The Transformative Power of Protest

This weekend HuffPost ran a piece by Steven van Zandt called “There Is Only One Issue in America,” that one issue being the financing of public elections. I can think of many important issues other than that one, and I am naturally skeptical of solutions that seem to come with “it’s so simple” stamped on them. Still, this one issue is unquestionably a biggie.

But here is what really raised my hackles:

Yes, we can demonstrate. We can march. We can write and sign petitions to our Representatives. We can occupy.

And we should because it’s healthy to vent, and we don’t feel so all alone. But the truth is, other than the value of venting, we’re wasting our time. It is naïve to expect political results from any of these activities.

The results of political demonstrations and marches are seldom immediately apparent. But they are legion. They are not merely “venting.” They are not just an opportunity to not “feel so all alone.” They are an opportunity to be not “so all alone.” What did the demonstrations in Madison last February and March accomplish? What has the Occupy movement accomplished?

They have galvanized people. They have forged connections and built a community of resistance. They have transformed us into a formidable force to be reckoned with that won’t back down and won’t settle for the status quo.

Of course, demonstrations and protests on their own aren’t enough. But they do indeed lead to some very desirable outcomes. They build awareness and stir us from our complacency. They change the direction and tone of public discourse. They cause us to identify and align ourselves with our communities in a new way. They provide us with the opportunity to teach our children what democracy looks like, to teach them who we are, while at the same time affirming that for ourselves. For some of us, representing in actions like these has been an all-out life-changing experience. We are new people, with new connections and new vision, new knowledge and understanding, new determination, and a new appreciation for the power that We The People actually do wield but far too often relinquish.

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In Wisconsin, the recall efforts of this summer and the current Walker recall efforts would not have happened without the demonstrations of February and March. Those who are working so hard right now to collect signatures wouldn’t have as much energy or focus had they not participated in last winter’s demonstrations. The visceral experience of not being alone in our outrage convinced many of us of how much we could accomplish together and how truly excellent our compadres are. The protests were a breath of fresh air to those who are being disenfranchised, ignored, and abandoned by the ruling elite. They were like a giant hug for every public school teacher in the state. They were an acknowledgment to the world that we are here, we are strong, and we are fighting back—together.

I’m sorry you missed out on all the fun, Steven. The demonstrations here in Madison and in Zucotti Park have been far from a waste of time. They haven’t had the direct effect on those in power that we envision—yet. But they most definitely have had a powerful effect on everyone who participated in them. We will never be the same again. The power brokers won’t let go of their stranglehold quickly or easily. But they are worried. About us. About what we’re going to do next. Because they know they cannot withstand the tsunami that is the unrelenting power of the people.