Does Protest Work?

Source: Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Howard Law Journal, Vol. 56 no. 3, 2013

Her article distills the lessons that can be learned from critical moments in protest history, examines whether modern protest movements have learned and employed those lessons, and prescribes a plan for modern social engineers to use in developing today’s effective protest strategies. …

… Does protest really work? Can citizen participation in informal politics — demonstrations, boycotts and other forms of mass participatory action — help to address issues of our time? If so, how might lawyers advance the goals of such protest movements? … The most celebrated episodes of the civil rights era can crowd out these questions and obscure answers to them. In legal literature, the constitutional dimensions of Cooper v. Aaron overshadow examination of the protest movement that gave rise to the legal action. Even when scholars specifically recall the non-lawyers who animated legal changes, they often discuss change agents in hagiographic terms. The Little Rock Nine are now iconic symbols of the hardship that blacks endured in the struggle against Jim Crow. Few have analyzed the story behind the lawsuit—the ideas, planning, groundwork, and protest — that provided the context in which the great constitutional case unfolded. It is this context—rather than the landmark lawsuits—that should command more of our attention. For a truer picture of how social change can occur, scholars must study social movements in detail rather than skim the surface of history in search of icons and moments to celebrate. If civil rights-era protests are to provide useful lessons today, when economic inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our times, we must examine the movement’s evolution and its depth and breadth. …