you want to vaguely do something about things that are bothering you, and yes, let’s make some noise. I saw a lot of it during the Iraq War, where there would be big turnouts at protests with a sea of disconnected, arbitrary signs, and then people would put their signs away, go home, and not do anything else.
Let me be clear: Protesting can be an incredibly powerful tool for change. Protest has brought about tremendous sociocultural shifts across the world throughout history. When you are being silenced, ignored, and oppressed, taking to the streets as a collective can be both powerful and empowering. You cannot arrest and silence all of us, not when we are talking about protests coordinated across the United States.
Protests allow us to send a message to people in power who are trying to avoid us. They also send a message to the world — I hear repeatedly from my friends overseas that they find the tide of protest in the United States exciting and invigorating, but also that it restores their faith in America. They feel like this is a nation of people who care, and aren’t as hateful and vile as the media would seem to suggest. When we protest, we’re taking the mic from people like Donald Trump and letting the people speak.
Organised, coordinated protest can achieve very specific targets, as well, if people are willing to stay tight and focused. Maybe you just want to disrupt, make it impossible to get business done. Maybe you want to show up repeatedly to condemn something and make sure it gets changed. Maybe you want to humiliate an elected official who refuses to interact with constituents. There are tons of cool and amazing and wonderful things you can do with protests.
That includes not just marching and waving signs and holding rallies, but using protests for things like teach-ins. As you talk about throwing people out of office, why not have a ‘how to run for office’ workshop for people at the protest who want to learn more about how to kick people out of office at the ballot box? If you’re protesting various injustices, lead various workshops to coordinate with that — for example, a workshop on disability rights/disability justice where nondisabled people can learn about how to collaborate with disabled activists to make a difference in the world. Have a mass voter registration drive. Use a protest to drive donations to a cause, like abortion funds. Get creative.
And protests can also be totally fun, by which I mean that they are thrilling and exciting and invigorating. Going to a protest and being surrounded by people who passionately care about issues is a really incredible experience, especially for people in communities without a lot of protest, for those who live in areas where people like them aren’t very visible. It means a lot to be with people who get why you are angry and outraged, who share your feelings, who want to do something.
But protests can also turn into an exercise for dilettantes who want to mill around with some signs and then head home and forget about it. Your job isn’t done after the protest ends. The protest is the ‘hey, wake up!’ but you need to keep pushing, because otherwise, the sleeping giant will go back to bed. Protesting only works when it’s backed by voting, running for office, constantly haranguing legislators, praising those who are doing the right thing, pressuring agencies and appointed officials. Protest tourism happens when people don’t do those things.
I see a lot of excitement and energy whipped up around protests, but I really don’t want this to turn into another decade of protest tourism, where big crowds turn out and make a lot of noise and make some cool headlines, but don’t manifest into an actual movement that effects change. We have tremendous power, but we need to actively use it. So yes, please, go forth and protest. But vow that you’re going to have an action plan for what happens when you get home. And vow to pressure other people to join you in that action plan, because that is the only way we are going to defeat the monstrously tangled hugeness that we are facing.
Protesting is sometimes a great gateway to political action for youth, especially, so if you’re a seasoned protester who’s also politically active, think about ways to support and mentor people. Don’t leave people with nothing to do because they don’t know what to do — instead, actively offer guidance to push people to get involved. Hang up the sign and pick up a phone, or a keyboard, or a pen.
Image: Anonymous Protest, Sean P. Anderson, Flickr