Since the Boston Tea Party, Americans have staged protests to influence the political process. Hitting the streets with signs and slogans is a national tradition that continues to evolve in surprising ways, says David S. Meyer, UC Irvine professor of sociology and political science, who has studied protest and social movements for more than 20 years.
Meyer himself organized farm workers, demonstrated against nuclear power and pursued other causes in his younger years. In his latest book, The Politics of Protest, he analyzes the origins of protest in the U.S. and how it has changed over the years.
The word “protester” may conjure images of Molotov cocktails and barricaded streets. But the typical protester, Meyer says, could well be a soft-spoken neighbor or somebody’s grandfather. Protesters come in all ages, and from all political and economic backgrounds. Although many think of the 1960s demonstrations against the Vietnam War as America’s protest heyday, according to Meyer, studies show the number of Americans who say they have participated in a demonstration has actually grown over the past couple of decades, with the biggest increase coming from among the well-educated.
After the violent demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic Party Convention in 1968, and the killing of four Kent State students two years later, Meyer says both protesters and police sought ways to keep demonstrations from veering out of control.
“City police departments have become much better at managing the consequences of demonstrations,” he says. “They negotiate arrangements with organizers. In many cases, people who want to get arrested get designated with armbands. Demonstrations are often choreographed so nobody gets hurt and even traffic doesn’t get disrupted. It’s easier for people who don’t want violence to participate, and it’s become easier for police to control.”
Over the years, protest organizers from opposite ends of the political spectrum have refined their tactics and borrowed from each other.
“Protest has become a staple tactic for all sorts of groups in contemporary American politics,” Meyer says. “For example, the recent demonstrations in Los Angeles on behalf of immigrant rights were accompanied by demonstrations – and marches – by their vociferous opponents, including the anti-immigration Minutemen.”
Other partners in the dance of protest are the ubiquitous TV cameras, which protesters use for greater exposure. “Demonstration organizers often play to the media. They try to do things that get their issues out in the public eye,” Meyer says.
Despite careful choreography, demonstrations sometimes escalate out of control; they can still be marred by violence, as when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons during the L.A. immigrant rights demonstration. Acts of violence can overshadow protesters’ messages, drawing the glare of the media. When TV news broadcasts played and replayed scenes of anarchists spray-painting graffiti and smashing store windows in the 1999 “Battle of Seattle,” concerns about globalization took a backseat to coverage of the melee.
“The most newsworthy events tend to be started by people who have only a marginal connection to the groups who are sponsoring the political activism,” Meyer says. “It’s always the most colorful and the most confrontational people who get in the photos.”
They may represent the most familiar face of protest, but not necessarily the most typical, he says. For that, look to a quiet neighbor, or a grandfather.