How Protests Work

­Protesters gather in Geneva, Switzerland, to protest what they call "genocide on Tamils". See more protesting pictures.

Have you ever boycotted a product, signed an online petition or written a strongly worded letter about poor customer service? If you've engaged in these or a host of other acts of moral indignation, then you've taken part in the act of protest. Even animals get in on the action. When a dog digs in its heels to avoid going outside or a cat meows for the food that it feels entitled to, they're both making the same basic statement as any human protester: "I find this way of doing things objectionable and demand change."

With humans, the causes for protest range from the mundane to the earth-shattering, from calls for freedom to hateful demands for intolerance. Yet whether you're protesting war and human rights violations or Fox's decision to cancel "Firefly," it all comes down to the sense that something morally objectionable has occurred (or continues to occur) and must be corrected. Likewise, the means of protesting range from such silliness as referring to french fries only as "freedom fries" to violent acts of terrorism.


­In­ some form or another, protest has existed since humans advanced enough to institute laws, customs, policies and cultural norms. Just as water tends to flow through established furrows and ditches, so too do people tend to live their lives along the conduits of conformity. Sometimes they follow without thinking; other times they do so because to go against the grain is simply unimaginable. To live outside of a community's traditions, be they political, religious or social, often means to live outside the community itself. To live outside the law is to incur the wrath of the lawmaker.

But even mighty rivers can change their course, abandoning century-worn paths across the Earth. Within communities, drastic change can occur as well, but it often requires active effort -- the equivalent of building dams and canals instead of blindly hoping for the environment to adapt to human needs.

Throughout history, issues such as gender, race and sexual preference have excluded individuals from the various aspects of communities. Secular and religious authorities have ravaged populations and the world itself with their atrocities. Such outrages persist, and the outraged continue to rise up in various forms of protest.


Civil Disobedience

Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger -- a simple but powerful act of civil disobedience.
AP Photo/Montgomery County Sheriff's office

­You can disagree with the government all you want, but what are you going to do about it? Your system of rule may offer official avenues for pursuing change, but these are often far from the shortest path to change. Yet more direct methods, such as open rebellion, are often out of the question. As such, many individuals merely stand back while their country continues down a path that they find morally reprehensible. Nineteenth-century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau proposed a different course of action: civil disobedience.

­If you went to a restaurant and the meal was completely inedible, would you pay for it? Chances are you wouldn't -- and Thoreau applied the same logic to government. At the time, slavery was legal in the United States, and the country was at war with Mexico. Thoreau simply stopped paying his taxes, effectively refusing to pay for a government whose policies he found morally wrong. As a result, the author quickly found himself behind bars.


Thoreau was no fool. He didn't expect his brief stay in prison to end a foreign war or free an enslaved people. His point was that citizens shouldn't sit back and tolerate an unjust government. "A minority is powerless," he wrote, "while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."

He argued for a kind of peaceable revolution, in which it quickly becomes easier for the government to listen to protesters' demands than to lock them up for their nonviolent offenses. If customers routinely refuse to pay for a restaurant's inedible soup, the owners will have to rethink the menu.

One of the more famous examples of civil disobedience in the United States was the 1955 case of Rosa Parks, whose simple refusal to give up her bus seat helped galvanize the civil rights movement. At the time, Alabama state law required blacks to sit at the back of the bus and relinquish their seats to white passengers if the vehicle was full. She didn't argue her case at a board of commissioners meeting, nor did she assault the bus driver. She simply refused to comply with a law she saw as unjust. Her actions inspired a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation on public transportation.


Nonviolent Protest

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 -- an image that has come to symbolize the power of nonviolent protest.
AP Photo/Jeff Widener

­For ages, humans have met violence with violence. Governments have responded to sedition with brutal crackdowns, and repressed citizens have risen up against their persecutors in armed rebellion. Such actions have set the course of human history, and whole nations and peoples have vanished beneath this blood-dimmed tide. Yet history has also shown us that change can be achieved another way.

­Thoreau's dream of a peaceful revolution came to full fruition in the hands of another famous protester: India's Mahatma Gandhi. In the early 1890s, Gandhi worked as a legal adviser to an Indian law firm in South Africa. While there, he encountered racial intolerance firsthand. Inspired by the works of Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Jesus Christ, Gandhi campaigned for the rights of Indians in South Africa before returning to his native homeland to rally support against British colonial rule and the ancient caste system.


Gandhi's methods, however, went beyond mere civil disobedience. Instead of limiting himself to written criticism and personal noncompliance, he actively organized peaceful protests and coupled Thoreau's methods with passive resistance. He called this strategy satyagraha, which is Sanskrit for "truth and firmness." In India, he organized massive protests against British rule and quickly recruited millions to his cause. The empire's response, however, wasn't always so peaceful.

In 1919, British troops opened fire on demonstrators in the city of Amritsar, killing an estimated 379 and injuring 1,200 [source: Britannica]. The incident came to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, and rather than provoking violent revolution, the bloodbath further committed the Indian people to Gandhi's path of nonviolent resistance. Satyagraha required them to remain passive, even in the wake of violence. The protesters would squat in the streets to block traffic. Even if kicked and beaten, they refused to move or fight back. If they met violence with violence, they would have been merely inciting a riot.

When British forces responded with gunfire in Amritsar, Gandhi called for noncompliance. Indian public officials resigned from the British government, parents withdrew their children from British schools and virtually anything bearing the royal seal was boycotted. India's struggle for independence paid off in 1947, when nearly two centuries of British rule came to an end.


Change the World or Die Trying

Few images capture the power of self-sacrifice in protest more than that of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, serenely posed in meditation on a Saigon street as the flames of immolation roll over his flesh.
AP Photo/Malcolm Browne

­­The example of the noble torture victim appears in various cultures, from N­ative American campfires to tales of European Christian martyrs. In these stor­ies, the torturers always do their worst to invoke rage and desperation from their prey -- and ultimately fail. The victim dies and the tormentors are left with only the knowledge of their fruitless and bloody deeds. They have achieved a physical victory, but a crushing moral defeat.

­Martyrdom captures much of this same energy, empowering a single death to unify a cause, firmly establishing the roles of victim and tormentor. Unsurprisingly, many martyrs stem from times when public execution or torture were used as a means to instill a population with fear. Today, such displays have largely fallen by the wayside in many parts of the world, giving spectacles of public death far more resonance than in previous centuries. Plus, while past tales of martyrdom had to travel secondhand, the media makes it possible for a death to be witnessed by countless millions.


As such, hundreds of individuals have given their lives for a cause in the last century alone [source: Biggs­]. Unlike suicide terrorists, who give their life to take the lives of others, these individual protesters place only their own life on the altar of their cause. In addition, while not always fatal, prisoners often use hunger strikes to draw attention to their plight and magnify the moral bankruptcy of their captors.

Few methods of suicide protest, however, are as dramatic as self-immolation. Mahayana Buddhist monks have long favored this tactic and, in 1963 a photo of Thich Quang Duc protesting the South Vietnamese government sent shock waves around the world. Much of human fear distills down to the genetic need to avoid pain and death -- and, in this iconic photo, one man appears to enter calmly into the jaws of both.

Such sacrifice advances a cause in two ways. First, it makes a powerful statement about the severity of the situation. Second, it further ingrains the importance of the cause to its supporters. If this person is willing to die to achieve this end, shouldn't the rest fight harder for it?

But violence in protest is not always so self-contained.



Violent Protest

South Korean autoworkers wield clubs against riot police during a 2003 antigovernment rally in downtown Seoul.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Search for the headline "protest turns violent," and you'll likely find some very recent news articles. In many cases, the circumstances leading up to the breaking point follow a very similar pattern. On one side, advocates gather to promote their cause, picketing or engaging in civil disobedience. On the other, a government sends in police to keep an eye on the situation.

­Both sides of this line in the sand represent the power of potential violence. The government ultimately enforces all its laws with the threat of violence. Likewise, the threat of mob mentality quivers at the heart of even the most peaceful protest. One side represents tyrannical rule, the other chaotic rebellion -- and the violence of either is often easily provoked. One bottle thrown in anger, one police baton leveled out of fear, and the situation can explode. For instance, an antigovernment protest in Sofia, Bulgaria, turned violent in January 2009 when the peaceful standoff between activists and police was disturbed by a gang of masked youths. The alleged hooligans threw rocks and ice at the police, who reciprocated with tear gas.


On an individual level, protesters in a riot situation allow their frustrations and angers to overflow into violent rage. A kind of herd mentality takes hold, encouraging an atmosphere of mob violence. Riot ensues. For this reason, proper event planning plays a vital role in any protest movement, but if tensions are running high, the course of events can come down to the foolish behavior of just a few. Even if protesters and police are on their best behavior, citizens with dissenting viewpoints may get involved.

If every large-scale protest, on some level, holds the potential for riot, then you could argue that all protests level the threat of violence against their target. Certainly, this is one of the reasons police keep a close eye on protests. Yet this is very different from open war or guerrilla warfare, which involves active rebellion.

Protest also differs from terrorism, which involves the use of fear to achieve a goal -- generally by using violence against civilians. A political rally and a terrorist attack may both support the same cause, but their methodology differs greatly. Yet a terrorist who carries out an attack may view his or her actions as mere protest. To learn more, read How Terrorism Works.


Protest Music and Nudity

Two PETA activists protestting the use of fur in the clothing industry during Hong Kong's fall/winter 2008 fashion week.
AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Ultimately, protest is all about drawing attention to a cause and communicating its message to anyone who will listen. As such, there are about as many different methods of protest as there are ways to grab someone's attention. Sure, it's hard to ignore a thousand sign-waving activists, but the same can be said for two naked women holding an animal rights b­anner.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have earned quite a reputation for eye-catching methods of protesting social, political and industrial policies. Aside from nudity, the organization's members have also used costumes, fake blood, animal carcasses and intentionally unsettling takes on commercial ad campaigns designed to draw attention to their cause.


Shock and spectacle play frequent roles in protest. Pro-life activists wave photos of bloody fetuses in front of abortion clinics. In recent years, antiwar and antiglobalization protesters have favored carnival-like parades of puppets and effigies. In our media-obsessed age, a shocking or alluring image can circulate around the globe in a heartbeat. You might not have had an opinion on foxhunting in the United Kingdom, but you might click on an image of or topless protester in body paint.

The turbulent 1960s saw the explosion of popular protest music from the likes of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. John Lennon, not content to merely sing for peace, staged a two-week "bed-in" against the Vietnam War. While protest music certainly enjoyed a resurgence at the time, it was far from new. Protest music has played a role in the women's suffrage movement of the 1800s in England and the American Revolution of the 1700s, and had been used to rally supporters behind social, religious and nationalist causes for centuries.


Protest in Stories, Art and Graffiti

Picasso's mural "Guernica" was his depiction of the Nazi German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.­
AP Photo/Paul White




­A­­n­tiwar stories have existed throughout human history. The ancien­t Greek play Lysistrata, for instance, told the story of a group of women who protested war by withholding sex from their warrior husbands. Storytelling has long glamorized war, but it also frequently reminds the listener, reader or moviegoer of war's horrors. The same can be said of art, such as Pablo Picasso's mural "Guernica," which he painted as a form of visual protest to Spain's brutal civil war.

Literature has long played a role in protest. The ancient Greek poet Alcaeus crafted the equivalent of protest poetry dealing with the plight of the poor during sixth century B.C. The invention of the printing press in 1440 made a huge impact since it allowed for the mass production of literature. Protest tracts, newspapers and pamphlets followed in its wake, making such influential protest literature as Upton Sinclair's 1906 meatpacking industry exposé "The Jungle" possible.

While often blurring the lines between artistic expression and vandalism, graffiti has also provided protesters with a forum for their message. From words hastily scrawled on walls to epic public murals, graffiti allows for anonymous, free publication -- at least until someone scrubs it away. Graffiti marked the walls of ancient Rome thousands of years ago and famously covered the western side of the Berlin Wall in opposition to the post-war separation of East and West Germany.

While modern graffiti artists haven't abandoned their spray cans, the Internet has become a popular venue for the craft as well. While there are no shortage of activist Web sites, message boards and online petitions, hackers occasionally ply their craft as a means of protest. Tens of thousands of Web sites were hacked with antiwar messages following the war in Iraq [source: BBC].

In 2008, a group of Internet activists calling themselves Anonymous targeted the Church of Scientology, accusing the religious organization of suppressing free speech. Among the tactics they employed were temporarily disabling the international Scientology Web site and "Google Bombing" them, so that the church would pop up as the No. 1 search result for "dangerous cult" [source: Barkham].

Of course, all of these protest methods raise one crucial question: Do they work?



Protest Effectiveness

­Pondering whether protests actually work is a lot like asking if battles work. Multiple battles compose a war, and protests are but one tool in campaigns for social or political change. For a battle or a protest to work, it has t­o have a positive impact on the larger movement. Both methods can bring about change, for better or for worse, but so much depends on strategy and circumstance. In the case of protest, it also comes down to the willingness of the intended audience to hear the message.

Consider 20th century protest in Germany. Before Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazis staged protests against Jews, as well as other minorities. The Nazis pushed a vision for Germany's future that found widespread appeal among an economically depressed population still reeling from defeat in World War I. These early protests were successful in that they gave the Nazis the political capital they needed to rise to power.


In 1935, the Nazis instituted the Nuremburg Race Laws, which made anti-Semitism law and disenfranchised the nation's Jewish population. A year later, a Jewish man by the name of Stefan Lux protested to draw attention to his people's plight. After mailing letters to major British Cabinet Minister Anthony Eden, as well as several newspapers, Lux walked into the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva and shot himself in the building's assembly room. In one of his letters, he stated that he could find no "other way to reach the hearts of men" [source: Gilbert]. Sadly, historians largely view his protest as a failure. The world didn't listen, persecution escalated into Holocaust and it would be close to a decade before Allied forces liberated the death camps.

In addition to illustrating how protests can fail and succeed, these examples also underline that protest is not noble in and of itself. It can push cruel agendas as well as fight them. It can empower tyrannical regimes, as well as provide advocates a means of speaking out against them.


Protesting Vietnam: Did It Help or Hurt?

With the U.S. Capitol in the background, demonstrators march along Pennsylvania Avenue in an anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington, on Moratorium Day, Nov. 15, 1969.
­AP Photo

T­he antiwar protests of the 1960s are often cited as an example of people coming together in massive numbers to support a cause. In 1971, at the height of the movement, an estimated half a million protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., to rail against the ongoing conflict. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of the antiwar movement in achieving its objective is still a hotly contested subject.

Some credit the peace movement as a major contributor to the United States' eventual abandonment of the campaign, while others insist that the protests only emboldened the enemy, prolonging the war. The same arguments continued following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. If you're fighting a war of attrition against a stronger nation, and that nation's people rise up in protest against the war, then the deterioration of internal resolve could tip the odds a little more in your favor.


In the case of the Vietnam War, historian Jeffrey Kimball argues that protests may have marginally encouraged North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Nixon and Kissinger, on the other hand, blamed the antiwar movement and media with dragging out the war, encouraging the enemy and ultimately contributing to the collapse of North Vietnam [source: Kimball].

Yet even if the '60s antiwar movement failed to actually affect U.S. policies in Vietnam, most analysts agree that it did bring about social and political change at home. Future politicians such as Bill Clinton emerged from the movement, as did a more critical mass media and questioning public.

Our history books are filled with examples of protest -- as is our news media. Regardless of how much change a protest effort manages to affect, it still manages at least partial success. So long as the effort allows the voice of a minority to be heard by the majority, then protest is performing its role in human society.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about the instruments of social and political change.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Adler, Margot. "Lysistrata: 'Ancient' War Protest." NPR. March 4, 2003. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • "Anti-government protest in Bulgaria turns violent." The Associated Press. Jan. 14, 2009. (Jan. 28, 2009)
  • "Anti-war hacking rises sharply." BBC News. March 26, 2003. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • Barkham, Patrick. "Hackers declare war on Scientologists amid claims of heavy-handed Cruise control." The Guardian. Feb. 4, 2008. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • Berlin Wall Art. 1999. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • ­­Biggs, Michael. "Dying for a Cause -- Alone?" Contexts Magazine. 2008.
  • Bowra, C.M. "Greek Lyric Poetry." Oxford University Press. 2001.
  • Farber, David. "Anti-Vietnam War movement." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2008. (Jan. 28, 2009)
  • "Gandhi: a biography." Kamat's Potpourri. Jan. 15, 2009. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • ­Gilbert, Martin. "The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War." Macmillan. 1987.
  • "Guernica: Testimony of War." Treasures of the World. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • Kimball, Jeffrey. "Did Vietnam Anti-War Protests Embolden Our Enemies?" History News Network. April 12, 2004. (Jan. 28, 2009)
  • Kronenwetter, Michael. "Protest!" Twenty-First Century Books. 1996.
  • Lashley, Brian. "Hundreds join graffiti protest." Manchester Evening News. Sept. 18, 2007. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • "Massacre of Amritsar." Britannica Online Encyclopædia. 2008. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • "Nazi Rule." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Jan. 26, 2009)
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  • "Rosa Parks Was Arrested for Civil Disobedience December 1, 1955." America's Story from America's Library. (Jan. 22, 2009)
  • Thoreau, Henry David. "Civil Disobedience." 1849. (Jan. 22, 2009)