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The Power of Protest: Debated by AU Students

By Ashlyn Peter | 5/1/17 10:41am | Updated 5/1/17 10:41am
Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

Protesting is highly contested among American University students, particularly following the 2016 presidential elections. Settled in the hottest part of America’s political climate, AU offers a front row seat—or rather, a spot on the front line—to D.C.’s many protests. It’s no wonder that many students have a lot to say on protest attendance, and if protesting is the best way to have their voices heard.

The biggest question surrounding protests is, do they even work? The short answer: it’s complicated. We spoke with six students who shared their opinions.

Angie Gonzalez, a freshman in SIS, argued they are effective. “Women being able to vote, that was as a result of protest,” said Gonzalez. “I don’t think that just one person’s individual voice makes a difference, but when combined with other people’s voices, it really does make the difference. It’s the group.”

Ben Ryan, a sophomore in SIS, also believes in the power of protesting. “A public display of support and opinion is far stronger than having any sort of virtual or written form of that same opinion,” Ryan said. 

One argument for why protests work is the dynamic they establish where the collective effort and individual protestors impact each other. “The strongest feeling I ever felt when I was protesting was just this togetherness,” said Richard Norman, a freshman studying international studies. “It’s the strongest bond with strangers that you can have.” 

But Norman is not convinced that a single protest can make a difference. “As far as actually protesting for change, I don’t think one protest does that,” Norman said. “It’s a concerted effort for change over time that goes deeper than just protests.” Norman argued that protests work to a certain extent. They get the ball rolling on an issue while opening the doors to other means of fostering change. 

Other students asserted that too much protesting results in weaker credibility for the cause. Tom Kenna, a freshman and student government senator for the class of 2020, said that some students get into the habit of protesting everything, even if they only marginally disagree and “that really de-emphasizes the type of cause that they’re trying to bring attention to.” He said he takes issue with those who “go out and protest in a way that’s self-congratulatory, like, ‘I’m doing this to make myself feel good,’ rather than doing this for whatever cause that the protest’s about.” 

Though students shared varying opinions on the power of protesting, many can agree that balance is needed between protesting and other methods for change. The real question, then, is: where do people draw the line?

“If you aren’t willing to burn for the topic of the protest, then you shouldn’t be there,” said Connor Williams, a freshman in SIS. “If you aren’t willing to be incarcerated and carry the marks of being arrested with you for the rest of your life, then don’t show up.” Many people just want to know how they can contribute in small ways after a protest. According to Kenna, the simplest thing we can do is to engage in civil conversation, talking with people who may disagree with our opinions. Norman suggested that students immerse themselves in the political process by getting involved in political organizations, “whether that’s running for elective office or working or organizing for elected officials.”

In other words, what one does after the protest can have a larger impact than the protest itself. Each action is a part of the process of change, but for real change to happen, people must do more than just protest.