Reflections on protests in the U.S. and elsewhere
By Jessica Santos
Through raised signs and impassioned cries, protesters hope that their actions will positively influence government policy. However, recent protests in America haven’t carried the same momentum as they have since the 1960s, while protests around the world—Libya and Egypt, for example—have inspired citizens to participate and have garnered the attention of the world. So, why are the protests in some other countries so much more successful than in America?
The most obvious indicator of a protest’s success is how much policy changes as a result of the movement. Even if the protest doesn’t result in major policy changes, it can still be effective, especially if it results in a series of small changes over time.
“We know we won’t dramatically change anything,” said Edward Weissman, the current organizer of the Ithaca Tea Party. “But we can still cause some sort of change that will be beneficial.” Weissman said protests give people an outlet for their voices to be heard while simultaneously allowing them to connect with other people who share their opinions.
People with left-leaning opinions also have been trying to mobilize support through protests. Patricia Rodriguez, a professor in the IC politics department, explained that there is a necessary combination of actions in order for a protest to be effective. For example, many people need to unite for the cause despite the fact that it may not affect their lives. Additionally, a government needs to create a venue to listen to the issues of the people—if not, the people must force the government to listen to them.
“If [Egyptians] don’t voice their opinions and their desire for change, nothing is going to happen,” Rodriguez said of the recent protests. “No one else is going to pick it up. Here, there is a bit of a tendency to do it to a minimal degree, and then hope that the politicians, institutions or leaders will pick it up.”
This is where the recent Wisconsin protests for collective bargaining rights for public employees failed. The people came together for a cause but, as was the case in previous protests, were unsure how to act next. The cause was left in the hands of the state government, which did not fulfill the protesters’ wishes.
Meanwhile, the protesters in Libya and Egypt are fighting for issues that directly affect the majority of their country. Each population has come together despite differences in religious background, race and so on. Because of this, the people have created a stronger voice to express their dissent. As their respective movements gained momentum, Libyans and Egyptians could feasibly hope for actual change, fueling the energy and intensity of their protests.
At first glance, it seems that protests in the United States have not been nearly as effective as those in Libya or Egypt. In a sense, this may be true. Recent protests in America have not created nearly as much change as protests have abroad, and they cannot compare to their size and intensity. Regardless, it’s important to realize that these countries have entirely different situations. Some Wisconsin protesters might have compared their efforts to the pro-democracy movements in North Africa, but realistically, they were only calling for collective bargaining, not regime change. The government oppression in Libya and Egypt is far greater than issues in the United States.
“Every other way to have one’s voice heard is shut down through oppression and force,” Rodriguez said of Egypt.
Weissman agreed that the differences in U.S. and Egyptian protesters’ motivations must be considered.
“In Egypt, they want to overthrow their government,” he said. “In the United States, no one wants that. We just want a policy change.”
Still, the protests in the United States have not come close to the unity seen in other protests abroad. This is primarily because of indifference: Since it doesn’t affect our lives, why should we bother?
Americans are all too familiar with the difficulties of democracy and inter-party cooperation. With issues ranging from health care to energy efficiency, Americans have seen bills written and then go through the lengthy process of being rewritten and rewritten again to appease both parties. By the time this process is over, the bill is considerably weaker and barely resembles the original. So, even if the protesters successfully brought an issue to the government’s attention, the political process means their goals probably wouldn’t be fulfilled exactly as they originally wanted.
Regardless, there have not been problems as major as an oppressive government that needs to be overthrown. If that were to occur, the American people might organize a large-scale protest. There are problems in the U.S., but it is difficult to mobilize a majority of the population and convince them to speak out if the issue does not seem to directly affect them. For now, we should probably be thankful that there is nothing so significantly wrong in our country that we require protests as massive as those in Libya and Egypt.
Jessica Santos is a sophomore writing major who thinks Gaddafi’s gotta go. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.