An exchange from a meeting I attended a few weeks ago has really stuck in my head. Someone who looked to be in his 40s said that he didn’t really see the point of taking to the streets to demand change, and justice, and that there had to be something more concrete that people could do to bring about shifts in society. He didn’t have any specific suggestions as to what that might be, of course, he just thought this was something people somewhere ought to do, was doing something more meaningful. And a few people commented, and the conversation started to dwindle out, and then another man, in his 80s, spoke up.
He told us about union organising in the 1940s, and protests, and people taking to the streets, and his father’s work as part of the New Deal, and he looked the earlier man in the eye and he said ‘taking to the streets is what made that happen, everyone working together, unions and everyone in solidarity.’ And there was a sort of hushed pause in the room as everyone digested the words of the elder, dressed quietly in a red flannel shirt and jeans, and then he sat back down and eyeballed everyone for a minute, and the conversation continued.
There’s this idea that gets thrown around during periods of protest that ‘taking to the streets doesn’t make any difference.’ People sneer at protesters, asking them what, exactly, they are doing to bring about change in society, with their marching around and signs and chants. Even in the case of protests that involve the creation of substantial infrastructure, of organised workshops and classes, of food and childcare, people say ‘what are you doing? Why don’t you do something more productive with your time?’ and no one seems to be able to say what this is, the more productive thing that protesters should be doing, but they’re convinced that thing, a something else, is out there somewhere.
And the thing is that many protesters are not just protesters. They are also writing letters to legislators and calling and requesting clemency for prisoners on death row and working in public services, and protests may be only one component of what they are doing. And others have never protested before in their lives but they are drawn to this, the movement, the agitation in the streets, the being a part of something larger, the organising. And sometimes new and interesting and exciting things emerge from protests, things that wouldn’t have existed before, without that place to incubate ideas.
They say that taking to the streets doesn’t do anything, but people pay attention to protests. The spreading wave of outrage about the economy that started erupting across the country took a while to build up momentum, but it captured media attention. At that meeting, several people said they weren’t aware of any of these issues until they saw the protest, and were made aware that things were going on that they should care about, and that people were angry about those things. Learned that there was a built-in mechanism, already, for them to use as a forum for discussion and debate and venting their anger and speaking.
Because protests create a space for people who are often voiceless and powerless. In Britain, where disabled people have been protesting harsh benefits cuts for over a year, the media is being forced to pay attention to the protesters and their demands, to provide at least some coverage. Why? Because they are disrupting the order. They are causing traffic problems. They are attracting attention. They are refusing to remain silent about police brutality. And these actions, this civil disobedience, this refusal to remain silent, has alerted people to the fact that there is a thing going on that they should be paying attention to. All because some people took to the streets. Many of those people had never been involved in protests before.
Sometimes people take to the streets because there is nothing better to do, because all measures have failed and things seem increasingly futile and taking to the streets at least provides an opportunity to vent rage. To be in solidarity with other people who are as angry, and as focused, and as determined, as you are. People speak of this dismissively, but there is immense power in solidarity, in marching down a street in the rippling heat with thousands of people chanting together, in pushing through driving rain and frigid winters. Because this thing that you are a part of becomes larger than you and the world around you and you start to feel like perhaps, maybe, there actually is hope for change.
Taking to the streets matters. It matters enough to politicians and public officials that they routinely attempt to shut down protests, which tells you something about the power of taking to the streets. If it didn’t matter, if it wasn’t important, if it didn’t do anything, it wouldn’t be threatening enough for riot police. And it matters because people see it. The politicians making the policy. The working people who feel isolated and alone. The bankers who feel they are untouchable until the protest washes up on their very doorsteps and refuses to go away.
To dismissively discount protest, especially without providing a suggestion for alternative actions, is a grave disservice. Because protest has been a powerful tool for social change for thousands of years. It doesn’t always work, and the change doesn’t always come quickly, but the change does come, and it comes because people took to the streets.