Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Protest Smart, Not Loud: Why Do We Protest?

It seems a simple enough question. We protest to demonstrate our displeasure. We protest to take democracy back into our own hands and show the world we mean business.

By definition, the word “protest” suggests that there is an object that is the recipient of our displeasure; in other words, to protest we must have something we are protesting. There is no protest for the sake of the protest alone (at least there shouldn’t be). I think we can all agree that a protest is an expression of popular opinion, which seeks to change something already in existence, and that I’ve already used that word way too many times in one paragraph.


Sproul Hall Plaza at Berkeley, the site of many protests and rallies, past and present – to the extent that, in the 1960s, a journalist (Herbert Jacobs) developed a method for measuring crowd size from gridding protests at Sproul Hall

Humor aside, as a Berkeley student, I’m no stranger to protests. It’s part of the cultural identity of my university, one that distinguished us in the history of the United States and will continue to ripple through our legacy. We certainly have no shortage of things to protest. It seems like every semester brings another large-scale protest to the campus, over a variety of issues like tuition increases, perceived social injustices, unpopular UC officials, world affairs, and under-compensated graduate students. The list goes on. In the years that I’ve studied here, my attitude toward these protests frequently oscillates between pride and annoyance. I am proud because they are a crucial aspect of what makes Berkeley unique. They show how much our students care about the world around them and how people can make their voices heard.

I am annoyed because we often go about this in the wrong way.

It’s no secret that many things are settled in the court of popular opinion before they’re ever settled officially. Though there are many negative consequences to this, it’s an inevitable part of our society. When we protest in the wrong way, we turn the tide of popular opinion against us, not only failing to help our goals, but also invoking our dismissal as a legitimate voice. As I said above, we must have a purpose in order to protest. Without this purpose, a protest can degenerate into a collection of angry people shouting incoherently and achieving nothing. Then, a protest is no longer taken seriously and its chances of effecting change dramatically decreases.

If we protest, we need to be aware of who our target audience is. The ones who can affect the changes we want to see are the ones who should hear our protests. When protests disrupt the laypeople, instead of triggering empathy, it often triggers a backlash. This is why blocking the freeway is such an unsound demonstration strategy.

Now, why did I go into this rant about protests?

Though it’s been nearly 2 weeks, the protests in Taiwan seem to be only getting bigger. On Saturday, more than 100,000 Taiwanese protestors marched to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to demonstrate their anger over President Ma Ying-jeou’s trade deal with China. They fear that this deal would hurt Taiwan’s domestic businesses and allow for more Chinese influence in Taiwanese affairs. These started off as student movements, with hundreds of university students taking over Taiwan’s legislative building and camping out in the main assembly hall. Thousands more have since shown up in support.

Taiwanese Students Gather To Protest Against China Deal

Protest in Taipei on Saturday, March 30. The signs read 反黑箱 (fǎn hēixiāng), or “anti-black box“, meaning the protesters are against the opaque maneuvering of the Taiwanese government over the trade agreement with China

My fellow contributors on The Wang Post have also addressed this story, but I would like to use the “Sunflower Student Movement” to demonstrate my point in respect to the productivity of protests.

Though the demonstrations had generally been peaceful, violence broke out as protestors moved from the legislative into the executive building. The police responded by using force to remove them from the premises. This is where the protest went wrong.

The demonstrators have valid points. Their logic is easy to follow and it’s completely understandable why they would be upset. However, by effectively suspending the ability for the government to function productively, the protest has reached a point where the occupation itself might be harming the Taiwanese economy and its international economic credibility.

With a protest, it’s easy for passions to get riled up and for the group dynamic to lead to actions which go beyond its initial intentions. Certain ideas are contributory, but others can be damaging to the organized effort. This works on both sides. The Taiwanese government certainly isn’t doing itself any favors by using force to deal with the students, but neither are the protestors by venturing into disruptive territory.

Ultimately, it’s important to realize why we protest. If we want to affect change, we have to be smart about it. As the protest in Taiwan continues to gather steam, let’s hope it keeps this in mind.

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