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Can Protests Actually Spark Social Change?

By: Claire Davenport, Giulia Leo


Pro-Palestinian protests have been taking place on college campuses across the country, including on our own, Columbia University. There's a long history of student protest on college campuses, from anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the 60s to anti-apartheid protests in the 80s. But how effective are these protest movements, and how are they often remembered? I spoke to Dana Fisher, the author of "Saving Ourselves From Climate Shock to Climate Action," a book about the effectiveness of civil disobedience with regard to the climate crisis. We spoke about how protests, like the ones going on at Columbia can spark social change.


What we're seeing right now on college campuses around the United States is civil disobedience, which is a tactic. It's a type of protest that involves breaking the law. But when it's nonviolent, it is nonviolently breaking the law, right? And occupations and encampments certainly fall in that category in general.

This kind of tactic can be quite successful, but frequently it takes a while for an occupation or an encampment or, you know, civil disobedience to really squeeze those in power to make the kind of decisions and take the kind of actions that are being demanded.


I'm curious what sort of demands usually are the types that might lead to there actually being a, you know, a response and social change in general.


Social movements are more successful the more specific their demands are, and the more, the more feasible they are on a shortened timeline. Divestment itself is a very long struggle, and it takes usually years to get universities to divest. Partially just because of the process through which divestment has to happen. So the idea that a divestment demand from student activists could be responded to in any successful and effective way, quickly is just very hard to to fathom, right? Which is not to say that those demands are good or bad, but just to say that the timeline is always quite long.


And I'm curious how media plays a role in perceptions of protests


So, the media is like, the megaphone in some ways, because only so many people can hear when you yell. But when the media is there, it can help to have that information reverberate around. A lot of folks who are engaging in civil disobedience define success of their tactics when they get media attention for their cause. And if that is a measure that folks want to use. Certainly the encampment and the occupation on Columbia University's campus has been extremely successful. And another thing that we could use as a measure of a success is the degree to which we're seeing it spread and diffuse across the country. So even if it's not achieving its broad, long term goals, the fact that we're seeing it replicated so many places across the country is a very good indication of success.


I think what was interesting was when the NYPD was first brought onto campus here, I think it actually, in some ways bolstered the movement and bolstered the students both visibility and, you know, support by the general public. And I'm curious, you know, to what extent repression can actually strengthen protest movements and to what extent, you know, it can diminish them.


There is an extensive history about the ways that repression, in almost all cases, expands the movement and does not stop a movement. So it usually escalates violence. And it also turns out many more people. And in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was murdered, we saw repression happen in many cities around the country. The most well known and well documented case was here in Washington, DC, where Donald Trump called out the National Guard to tear gassed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. But you may not know this, but the people turned out the next day, more than twice as many people were in the streets. Right? Repression does not stop protest.

What it does is it brings out sympathizers. what I also think is very interesting is how not just the media, but also the way that the state put, you know, is playing a role in trying to affect perceptions of different types of protest, certain elected officials completely criticizing the ways that activists on Columbia's campus took over Hamilton Hall and somebody on social media was calling out these elected officials who basically saw the exact same thing happen. On January 6th, except those folks were armed, and they had actually literally built guillotines out on the grounds of the Capitol. So there was no question about what they were intending in this cases where you know, protesters who had been peaceful, who were now destroying property. So there's a lot of different ways that not only the media, but, the political sphere can distort the communication that's coming out and therefore affect our perceptions of what is acceptable protest and what it's not.


Once again, this is Dana Fisher, author of "Saving Ourselves From Climate Shock to Climate Action." She is also the director of the center for environment, Community and Equity and professor in the school of International Service at American University.

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