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As the 2011 protests in Cairo showed, demonstrations can lead to major change. However, the disruptions and spectacle of demonstrations can also work against protesters by creating a popular backlash. The success of demonstrations is largely determined by how the demonstrators are perceived by the public, the issues and sentiments of the demonstration, and how far authorities will allow the demonstrations to go.
The Power of Nonviolent Demonstrations
An individual's reaction to a demonstration during the civil rights era of the 1960s is an illuminating example of the power inherent in nonviolent demonstrations. During a Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) demonstration against segregation at a Maryland lunch counter, a young white man named Eddie Dickerson joined his buddies in physically attacking participants. When Dickerson got home, thoughts of CORE members' nonviolent response during the attack began to trouble him. Eventually, those thoughts led Dickerson to question his beliefs about racism, and in the end, Dickerson became a member of CORE and a devout proponent of nonviolent demonstrations.
Stanford University historian Victor Davis Hanson cites a multi-city 2006 protest against immigration policy as an example of demonstrations' potential for creating political backlash. Although the demonstrations, which took place in Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and other cities, had many Mexican-American and other Hispanic participants and was intended to show the demonstrators' love of the United States and their adherence to American principles, Hanson believes the noisy and angry protest exhibited a chauvinism that created an angry counter-response.
It is not uncommon for activists all over the world to be arrested or threatened with legal action because of their involvement in demonstrations. The Australian activists advocacy organisation, ActivistsRights.org.au, warns Australian protesters that in an attempt to silence protesters, industry groups and governments may call for repressive laws or use existing legislation to stifle dissent. They also may use civil courts to press claims for monetary damages. Although many criminal charges and civil claims against demonstrators never make it to a court of law, fighting them can be expensive and time consuming.
From the brutal attack on Tiananmen Square demonstrators in China in 1989 to 2011's massacres in Libya, the potential of demonstrations to be followed by violent crackdowns has been realised numerous times in the last 25 years. However, as the protests in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 so dramatically proved, demonstrations can sometimes accomplish social and political conditions that were thought to be unchangeable. Sociologist Michael Schwartz believes the main difference between protests in Tiananmen Square and those in Cairo were that protesters in China had "negligible economic and political leverage," while the Egyptian demonstrators had the momentum and widespread support of a public and military that had been feeling economic stagnation for years and sensed the government's impending downfall.
- California State University, San Bernardino; Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action; Máire A. Dugan; Sept. 2003
- Real Clear Politics; The Protests -- Whose Backlash?; Victor Davis Hanson; March 2006
- ActivistRights.org.au: Legal Threats to Silence Activists
- WorkPermit.com; Thousands March in US to Protest New Immigration Laws; March 2006
- John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images