If you have been following the news lately, it’s hard to miss the abundance of protests and demonstrations occurring globally.
In protest close to home earlier in the academic year, U of T students rallied up against psychology professor, Jordan Peterson. Initially, Peterson had made comments stating that he would not recognize genderless pronouns, which led to protesters questioning his ability to teach in an institution as diverse as U of T. Regardless of the protest, Peterson returned to teach in the winter term.
Between January 21 and 22, the Women’s March on Washington took place. The event was planned almost entirely through social media. But Washington was not the only city that marched. Sister marches occurred on all seven continents, including places such as Sydney, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Tokyo, and several other locations, including Toronto. More than 600 marches reportedly took place worldwide, where individuals banded together across the globe to protest the U.S. president, Donald Trump. They peacefully marched to protect women’s rights, immigration rights, LGBTQ rights, and freedom of religious expression. However, Trump responded to the protest by tweeting, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election!”
A few days later, several more protests occurred against the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, consisting of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria. The ban halted the entry of individuals travelling to the U.S., including those who possessed green cards. Dozens of people arriving from these countries were detained at airports. But once again, hundreds of people stood up and took to the airports, such as Los Angeles International, Dallas/Fort Worth, and O’Hare, to demand the release of the individuals detained. They chanted phrases such as “let them in” and “no ban, no wall.”
Several immigration lawyers also found themselves at the airport to offer their services. Within hours of the ban, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal motion deeming the ban to be unconstitutional, which granted a temporary stay (a halt in legal proceedings) on the ban. As some individuals were cleared, several demonstrators welcomed them at airport arrivals. Lawyers and demonstrators worked together to display their discontent with the ban, and offered their help to those being detained.
Similarly, here in Canada, several solidarity marches and vigils took place for the victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting, in places such as Toronto, Mississauga, Charlottetown, and Halifax. Marchers gathered together to mourn the victims and to come out against islamophobia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also attended a vigil in Quebec City, where he showed his solidarity with the Muslim community.
But are protests effective? I contacted sociology professor Sida Liu, whose focus includes sociology of law, globalization, and social theory among others.
Liu explained that protests are an important factor of a democratic society. The protests in the U.S. not only show discontent with the president, but also reflect on larger global concerns, such as discrimination and the rise of xenophobia. Liu stated, “Skeptics would say that these protests are futile when a government is not listening and a president is too busy tweeting, but they at least raise the collective consciousness of people regarding some vital aspects of our social and political life.”
He went on to explain that protests connect over time, and sometimes only manifest after a longer period of time. Protests rarely have an immediate effect, but they are not isolated events either; rather, they need time to become evident.
In regards to solidarity marches for the Quebec City mosque shooting victims, Liu said that they “demonstrate the Canadian society’s openness, diversity, and care for religious and ethnic minority groups.” They also allow communities to come out and condemn violence against innocent and unarmed individuals.
Liu cited Émile Durkheim, a founding father of sociology who argued, “Punishment on crimes is an indicator of the solidarity of a society.” He further explained, “In this sense, solidarity marches also constitute a form of resistance to the symbolic and physical violence of gender and racial discrimination exercised by xenophobic white males.”
Sociology professor David Pettinicchio, whose focuses include political sociology, social policy, and social movements, also spoke of the impact a protest can have.
Pettinicchio explained that protests allow awareness of issues that don’t seem to be focused on by political leaders. Political activism is important especially now. He stated that “protests help galvanize people around important issues and they can indirectly shape policy directions.
“[Protests] alone may not be enough. For mobilization to be successful moving forward, it requires thinking about long-term and short-term goals and objectives, as well as the use of a multi-pronged approach that can include direct action, as well as systematic efforts to monitor policy, contact policymakers, and for regular citizens to remain engaged in the political process in the long run,” he continued. “The effectiveness relies on unity of ‘political elites’ movement and organizational leaders, activists and regular citizens.”
While it is hard to give a definitive answer on the effectiveness of a protest, their effect sometimes only becomes apparent after some time has passed. Although they alone are not enough, they are a great starting point. They also display unity and provide an outlet to peacefully portray discontent with a certain person in power or to protest discrimination against specific groups of people.