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Can Protests Win Hearts and Minds?

tom_honig_sProtesters didn’t exactly win over hearts and minds when they shut off Westside streets last week. When protesting UC Santa Cruz students cut off necessary access to campus, when they break car windows, when they intrude on others’ lives, they actually work against their goal.

Protests are a time-honored tradition, certainly an exercise in free speech. And since the ’60s, protesting has become the tool of activists everywhere – even by those tea party folks on the right.

But are protests effective?

Small protests really don’t work, because they actually are kind of cute. Watching a group of five or less padding about is easy to ignore. Really huge protests really don’t work, or at least they don’t once the collected rabble begins blocking streets, breaking windows and the like. I’ve never understood the strategy of trying to win people over by making their lives more difficult.

Imagine, for example, someone not wholly aware of what the protesters want. She’s driving along—maybe on her way to a doctor’s appointment—when suddenly her path is blocked. She can’t get where she’s going. Then her car window is busted. Hmmm. Don’t count on her for support.

Notice that I haven’t even gotten around to discussing the subject of the protest. Unfortunately, the situation here gets murky. Here’s where the UCSC students may have made their biggest tactical blunder. They’re protesting fee increases, which is certainly understandable. But the fee structure is more complex than they’re saying.

In an excellent analytical piece recently in the San Jose Mercury News, reporter Lisa Krieger explains that the fee structure actually helps the poorest students, and she also explains how UC students pay only about one-third the cost of their education.

I wouldn’t want to pay the additional fees myself, but the reality is that taxpayers are footing most of the bill. And for that they’re getting car windows smashed?

The UCSC protest was but one part of a general protest that had been called by educators statewide. Here’s where the strategy makes some sense. Protests generally work when the goal is to raise awareness of an issue. Certainly, funding cuts to education qualify as a big issue. It’s one of the tragedies of our time as our failing state government simply can’t cover the costs of education, at least as well as it has in the past.

Here again, however, there are some subtleties being lost. If the governor or the Legislature restored all the funding cuts to education – someone else would be hurt.  It wouldn’t hurt those in government. It would hurt others that are also in need. Sure, restore funding to education, but then where do you cut? Aid to the sick? Welfare recipients? Or do you throw criminals back on the streets?

What protests do best is arouse passions. There’s something intoxicating – at least for some people – about being taken up by a cause that’s bigger than themselves. Even those of us who believe in careful consideration of issues occasionally want to let loose and holler, “Let’s get the bastards!” After all, most of us feel like we’ve been screwed over by somebody, sometime, somewhere. A massive protest can be just the thing if you’re in need of empowerment.

However, measuring the success of a protest is more difficult. In this latest go-round, the antics of the UCSC student protesters will probably stick in people’s minds longer than the more important discussion about overall education funding.

The most successful UCSC protest in my memory happened more than 20 years ago, when students called on the university to divest its financial investments in South Africa during the apartheid era. What made that protest successful is that it was targeted directly at a group in power – the UC Board of Regents – who had the power to take action. Eventually, regents relented and the protesters carried the day.

This protest is far less targeted. It’s essentially about self-interest. It hasn’t won over the general public. The protesters may not be right. There’s a good argument against them – that a UC education remains a bargain, and is far cheaper than, say, an education at Stanford. In a brutal economic environment, raising fees on those who can afford it just might be the most equitable answer.

“I don’t want my parents to pay higher fees so I’m going to smash your car windows” isn’t exactly a rallying cry. Unfortunately, that’s what most people will remember.

No one argues with the right to protest. But when it’s over, the protesters themselves should ask: “Did we actually achieve anything?”

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