OPINION – Does protesting achieve anything?

It is 10 years since millions of people took to the streets around the world to protest against the invasion of Iraq.

Organisers hoped that the unprecedented showing of public opposition on February 15th, 2003 would stop governments from completing their agenda to oust Saddam Hussein and stop his alleged development of weapons of mass destruction.

Despite the global show of distain for the US’ intentions, governments went ahead with their plans and invaded Iraq on March 20th, 2003, and so the main aim of the protests failed.

Even though the massive unity of millions of people around the world failed in its main objective, the protests did have some impact for a short period. It raised awareness of the issue, and millions more who did not take part in the protests questioned why their governments were almost blindly taking part in an action initiated by the US, and not seeking to independently verify that the invasion was a just and right choice.

Although the voices were heard, they were not listened to, and this is a problem with protests which are aimed directly at governments.

protestGovernments see protests as a temporary inconvenience, and something which will happen as the government makes unpopular choices, or invokes policies which some groups in society will object to. Politicians also know that a protest today may be forgotten next week, and very few protests maintain any kind of long-term momentum or support. In tactical terms, politicians see protests as a thorn in the side for a short period of time and weather the storm until it has passed.

In the case of the protests against the invasions of Iraq, the world’s governments had already decided what they were going to do, and a protest by millions of people around the world was just something they had to cope with for a short time. It wouldn’t have made any difference if there were millions or ten people protesting, the politician’s agenda would have remained unchanged.

We can see the same happening with current protests against welfare cuts, taxation, civil liberties, and so on. Protests are held and are directed at governments, but very little happens to change anything, and the governments seem to doggedly pursue their own agenda.

The only way protests will work is if they are supported by the majority in society and there is un-relentless action. This means that the majority of the people take action for longer than just one day and are united in their purpose and target.

A good example of this in action is how the people of Iceland made real changes to the way their country is governed, and how the financial powers ability to take advantage of the population has been taken away.

They didn’t achieve this through one protest on one day by a few people. They achieved it by the majority of the population from all walks of life and age groups coming together in a common purpose. They organised themselves to take real action, day in day out, until they became such a thorn in the side of the government that there was little option but for the government to change.

Single protests directly aimed at government entities have little or no effect, but do raise public awareness of issues if there is sufficient media interest.

Protests can be highly effective when they target commercial organisations which rely on the sale of goods or services, especially sales to the public. Organisations that rely on the public buying power or donations are very sensitive to anything that may tarnish their reputation.

An example is when UK supermarket giant Tesco took part in the government’s work programme (workfare) where people on benefits were forced by the government to work for free or lose welfare payments.

Protesters targeted Tesco stores around the country, which resulted in the company changing its policy towards people on benefits working in its stores under the government programme. This was more effective than targeting the government directly. The protests also resulted in other companies either withdrawing from the work programme, or changing the way they were involved, which benefited those forced by the government to work.

Their protests have not resulted in the government changing policy, but it has resulted in raised public awareness of the government’s slave labour programme, and reduced the number of national organisations willing to support the government policy.

So protesting can work, provided the right people and organisations are targeted. In the example of Tesco, the protesters went for the weakest link in the chain, and also one which would take resources away from the government policy. If more protests were targeted at the providers of the work placements, it would effectively make the government policy unworkable, because they would not have the resources to place people into the work programme in the first place.

Of course, this tactic would not work in all circumstances. In the case of the Iraq protests there really was little the protesters could do except raise public awareness and make their point heard. The protesters didn’t have any real leverage. There was no commercial interest to influence and nothing to boycott.

There are times when protests work, and times when other action may have more effect, such as targeted direct action, petitions, or encouraging a boycott.

It takes research on the part of protesters and groups to analyse what it is they want to achieve and the most effective way to achieve it. Sometimes raising public awareness, other times attempting to stop something taking place. Each has its own pros and cons.

To be effective at a national level it takes a high proportion of the population to do something, and get away from selfish or apathetic excuses for not taking part.

Unity and relentlessness with targeted protests could be the key to effectiveness.

We have to get away from artificial boundaries and restrictions such as race, religion, and so on, and unite as one humanity.

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