Collective action is a life-changing experience

A portrait of a male Black protester wearing a mask that says 'Racism is a virus'.

Image Credit: Joao Fereira

This is another excellent piece from Zeynep Tufekci, answering the question as old as time itself: Do protests work?

Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.

[…] Protests are signals: “We are unhappy, and we won’t put up with things the way they are.” But for that to work, the “We won’t put up with it” part has to be credible. Nowadays, large protests sometimes lack such credibility, especially because digital technologies have made them so much easier to organise.

[…] In the long term, protests work because they can undermine the most important pillar of power: legitimacy. […] Legitimacy, not repression, is the bedrock of resilient power. A society without legitimate governance will not function well; people can be coerced to comply, but it’s harder to coerce enthusiasm, competence, and creativity out of a discouraged, beaten-down people. Losing legitimacy is the most important threat to authorities, especially in democracies, because authorities can do only so much for so long to hold on to power under such conditions.

[…] Protests are a grab for attention: They are an attempt to force a conversation about the topic they’re highlighting. By themselves, streets don’t magically hold any particular power beyond their ability to start that conversation and frame questions for broader society. Successful protests are the ones that win that conversation and in the framing of the issue, and by all accounts and measures, Black Lives Matter protesters are succeeding.

[…] Protests also work because they change the protesters themselves, turning some from casual participants into lifelong activists, which in turn changes society. […] This gets to the final reason that protests work: Collective action is a life-changing experience. To be in a sea of people demanding positive social change is empowering and exhilarating. Protests work because they sustain movements over the long term as participants bond during collective action.

[…] Do protests work? Yes, but not simply because some people march in the streets. Protests work because they direct attention toward an injustice and can change people’s minds, a slow but profoundly powerful process. Protests work because protesters can demonstrate the importance of a belief to society at large and let authorities understand that their actions will be opposed, especially if those protesters are willing to take serious risks for their cause. Protests work because they are often the gateway drug between casual participation and lifelong activism. And, sometimes, protests work because, for that moment, the question in the minds of the protesters is not whether they work short term or long term, but whether one can sit by idly for one more day while a grave injustice unfolds. And perhaps that’s the most powerful means by which protest works: when the cause is so powerful that the protesters don’t calculate whether it works or not, but feel morally compelled to show up and be counted.

In my experience studying social movement leadership and digital technologies — yes protests do work, but only if they were sustained strategically throughout the years (which means it might take longer than expected, for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott took 381 days to achieve its goal) by garnering collective power and a strong set of narratives, and be sure not to fall into leadership overindulgence. Related reading on the intersectionality of struggles & the power of well-organised mass movements against individualism that I would recommend again and again, of course: Angela Davis’ Freedom is A Constant Struggle.

Reading in my tabs:


  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice and Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.
  • Listening: I’m very intrigued about the darkside of the Internet but never had the time to delve further into the topic, so I think this podcast called Darknet Diaries should be good to start.
  • Viewing: I haven’t watched anything of note this week! Boo!
  • Food & Drink: Chicken lasagna and a latte.

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