The Value of Protest

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

From Indigenous peoples’ rebellion against settler colonialism, to the Civil Rights Movement, to decades of feminist organizing, to AIDS activism, to Occupy Wall Street, to the Dakota Access Pipeline, American history brims with examples of dissent in the form of protest. It is therefore unsurprising that the days since the 2016 presidential election have seen a variety of different forms of protest–organized marches, walkouts on college campuses, wearing safety pins as an expression of solidarity with targeted minority groups, individual expressions of dissent on social media–against President-Elect Donald J. Trump and the stance of his developing administration. Perhaps the most common question in response to this wave of dissent has been: “Why protest the results of a democratic election? What good will it do?” In mass media, protesters have been dismissed as “crybabies” and protests, particularly those that have taken place on college campuses, have been framed as the mere product of millennial “angst.”

Protest, in short, can be defined as any action that goes against the grain or the norm of a particular social and historical context. It is action taken when an injustice, or related set of injustices, becomes unbearable. Protest is not a singular activity, but an umbrella concept that embodies a range of styles, tactics, and forms. The majority of the recent protests against Trump could arguably be categorized as non-violent political protests, or, peaceful critiques of government.

The mainstream media, however, often tells us that protest is not only ill-informed but futile–that we are powerless to shape the forces of history or change the status quo. I’m sure many of us have received this exact message from people in our personal lives as well. Therefore, what is the value of protest?

Protest Is Inseparable From American Identity

Protests, and those who participate in them, are often discredited through the notion that expressions of dissent are “treasonous,” “not patriotic,” and “un-American.” Protest is often regarded as blatant disrespect of an established process or norm. Such charges could not be further from the truth. As the historian Ralph Young argues, “dissent created this nation, and it played, indeed still plays, a fundamental role in fomenting change and pushing the nation in sometimes-unexpected directions.” Young goes on to assert that “dissent is one of this nation’s defining characteristics.” Protest, therefore, might be defined as a distinctly American medium. Throughout American history individuals, small groups, and movements have indeed acted to successfully affect change and social transformation.

A protest slogan often used by feminist activists to draw attention to ongoing struggles for reproductive rights.

Protest Holds Government, and All of Us, Accountable

Protest sends a message to government and elected officials that the public will hold them accountable for their beliefs and actions. Protest makes an injury or rift visible through tangible expressions of dissent and calls for repair. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, has argued that a grassroots activist movement is necessary to challenge the divisiveness of Trump’s agenda. “Here is the simple truth,” Sanders states in a recent op-ed, “Trump’s reactionary agenda will not be defeated in the halls of Congress. It will be defeated when millions of Americans, at the grassroots level, come together to oppose xenophobia and attacks on the immigrant community. It will be defeated when we stand together against racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia.” Protest sends the message that Trump’s institutionally-sanctioned bigotry does not represent the views of the majority of the American public, and will swiftly be met with opposition whenever and wherever it surfaces. Hatred and oppression should not be tolerated within government, nor is it acceptable within our communities and daily interactions.

Protest Begins With, and Gives, Hope

Protest is a representation of hope: the notion that our actions can meaningfully shape future outcomes. The feminist writer and activist Rebecca Solnit defines hope neither as the naive belief that the future will turn out fine without our intervention, nor as the pessimistic idea that change is impossible, but as a catalyst for action. Hope is not some “wishy-washy” new age-mentality, but a powerful tool for activism. According to Solnit, history shows us that change always occurs in unpredictable ways. When we recognize the inherent uncertainty of the future, we also recognize that we can impact future outcomes. Hope alone is not enough; rather, it is a beginning, a springboard for action. Just as the current moment was set into motion by the past, the seeds of the future are planted now, in the present. What seeds will we plant? And how will those seeds impact, inspire, and act as a visible reason for others to be hopeful, especially those who are among the most marginalized?

Lady Gaga protests outside of Trump Tower immediately following the 2016 presidential election. Gaga’s act of dissent can be read as an expression of hope to those experiencing shock and grief over Trump’s win.

Protest Provides the Opportunity to Reflect Upon Privilege and Cultivate Empathy

We may not understand why others are protesting, or why they are protesting in a specific way, or why they are using particular words or tactics. Participating in protest provides us, especially liberal-minded white people, the opportunity to reflect upon our privilege(s) and to cultivate empathy for perspectives outside our own. For example, there has been critique of the hashtag “#notmypresident” under which many, particularly young people of color, young feminists, and LGBTQ+ folks, are organizing. If you experience a strong reaction to the ways others are expressing their opinions, I ask that before you disagree or condemn, you first reflect upon how others might be, on the basis of identity, more negatively impacted by the outcome of the election than you, namely people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. For these groups, “#notmypresident” may function as a rallying cry and a mantra for survival in the face of an America hostile to their very existence as opposed to a sign of disrespect. As the black speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor recently stated: “I owe Trump as much respect as he gave people like me during his campaign.” In the wake of Trump’s victory, it is especially important that white people not be complacent, and that those of us with any form of privilege use that privilege to speak out against injustice and work in solidarity with those on the margins.

Image from a #BlackLivesMatter protest.

Protest Often Occurs In Response To Change, and Change Brings Opportunity

“The only lasting truth is change,” wrote the black feminist author Octavia E. Butler. Change can be frightening, but it can also represent an opportunity to create something meaningful that could not have existed before. In this case, the discourse of a Trump presidency creates the possibility of a counter discourse in the form of a resistance movement; a coalition of the groups targeted, traumatized, and dehumanized by his rhetoric, especially those who live at the intersections of these identities: people of color, immigrants and undocumented people, Muslims, Jewish Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, women, survivors of sexual violence, and allies. We need not be victims of change. Rather, if we act, and act together, we can play a central role in molding the future into a more liveable shape for all. We can actively makes choices to prevent past injustices from happening again. If social justice is a value we hold and live by, then we must believe that justice is achievable.


There are many reasons to protest and also to be hopeful. I do not think I am being naively optimistic in making this assertion, and neither are you if you agree with me. There is much struggle ahead, but we are powerful enough, smart enough, and resourceful enough to affect change for the better. History, perhaps surprisingly, is on our side. “Action is the antidote to despair,” said the singer and activist Joan Baez. So, let’s get moving. The future will be a little less dark and a little less frightening if we step into the unknown together. Let’s build bridges, not walls, between us.