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What Makes A Protest Work? A UW Prof's Primer

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo


Seattle’s calendar is filled with demonstrations and rallies in response to recent actions by the Trump administration.

To the rest of the country, protests in this city are a given. While they might be predictable, they can play an important role in spreading political causes.

The Bubble

With demonstrators turning out regularly in Westlake Park, you might wonder if it’s really moving the dial – especially when you find yourself in an echo chamber.

Paul Burstein, a professor in the graduate school at the University of Washington and professor emeritus of sociology, studies social movements and protests. He says demonstrations by themselves aren’t likely to have an effect here because they’re so predictable.

"That doesn't mean the demonstrations in Seattle aren't important," Burstein said.

"People have to get organized, they have to develop rhetoric, and places like Seattle, where you're having the demonstrations right at the beginning, can be the places where you start to work these things out," he explained.

Sustaining the Protest

Burstein says demonstration fatigue can set in — both for the protesters and the audience. The way to breathe new life into a campaign is to make news in unexpected ways.

"It can be a demonstration in which all of a sudden you have veterans marching, which you've never seen before; or if not business people marching, at least business people taking out advertisements supporting the marchers," he said. 

So holding demonstrations in new places, bigger demonstrations in old places, getting new groups involved who haven't marched before — anything that is truly news — that's what gets people, including elected officials, stand up and take notice.”

A Hashtag's Only The Half Of It

Burstein says to grow a movement, new people have to come on board. The way to make that happen is through networking. And he says lessons can be learned from history: Lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement spread, in part, because people trained each other in how to be effective. 

"Personal connections still matter tremendously. What gets people to do stuff is, somebody shows up and asks them in person,” he says.

Preferably, it's someone who is familiar, or at least from a familiar place, such as a union, school, or church.

Burstein says social media alone isn't enough isn't enough — there's no substitute for personal connections and relationships.

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