“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy, it is absolutely essential to it.”
-- Howard Zinn
The Women’s March in Washington that took place on January 21, 2017, the day after President Trumps inauguration, was, by many accounts, the largest peaceful protest in American history. It began with a Facebook event – and quickly grew and grew – until half a million peaceful demonstrators filled the Washington Mall, joined by millions of marchers in 400 cities and towns across the US and abroad.
According to its on-line organizers, the Women’s March was meant to "send a bold message to our new administration on their first day in office, and to the world, that women's rights are human rights.” The people who showed up and the posters they carried, however, reflected a human rainbow of issues and concerns, from women’s rights to gay rights, and encompassing the Black Lives Matter movement, labor rights, action against climate change, pipeline protesters, access of health care and immigrant rights. What united this diverse group of protesters was easy access to social media, a generalized distaste for Donald Trump and his America First policies, and the conviction that Americans have the right to express their disapproval of their elected government through peaceful public assembly.
While images of the Women’s March packing the Washington Mall may seem like a familiar reflection of past social movements, much has changed. Technology and social media have transformed how contemporary social movements are organized and operate. Smart phones and social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp have made it easy to organize large scale protests, and leaderless mass protests and occupation movements have become a hallmark of our time in both the US and around the world.
While contemporary social movements can grow rapidly and mobilize enormous support, easy access to technology also allows the activists to skip over the tedious organizational processes that were the core of successful social movements in the past. “There is no need to spend six months putting together a single rally when a hashtag can instantly summons thousands of protesters into the streets,” writes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci who has closely studied the rise and fall of what she calls “networked” social movements around the world.
Compared to earlier social movements like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960’s, which were deeply organized and highly strategic, she sees contemporary protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March on Washington as fragile movements. Given the ease with which with mass demonstrations can happen today, these movements often lack organizational depth, strategic leadership and the tactical planning that were hallmarks of successful social movements in the past, and frequently fail to achieve any tangible lasting goals.
Almost a year into the new administration, opposition to President Trump and his divisive policies continues to grow. The United States has entered a new period of political engagement and citizens across the country are asking essential questions about the nature of our democratic system – and their role within it. Do mass protests have any impact on our political leaders? What is the connection between mass protest and electoral politics and are mass demonstrations on their own an effective way to influence the course of our government? When is civil disobedience acceptable? And is there anything we can we learn from past social movements about the tactics and strategies to achieve lasting social change?
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THE POWER OF PROTEST will attempt to address these questions by exploring how American social movements of the present are different and yet connected to ideas and strategies of social movements of the past.
This film will investigate how technology and social media is transforming and shaping contemporary social movements like the Women’s March, the protests against the Keystone Pipeline, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, while also contrasting these movements with the setbacks and successes of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
“America’s future is linked to how we understand our past,” wrote late historian Howard Zinn, who firmly believed that non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience played a critical role in the growth and expansion of equality and social justice in American history. By tracing the roots of the American traditions of protest and civil disobedience— laid out in the Declaration of Independence, theorized by Thoreau, pioneered by abolitionists, and legitimated by the sit-ins and non-violent protests of the Civil Rights movement – we will show how these traditions are being adapted and applied by new generation of activists working for social, environmental and racial justice.