The Forever Protest: Why the perpetual fight for change is not futile

Some protests hit with lightning speed and bring quick change in dramatic ways. But often the push for change takes much longer — decades, even generations. The change comes not from dramatic events but from a slow transformation of people, of culture, and society itself. IDEAS contributor Guy Dixon looks at the perpetual protest.

Sociology professor Douglas McAdam argues protests produce a slow transformation of culture and society

2020 was a year of global protests from Chile to Hong Kong, Lebanon to Sudan, and India to the U.S., millions of people marched to oppose corruption, climate change, police violence and political oppression. Here a protester holds a placard at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in central London, U.K., June 6, 2020. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

*This episode was originally published on February 18, 2021.

In the retelling of a protest and its outcome — what happened after people gathered or marched for a cause — there's usually an ending to the story.

Maybe the protest was met with hostility. Or maybe indifference.

Perhaps the march or the gathering gave voice to a larger social movement. Maybe it helped push private, personal issues into public, political debate — a trait commonly attached to the feminist and student movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Or maybe, like the civil-rights era Montgomery bus strike, it goes down in history as having helped to galvanize larger social change.

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted by police Lt. D.H. Lackey in Montgomery, Ala., after she and nearly 100 other protesters were arrested for defying segregation laws in the Montgomery bus boycott. The detainment of Parks was the spark that ignited a 13-month movement against the inequity of Montgomery's segregated bus system. (Gene Herrick/AP)

Yet there's the tendency to describe protests as finite things as clearly outlined events, perhaps as touchstones in history, having a certain effect or bringing about certain outcomes, but then they are over.

Maybe that's too limiting a view of protest.

Adapting protests over time

Protests and larger protest movements represent so many connections between different groups and issues that they can be hard to pinpoint so precisely, say those who study them. 

Douglas McAdam, professor of sociology at Stanford University, who has written widely on social movements, notes how the sit-in campaign during the 60s civil-rights movement, in which African-American students sat at segregated lunch counters throughout the U.S. south, helped to link established civil-rights organizations and emerging student groups, propelling the movement forward. 

Instead of being movements that had an impact and then ended, he likes to describe the sit-ins and the Montgomery bus strike as "episodes of contention" in a centuries-old freedom struggle.

A young Black 'Freedom Rider' is told to leave a segregated 'white' waiting room at a bus depot in Jackson, Mississippi, May 26, 1961. The Freedom Riders travelled from Montgomery, Alabama to Mississippi to protest segregation in public bus depots. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

"It doesn't make sense to think of the Montgomery bus boycott as a standalone, 13-month movement," he says.

And so a different perspective of protests emerges — a kind of perpetual protest that evolves and adapts over time. 

There are also myriad reasons why people take on causes over the long haul. Sometimes it's for very personal reasons, "but that also speaks to how well that protest movement will do, because it's important to know who's supporting you and why," says Stephanie Bangarth, associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, where she studies social movements.

A cyclical fight

Part of the difficulty though in getting a handle on protests could be their cyclical nature.

A crisis or an injustice occurs. Protests arise. People sense an ability to create change, although opposition to change also regroups. The protest may capture the public's attention. It may lead to changes in public policy.

But then it eventually loses steam, and people move on. 

A pro-democracy activist holds a yellow umbrella in front of a police line on a street in Mongkok district, Nov. 25, 2014 in Hong Kong. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

And yet when the cycle begins again, people wonder why they find themselves protesting for the same environment protections and the same human rights, decade after decade after decade. 

Part of this process comes down to one's own experiences. Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, has spent her career fighting for equal health and support services for Indigenous children.

But even she says she had to awaken herself to forms of discrimination that she had previously taken for granted. "And then the question becomes, What do you do about it?" she says.

Sometimes perpetual protest is the accumulation of years of activist work. Ann Livingston, a community organizer in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and a founder of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users support organization, describes a sheer persistence, fighting for decades to stem the crisis of overdoses and death in the neighborhood.

Ann Livingston helps run the pop-up injection site on Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She is also the co-founder of the Overdose Prevention Society. (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

"We have groups of committed citizens with a common cause who come together…and do illegal stuff or civil disobedience, but mostly taking action like opening injection sites and that kind of thing…and doing it for years and years and keeping it up and keeping it up," she says.

And then there are simply younger generations joining in — sometimes taking on very specific causes, such as the decades-old fight against plans to build an airport on Pickering area farmland, just east of Toronto, after the government expropriated thousands of acres from farmers and local residents in the early 70s.

"We are now second and third generation people, in some cases people whose parents or grandparents were expropriated. And those people have joined our movement... but they're also new Canadians and they're young farmers. And they get it. And they know how important this is," says Mary Delaney of the local environmental advocacy group Land Over Landings. 

In 1972, the federal government expropriated a massive 18,600 acres of farmland in Pickering, Ont. to build a new Toronto airport. Residents were forced to sell and become tenants on their former properties — or leave. The airport was never built but the government still owns the land. (Naheed Mustafa/CBC)

Guests in this episode:

Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada,

Ann Livingston is a founding member of  Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

Mary Delaney is the chair of Land Over Landings.

Stephanie Bangarth is an associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario,

Douglas McAdam is a professor of sociology at Stanford University.

* This episode was produced by Guy Dixon and Naheed Mustafa.


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