A protest in the headlines is a thing of beauty to the First Amendment. Not only does it take advantage of the right to peaceably assemble, it grabs headlines in a free press. Indeed protests have been at the top of the news for much of the last three years. What started the current wave of protests and how does it affect today’s policy? Are protestors justified in their actions?
Those questions haven’t been addressed in the headlines, but they can in the blogs of political thinkers. The first signs of societal upheaval came in August 2014 after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. This event was the first of countless incidents of police shootings. Law enforcement killed 2,238 civilians in 2015 and 2016 in both justified and allegedly illegal uses of force.
However, the protests of the shooting were just the tip of the iceberg to larger social problems of racial inequality and the war on drugs. The Ferguson shooting brought Black Lives Matter to national prominence. Their grassroots organizing ability brought protests to the streets nearly as fast as police shootings to the headlines. Every city saw its own assemblies either in response to a local event or in solidarity with a national story.
Tactics are irrelevant
BLM became a loose affiliation of both civil activism and ne’er do wells. Groups assembled in parks, then blocked highways and quickly became the subject of national debate. As recently as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, arguments related to protest and nonviolence have been discussed across the aisle of social commentary. Some say King may have supported the escalation of violent protests while some state lawmakers want to hold protestors responsible for the enforcement costs.
However, debating the legitimacy of tactics glosses over the larger agenda-setting and networking ability protests have in political time. Because the media is quick to give the spotlight to protest, activists can set the public agenda for awareness and discussion. Whether a person agrees or disagrees with the topic is irrelevant as long as it’s in the headlines.
Further, looking back to the roots of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street tells us that, when people gather, they get to know each other. The long-term bonds they form through their ideas is what takes an agenda from the headlines to the political arena.
The Tea Party is still a noisy caucus in the Republican Party, and it was a distorted version of their ideals that put Donald Trump in the White House. Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street manifested itself into “Feel the Bern” in the 2016 election cycle. The impact of Black Lives Matter and, more presciently, the Women’s March on Washington, will be felt in 2018, 2020 and beyond.
The tools of the republic rest in the citizens’ hands. Some assembly is required.
Brad Omland is a writer and radio producer. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of South Dakota in May 2013. Follow him on Twitter: @bradradio.