Criticizing Our Understanding of Activism
On September 20, 2019, students all over the world walked out of class to participate in the Climate Strike.
On September 20, 2019, students all over the world walked out of class to participate in the Climate Strike. The demonstration had all the characteristics of a twenty first century protest: angry young people, colorful signs with catchy slogans, and loud, rhythmic chants. Protesting has become more and more popular, with marches and walkouts serving as the go-to methods for people to speak out against perceived political injustice. When people aren’t marching in the streets, they are using social media as a means to make their voices heard. But are these methods truly forms of protesting, and are they actually making a difference?
At a certain point, conversation won’t suffice and action needs to be taken. Screaming in the streets with a poster and a tagline is not productive. Recent history has shown that protesting alone does not produce change. In 2003, when millions of people voiced their opposition to the war in Iraq through protesting in the streets of New York City, the United States went to war just a few weeks later. Protestors attacked the finance industry for perpetuating economic inequality and corporate influence in government in the Occupy Wallstreet Movement, which spread to more than nine hundred cities worldwide, but the United States did not change any of its policies. The Women’s March, a protest for women’s rights, has had no legislative impact on the recently passed abortion bans in states such as Alabama and Missouri. The day after the Climate Strike, one of the largest and most widespread protests, the UN Climate Summit disappointed climate activists with little progress and American silence. These problems have been around for ages, yet after several attempts to continue the dialogue and raise awareness, we have made little, if any, progress. Now more than ever, the purpose of having a protest is lost because there are so many of them. The sheer number causes any resulting conversation to be superficial and fleeting.
Despite protests realistically having little impact, many protestors will label themselves with buzzwords like “woke,” “humanitarian,” “global citizen,” or, most popularly, “activist.” Activism is the action of campaigning to bring about social and political change. While the goal of activism—bringing about change—is admirable, it does not characterize today’s trend of protesting. While for the average American youth, the safe protest methods of today, such as school-supported marches, may be more convenient and accessible than they used to be during more turbulent times in history, they lack substance.
The effectiveness of a protest is related to the change it creates, whether in its people or in the actual topic of protest. For example, while the Occupy Wallstreet Movement did not result in any tangible policy, at a minimum it brought unprecedented attention to the state of economic inequality in the United States as a result of the sheer number of people involved, and their dedication. Those who camped out in front of major banks for several days—their tenacity displayed their devotion. And of course, if activism results in change it is always effective. Yet, amidst the world of media activism, where it seems that everyone with an online profile can be an activist, the number of “activists” and “protests” that fulfill the criteria of change in its people or its policy is decreasing. In such a way, the current state of lackluster “activism” devaluesnigrates true demonstrations of devotion for change.
There are better, more impactful ways to promote a cause than marching and posting on social media. We can actively be a part of finding solutions through involvement with organizations that are producing change and making a difference. Instead of going to the Women’s March, volunteer at Planned Parenthood. Rather than talk about a lack of civic engagement, contact your state representatives. At Lawrenceville, Young Democrats recently sought a more active involvement in solving the Climate Crisis by selling donuts and donating the proceeds to 350, an organization that aims to end fossil fuel consumption and promote renewable energy, on the day of the Climate Strike. Last year, the Young Republicans held an ice cream sale to raise money for the Purple Heart Foundation, a congressionally chartered United States war veterans organization. If every protestor acted similarly, we could make a lot more tangible progress. It may be cliche, but when it comes to activism, actions truly do speak louder than words.