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U.S. Political Protest

Protest And The Media, Regime Change And Revolutions, Protests And Political Parties, La Raza: Latino And Latina RightsViolent Protest, Abortion Protests, Symbols

Protests disrupt the peace, stop business as usual, and cause disquiet. Protesters in effect withdraw their consent to the way things are. Even if people are poor, unemployed, or seemingly without power, when organized together they can become a force that troubles the powerful. When the powerful are inconvenienced (or worse) by sit-ins, strikes, marches, and occupations, they will often negotiate to restore order and their own peace and privileges. In this way the powerless often wrestle concessions from the powerful.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects citizens' rights to assemble (gather in groups), speak out, protest, and believe in and practice their chosen religion (or absence of religion). Closely linked to these freedoms are the guarantees of a free press. Protest is a time-honored tradition in the United States. American schoolchildren are taught the stories of the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and other events leading up to the American Revolution, many of them subversive protests against the ruling regime.

Protest is often difficult, however, because oppressed people understand the harsh consequences their dissent draws from the powers-that-be. People put up with a lot of injustices out of a sense of hopelessness, futility, fear, intimidation, and internalized oppression. Government repression of protest and activism was seen in the American labor union movement, the antislavery movement, the women's suffrage movement, and the early years of the civil rights movement. Governments can damage themselves, however, if they brutally repress a non-violent, sympathetic protest movement, as the British learned in India from the nonviolent civil disobedience movement led by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi.

Ideological hegemony, a form of internalized oppression, is one of the most powerful barriers to protest by oppressed and aggrieved people. "Inequalities in power have their most insidious effect when the dominant group has so much control over the ideas available to other members of society that the conceptual categories required to challenge the status quo hardly exist" (Mansbridge, p. 4). Marxist theory of "false consciousness" similarly asserts that the poor are indoctrinated to believe in the justice of a system that harms them.

The latent powers of the weak, however, are often manifest in their potential to protest and in their actual demonstrations of disobedience. People can take courage from observing protests, as demonstrations show potential supporters that they are not alone in their beliefs and desires. Challenging authority can have harsh, even deadly, consequences for people; noteworthy, then, are the numerous—in fact countless—times people, School desegregation protest, St. Louis, Missouri, 1933. The 1930s saw an increase in black demonstrations against discrimination. After the 1954 landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which stated that racially segregated educational facilities were a violation of the Constitution, opposition to integration rose swiftly, primarily in the South. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION often without formal power, have challenged authority and protested. Within societies, repertoires of protest develop. These are learned conventions of political contention that become part of the public culture (Tarrow, p. 20). Examples of culturally familiar protest repertoires include the French barricades, consumer boycotts, labor strikes, silent vigils at the White House by women's suffragists, the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, and petitions, to name a few.

Violent Protest

One threat that groups can use is violence. Violence can help topple dominant regimes, but it has dangerous potentials for protesters. Violent protest can frighten the public, scare away potential allies, and ricochet against causes of groups that adopt these tactics. It also gives authorities a perceived mandate for severe repression.

Abortion Protests

Notably, groups on both sides of an issue can use similar rights discourses to frame their protests. Pro-choice protests highlight the rights of women, the right of privacy, and the right of bodily integrity. Anti-choice/pro-life protests focus on the right to life of the fetus (they do not use the word fetus but rather unborn, preborn, baby, or child).


Dissenters utilize symbols to promulgate their causes, sometimes under the very noses of their opposition. Use of flags, whistles, clothing, and jewelry (with symbols such as the "peace sign," for example) are illustrative. The wire clothes hanger, for instance, is a symbol and trope for the pro-choice movement that hearkens back to the days of illegal abortion when desperate women used implements such as coat hangers to self-abort.

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