This past Saturday, The Loyal White Knights of the KKK planned to make their presence strongly felt in the state of North Carolina. Their grand march, intended to be a celebration of the election of Donald Trump and a reassertion of white supremacist ideals, was instead relegated to a small vehicular caravan in Roxboro. And although the planning of the KKK march demonstrated a resurgence in public white nationalism, the real story of the day was the effectiveness of the protests that drove them off and the general efficacy of such demonstrations as a mechanism of democracy.
There were two main counter-protests that took place: one in Pelham where the KKK chapter is located, that transitioned to Danville, VA in response to rumors of a change in location of the KKK march, and one in Raleigh. The difference between these two movements demonstrated the variety of forms protest can take: the Pelham/Danville action was organized by a loose amalgam of anarchists and antifascists from around the country who chanted and marched in all black to encouraging cries from locals; the Raleigh rally was a larger affair, more focused on demonstrating solidarity and community love than actively preventing the KKK march. As evidenced by the KKK incident, both direct and symbolic protests are often necessary; the two styles work in tandem. Symbolic protests can embolden and give support to direct protests as direct protests make immediate impacts that create environments in which symbolic protests are tolerated and encouraged.
The power of protest is clear across the world. In South Korea, a Rasputinesque corruption scandal has led millions of citizens to demonstrate in the streets of Seoul in a call for the embattled president Park Geun-hye to resign and for the National Assembly to impeach her. The movement, dubbed the “candlelit revolution” by the South Korean press, recently forced the hapless President Park to declare that she was open to resigning and may lead to new elections. This is just one example in a long history of protests that have served as the catalyst for social change. Protests serve several other functions too—they demonstrate opposition to unpopular policies and ideologies, help to bring attention to societal problems, allow for education of the public and build community and united fronts. Most importantly though, public protest and demonstration are methods of turning impotent political frustration into constitutionally-licensed democratic expression. As we can see in Korea and in our backyard, protest can allow citizens in democratic societies to force the hands of the powerful.
This is not to say protest does not have its limitations. Fundamentally, protests are organized demonstrations in support of collective, democratic goals. If either organization or clarified collective goals break down, protests lose their efficacy. Out-of-control demonstrations that are co-opted by the selfish and opportunistic to serve their own ends (e.g. through looting) rather than the ends of the community will fail to achieve their goals and give genuine protests a bad name. Furthermore, protest is not the only form of democratic engagement; the existence of protest does not diminish the importance of voting, writing letters to congresspeople and participating in forms of local governance.
For those looking to influence their community (local or national, narrowly or broadly construed) in additional ways though, protests should be considered akin to voting or any other form of democratic engagement they already participate in. There is no fuller endorsement than a march.
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