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Just today,

Riot police called in to disperse angry locals after [a bishop] was attacked at Assyrian Christ The Good Shepherd church

There seem to be an ingrained belief that when something bad happens to a society, people gather to protest against it; much like going to the mechanic or doctor, when something bad happens to their car or body. However, it seems to me that protests are usually an ineffective tool to deal with the situation.

Reports of at least a dozen cases of femicide since start of year prompt protests across the country

I could see how protests can be semi-efficient when challenging a decision made by political middle management in representative democracies and popular authoritarian regimes: That middle manager may be ejected by their political party or autocrat if they are found to be making too much nuisance by triggering protests, and the policy may be corrected if that is found politically beneficient.

However, it seems that protests against principal deep state policy, such as Iraq War or support of Israel in the Hamas war have no mechanism to be effective. Protesting about general societal malaise have little utility short of raising awareness, and clashes with riot police after a resonance criminal attack is actually deleterious as it prevents police from doing its job of catching the criminal. Yet such protests happen anyway.

I can see how the population of Russian Federation was criticized for not protesting against war in Ukraine or mobilization, even though there definitely is a strata who opposed these policies. But it is not apparent how such protests could be effective in light of the above. It does seem that short- or long-term emigration can be seen as an effective escape, whereas protests are not. Indeed it seem that the only people to go on and protest anyway were the affluent youth from big cities, who were likely uncritically receptive to the (western) "protest belief" stated above.

Protests seem to have the following downsides:

  • It takes protesters' effort and risk of violence
  • Often accompanied by looting or riot police actions, so even more dangerous
  • They are legally void, so the government is not bound to take any action
  • They are also politically inconsequential even to other mechanisms of limited efficiency, such as signing petitions
  • The regime will usually not back off, especially if they are held post factum, the usual case
  • The political power may suffer through protests, eating up their consequences without caving to demands, then going after the most active protestors individually
  • Instead of solving the immediate issue, they may topple the government or start a civil war, which indeed have very bad prospects in the century XXI with examples such as Syria, Myanmar or the Arab Spring. Government collapse is economically debilitating and civil wars never end
  • Since they are legally and politically nonbinding, it seems that they will almost never correct a policy by force

Personally, I have participated in 2011 Winter protests in Moscow, but I did not have any idea what the end game should be and how it will materialize, and I still do not have a detailing of this specific Underpants Gnomes plan. Needless to say, there were at most cosmetic benefits of those protests, with an arguable "nut tightening" afterwards.

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    You've tagged this with 'political theory'. But while [such] theories of protest may be interesting, I'm not sure this is really what you're asking. This seems to me to be more of a social psychology question. Apr 15 at 18:11
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    Asking about what motivates people to take part in protests is a good Q. But I am unsure this example is very representative. Is this a protest? It seems more like a riot, proto-lynching. Were the participants appealing to/protesting against the authorities? Or even another group? Or were they just very angry, and spontaneously, disorganizedly, so? Apr 15 at 22:18
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    In the particular case of the Assyrian Church riot I think that may have been a Lynch mob rather than a protest.
    – tgdavies
    Apr 17 at 8:48
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    The cited example is not a protest nor a demonstration. Given the allegations in the article it would be more of a mob or a riot. We aren't doing anyone favors by conflating these things.
    – user30575
    Apr 18 at 16:32
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    @BuckThorn the exclusivity is exactly for this reason. There is a massive difference in authorities breaking up a demonstration vs. breaking up a mob as well as arresting protestors vs. arresting rioters. This question demonstrates the general perception problems with allowing these very different things to be defined by the same words. This comment thread has gone on long enough. I will digress and leave the final response to you.
    – user30575
    Apr 25 at 16:06

11 Answers 11

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it seems to me that protests are usually an ineffective tool to deal with the situation.

Sometimes protests work. They are also often the most effective tool available, even if they don't result in the protester's demands being met.

Protesting about general societal malaise have little utility short of raising awareness,

Even when protests don't work in the short term, they can change people's views about an issue or cause it to get more attention which may advance the cause later. In advertising and in politics, someone has to be exposed to an idea many times before it sticks.

Protests are a way to signal intense dissatisfaction with a decision that can call the issue raised to the attention of powerful people, even if those powerful people don't choose the solution that the protesters would like.

People in positions of power may refrain from conduct that led to a protest in the past to avoid having another protest, because protests are at a minimum, inconvenient for someone.

Protests assuage the guilt the protestors might otherwise had about doing nothing in the face of some injustice. And, it heightens the commitment of people who participate in the protest, win or lose, to the cause. Further, protests provide an in person networking forum at which information can be exchanged and connections between like minded people that facilitate future organizing can be formed.

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    I'd add that whether or not a given protest is going to work is not known until after the protest is made, or even a series of protests are made around the same subject matter. That would be tying the fact that some protests work with the guilt that protesters might otherwise have if they did not protest. Apr 16 at 2:17
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    @alamar then a single example of a successful protest should invalidate your claim. Maybe something like the civil rights movement?
    – Grooke
    Apr 16 at 7:25
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    @alamar: Grooke's example was the one I was going to cite - but for context, here's the timeline History.com has of the Civil Rights Movement; the thing I'm calling to attention is the timeline of successes - Rosa Parks went from being arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a segregated Bus section, to encouraging a Montgomery Bus Boycot for 381 days, leading to segregated seating being unconstitutional the next year...and timeline wise, leading towards the Freedom Riders, then eventually to the Voting Rights Act. Apr 16 at 7:34
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    @alamar: And I'm skipping over a lot in there, including Bloody Sunday, and Civil Rights Leaders being assassinated leading to riots, which themselves lead to the Fair Housing Act of 1968...while that may not all be linear in the timeline, it's not like people at the time of Rosa Park's protest could've said "Ah, yeah, that's going to be wildly successful well beyond her original goals there in her protest.". Apr 16 at 7:37
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    @alamar As a European example, take the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, which managed to topple the Communist government without any significant violence at all. Sometimes it really only takes a bunch of people taking to the streets for the government to realize they're now completely alone and in a hopeless situation.
    – TooTea
    Apr 16 at 7:38
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The quick-draw answers are correct in that empirical research has found that likelihood of success is one of the motivators for protesters. I won't detail that research here (but see the initial part of Stekelenburg and Klandermans) because your Q is why people do it even when they don't have much hope of seeing change. For the latter part, there have been several prongs:

  • [Social] Identity Theory

In the 1980s it became clear that instrumental reasoning is not a sufficient reason to participate in protest. Increasingly, the significance of collective identity as a factor stimulating participation in protest was emphasized. Several empirical studies report consistently that the more people identify with a group the more they are inclined to protest on behalf of that group (de Weerd and Klandermans, 1999; Kelly and Breinlinger, 1995; Klandermans et al., 2002; Mummendey et al., 1999; Reicher, 1984; Simon and Klandermans, 2001; Simon et al., 1998; Stryker et al., 2000). Also meta-analytically this relation is confirmed (Van Zomeren et al., 2008). [...]

If a social identity becomes more salient than personal identity, people are inclined to define their personal self in terms of what makes them different from others, whereas they tend to define their social identities in terms of what makes them similar to others.

  • emotions

Anger is seen as the prototypical protest emotion (Van Stekelenburg and Klandermans, 2007). For those of us who have been part of protest events or watched reports on protest events in the news media, this is hardly surprising. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of protest detached from anger. Van Zomeren et al. (2004) show that group-based anger is an important motivator of protest participation of disadvantaged groups.

  • Social embeddedness [more or less, you do it because your friends do. Note that this is somewhat different than simply identifying with an abstract group]

As a set of relationships, social capital has many different attributes, which are categorized into three components: a structural, a relational and a cognitive component (Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998). [...]

Social embeddedness plays a pivotal role in the context of protest, but why? The effect of interaction in networks on the propensity to participate in politics is contingent on the amount of political discussion that occurs in social networks and the information that people are able to gather about politics as a result (McClurg, 2003). Klandermans et al. (2008) provide evidence for such mechanisms: immigrants who felt efficacious were more likely to participate in protest provided that they were embedded in social networks, especially ethnic networks, which offer an opportunity to discuss and learn about politics. Networks provide space for the creation and dissemination of discourse critical of authorities, and provide a way for active opposition to these authorities to grow (Paxton, 2002)

  • Mobilization [i.e. the organizational factor that becomes internalized, as a thing to do]

Participating because of common interests or ideologies requires a shared interpretation of who should act, why and how. Movements affect such interpretations by the information they disseminate, a process known as framing (see Benford and Snow, 2000; Snow and Benford, 1988, 1992). Gerhards and Rucht’s (1992) study of flyers produced by the various groups and organizations involved in the protests against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Berlin is an excellent example in this respect.

And various attempts to put the pieces together, so to speak, such as this diagram. (Don't take it as the ultimate word.)

enter image description here

But while some theories of (nearly) futile protest exist...

Why do people continue participating in protest although it does not effectuate their claims? Drury and Reicher (2009) suggest that participation generates a ‘positive social-psychological transformation’. They argue that participation in protest strengthens identification and induces collective empowerment. The emergence of an inclusive self-categorization as ‘oppositional’ leads to feelings of unity and expectations of support. This empowers people to offend authorities. Such action, they continue, creates collective self-objectification, that is, defines the participant’s oppositional identity vis-a-vis the dominant out-group. More generally, the theme of sustained participation raises another underexplored issue, namely the personal consequences of movement participation. The individual consequences of participation in collective action are a relatively untouched area which scholars have just recently begun to investigate [...]

More research is deemed necessary in that respect.

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    What are the quick draw answers? Is that some sort of veiled attack on the people who answered fast or is it some known term? If it's the former, surely snide remarks against other users don't really belong in an answer. If it's the latter, can you please edit and clarify?
    – terdon
    Apr 16 at 16:21
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Public Communication

From a game theory perspective, we should expect to see protests when there are agents who wish to embed an idea in the public consciousness, and the conventional media channels are not achieving the desired goals. The points you list as downsides are actually critical elements of protest:

  • Personal cost in time/travel/opportunity
  • Risk of violence/injury
  • Risk of arrest
  • Risk of gov't crackdown (in authoritarian regimes)

Humans are constantly filtering out the vast majority of inputs their brains receive on a daily basis. Getting a message to stick is extraordinarily hard. That is why brute force repetition is the go-to solution for programming brains, and why the world's major tech services are funded by ads. You could say they are funded by brainwashing/human programming.

What a protest does is present a message with social signifiers indicating this is important. The personal cost to the protesters and the risk they face is actually a price signal for the value of their message. The costs they impose on others (blocking roads/highways all the way to full-scale rioting) signal the value they believe their message should have in the population at large. The goal of protests is rarely to effect direct change, as that almost never happens. Nobody who aims to start a protest can point to a long string of successes as justification for why people should join the protest, and yet they do, time and time again. Are protesters fundamentally irrational?

No. Their goal is not to change leaders or people in power. Their goal is to change everyone else. It is a public influence operation. It is an attempt to draw attention to an issue, signal that the issue is more important than the mass of other topics a random citizen could attend to, and to educate them about why they should think or feel a certain way about the topic. In many cases, merely raising awareness will instigate change. The success of a protest is not effectively measured by executive action taken, but rather by the degree to which the protest becomes a topic of public conversation. By getting people to discuss the matter under protest, the population is called to become members of the jury of public opinion, and humans often cannot resist this role. By debating it, people aligned with the protest have an opportunity to argue for its goals and influence those who might oppose it but for flimsy reasons (such as default alignment or general ignorance of the topic).

When leaders do respond to protests with meaningful action, it is almost never because of the protests themselves, but rather because of the response to the protests. Only when it is clear that the protest has succeeded in changing public opinion do leaders sense the winds of change and act accordingly.

Racial Justice

In the 80's, the average American did not know much about the policing of POCs, and many simply lived with the default assumption that they were treated fairly, given that there was high levels of trust in public institutions at the time; an inheritance of the general social unity formed after WW II and the decades of prosperity following. Thus, the Rodney King beating was a major shock to the American consciousness. Of course, POCs knew what the situation was like, but they were minorities with a weak voice. They did not have effective means by which they could raise awareness among the white population. Wide swaths of America simply took the Civil Rights Act as a done deal which solved the issues of race relations in America.

George Floyd was certainly not the first black person to die at the hands of police under controversial circumstances. But the protests that followed raised the issue of police brutality, race relations, disparate treatment of POCs by many institutions, and all the related issues in a way that few public campaigns had achieved in the past. There was no greater reckoning with racial tensions since the Civil Rights Era almost 60 years prior. Did the protests effect immediate change all across the country? No. Sure, there were a few outliers, such as token defunding movements in some cities. But in terms of actual change, most of it came down to corporations with a guilty conscience donating millions of dollars to BLM chapters (which itself turned out to be problematic, but that's a whole other ball of wax). The rest of the effects were more diffuse and harder to characterize. Surely there were many conversations among many folks who would never have bothered to discuss race relations had the protest not occurred. The protests forced America to discuss these issues to an extent that was not seen for half a century. That is the most powerful outcome of protest.

Social Contract

Most of the major advances in social progress have come on the heels of protest: the 40 hour work week, women's suffrage, child labor protections, etc. In most cases, long before protests occur, there are people in society who are discontent with the status quo. However, they are a minority, or at least they believe they are a minority, and they should not speak up, lest they be suppressed by the usual social forces. Protests often form when a core group of activists senses that the time is ripe to bring the discontent into the public, so that the silent majority, who wrongly believe they are in the minority, can become emboldened and see that they are, in fact, in the majority. The social contract says: "Sometimes you will not like how things are going. But as long as your life is doing reasonably well, you will stay quiet and accept the status quo. This is the price of a prosperous society." The agitators, at some point, say: "No. This injustice is too great to stomach. It is time to break the social contract and say out loud what many of us are feeling."

The media will not adopt a cause celebre unless they sense a wave of public support. So protests often break this chicken-and-egg problem by drawing attention to the issue and hopefully drawing out public support for the issue from the silent majority who are not willing to protest, but are willing to express solidarity with the protesters to varying degrees. If protesters judge wrongly and there isn't a large base of support, then the protests fizzle out. This happens often. It doesn't mean that protest itself is inherently useless or flawed. It simply means that the protesters did not judge the social conditions effectively, or simply engaged in wishful thinking, believing that they could sway a large portion of undecideds simply by making some noise. Sometimes, a failed protest serves to teach the protesters and those aligned with them the current mood of society w.r.t. the issue. Sometimes, the same issue needs to be protested periodically to sense the mood of society to detect when it shifts into a new direction.

Conclusion

Protest is the ultimate expression of free speech. It is the citizen exercising their democratic power by spending a small to medium cost to publicize an issue that they feel is important. It may involve some civil disobedience, but of a form that is mostly tolerated in free societies. It is a breach of the social contract designed to make people uncomfortable, but not threatened to the extent that they will automatically side with any suppression of the protest. It both exposes public support for an issue as well as influences those who may be on the fence, or simply ignorant of it. In many cases, awareness itself is the critical missing piece. Even if the awareness does not by itself lead to immediate change, it can have an effect through generational turnover. Sometimes, a new generation needs to gain enough awareness of an issue to override the older generations who are trying to maintain status quo.

I dare say that general knowledge of protest topics in the population at large is higher due to the protest activity itself than it would be without. I would also argue that protesters are more likely to influence neutral observers, because the people who side with the status quo are not spending any resources to defend it. The fact that protesters are willing to incur personal costs to participate in the protest is itself a strong signal of value that neutral observers will weigh. And when groups disagree on a topic, you will get both protesters and counter-protesters, and the relative sizes of the groups is a signal to society of how society at large views the topic. So while there are many right-wing demonstrations in towns all across America, there are usually much larger counter-protesters at the demonstrations. Very few white nationalist demonstrations are pulled off without challenge from counter-protesters. White nationalists are doing what all protesters are doing: trying to influence public opinion. Trying to draw out the silent majority. Trying to force a public conversation. If there is a silent majority, it is clear that they are not willing to put on their brown shirts and spray painted shields and march in their local white pride parade.

So protests serve an important role in communicating to the public how society at large views particular issues. They are like a real-time poll, with all the problems of sampling bias that real polls have. If we view them primarily as tools of communication, for spreading information about values and raising awareness, then it should be clear that protests serve a valuable public function, which is why they continue to be held.

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  • But the protests that followed raised the issue of police brutality, race relations, disparate treatment of POCs by many institutions => note that this issue was entirely manufactured. See "An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force" by Roland G. Fryer Jr., published by a black researcher in 2019. It shows that the police bias against minorities is "fake news". Apr 18 at 15:40
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    @JonathanReez I'd like to debate you but you are not actually debating. You're just throwing around "fake news" like that is an argument. Your case seems to be that the George Floyd protests would not have happened if George Floyd had not died, but rather had only an extended hospital stay. That black folks would say: "Oh, he lived? Well then I guess his treatment at the hands of police must have been 100% justified and not in any way, shape or form the result of rampant bias as later discovered by the DoJ, resulting in a consent decree for MPD." This is stupidity. Apr 19 at 3:05
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    @JonathanReez yeah, along with the "fact" that racial bias among LE is zero. Which is a pretty extraordinary claim, given that it implies cops are less biased than the general population. Somehow, you would have us believe that by random luck, or by a design that nobody has witnessed, PDs somehow manage to select members of the population who have no bias, even though racial bias in the population is a well-established scientific fact. Sorry son, but perhaps you are lost. This is StackExchange, not NewsMax or Truth Social. Fix your URL and spread your "facts" where they are welcome. Apr 19 at 19:03
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    @JonathanReez so you really think that researchers do not adjust for population sizes when they calculate these statistics? This is the first time anyone has challenged your worldview, isn't it? I already cited the Stanford study, which is well worth your trouble to read. There is nothing to rebut, because you have not proven the claim that racial bias in policing is "fake news", and your own paper disagrees with this claim. This level of idiocy is not "debate". You're just grandstanding for your racist audience. Shouldn't you be on Twitter or Truth Social, where people will buy this? Apr 20 at 6:46
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    @JonathanReez why don't you prove this claim with quotes instead of stating it like a fact. This isn't 4chan, you know. We don't accept your personal authority as memelord to establish the validity of claims. Apr 20 at 18:13
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A protest is not a measured action to make a change, it's an expression of a desire for change when other avenues of communication have broken down.

Also consider that different kinds of protests have different kinds of goals.

  • People stand in the street yelling their message at the intended recipient (e.g. in front of a government building) when they feel that more effort-efficient methods of communicating with this person/entity have broken down.
  • People march in the street when they want to spread their message to as many people as they can. The difference between a march and a parade is really just one of general ambiance (happy versus dissatisfied), but it's otherwise an equivalent activity.
  • People march on something when they intend to amass more followers towards a target - this is sort of a combination of the above two points, where the protesters are expecting to be able to galvanize passersby into action.
  • People engage in self-harming protest (e.g. hunger strike, amputating a finger, burning oneself alive) as proof of their conviction, in order to sway the witnesses to this protest that the cause is much greater than just one person's wellbeing.

The outcomes of a protest are more than just forcing the intended recipient to act. More indirect outcomes can include:

  • Proving their devotion to the cause, specifically because standing in the street takes a lot of effort and the odds of action are small. Part of it is very much acknowledging these points and doing them anyway, because the cause is worth it (according to the protesters)
  • Spreading the message to others who witness the protest
  • Finding camaraderie among fellow protesters, being able to exchange ideas with likeminded individuals and refining the overall message
  • Making it plainly visibly just how many people feel this way about the cause. Numbers on a sheet don't mean as much as seeing the masses in the street. Similarly, petitions used to show all the signatures (physically) rather than simply relaying their count, which was a much more effective tool to visualize the size of the movement.

All of these might not directly force the intended recipient to act now, but they contribute to forming a stronger message that down the line can force the intended recipient to act.

And lastly, there's nothing worth protesting if not the suggestion by someone that others should not be protesting. Any suggestion to silence a crowd which is clearly willing to go through significant effort for a small chance of their voice being heard, is not going to somehow convince them to remain silent, nor scare them away from their protest.

The right to protest is not just a tool to request action, it is a regulated outlet for societal frustration that, if silenced, will lead to behaviors that can be significantly more harmful to society.

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In most societies, the authorities are not able to coerce most of the population. They can coerce some protesters when most of the population either do not care about the issue, or are too terrified to act.

Some violent protests try to invalidate widely held assumptions about numbers. Are 'the rest' really unwilling to act, or will the protesters spark a mass movement which cannot be suppressed? Do the police want to fight the people when the people are not just young hooligans, but also their mothers and grandmothers?

But the protest in Australia was different. From the BBC news reports, violence erupted within a small immigrant community, and something like a lynch mob formed. It is not uncommon that some immigrants brings their own traditional conflict resolution mechanisms to a new country, coming into conflict with the rule of law as it is established there. The Australian police upheld Australian legal norms.

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The question contains a lot of misconceptions about protests. In this answer I'll talk about what I've learned about the purpose of protests from my time participating in them. This answer is from the point of view of a citizen of the United States.

Protests happen when the system fails the people

Protests are an expression of profound frustration by the local people who feel their leadership is not listening. Protests are a political action of last resort. They're a way to make leadership realize people are paying attention, they're pissed off, and they're willing to take action. In a democracy these further actions could be organizing and funding an opposition campaign, mounting legal actions, and even physically blocking implementation of policy.

The Anti-Defamation League describes the many purposes of protests:

A protest is an event or action where people gather with others to publicly express their opinions about something that is happening in society. There are a variety of potential goals for a protest:

  • influence public opinion
  • draw attention to and share information about a perceived injustice
  • gain a wide audience for the cause
  • push public policy or legislation forward
  • learn more about an issue
  • connect with others who feel passionate about the issue
  • speak one's truth and bear witness
  • ...provide inspiration and a sense of being part of a larger movement

The overarching purpose of protests is to demand change.

The change may not happen, but the call for change will not be ignored.

Protests are a way for groups who feel they are being ignored to be unignorable, and for others to support them in solidarity. The point is to be such a visible irritant they cannot be ignored. They're a way for marginalized and targeted groups to not go quietly into the night. They can also be a way for marginalized and maligned groups to present themselves in public as they are, not as they are vilified.

Protests allow the people to express displeasure with elected officials and governments beyond simply voting every X years.

Protesters can block policies they disagree with from being carried out, especially if those policies will result in irreparable harm. Often the block is simply to maintain civil order, but sometimes the block is physical. This can often delay the enactment of a policy until public awareness is raised and a legal challenge can be brought.

It takes protesters' effort and risk of violence. Often accompanied by looting or riot police actions, so even more dangerous.

Protests are a way to show numbers and enthusiasm for a cause; people are so fired up about it they're willing to take to the streets and risk police violence.

Non-cooperation, non-compliance, and monkey-wrenching

Since they are legally and politically non binding it seems that they will almost never correct a policy by force

Protests are not about force. They are a show of numbers, solidarity, and passion by people the leadership is supposed to represent. They are an effort to be seen and heard to get the leadership to correct the situation before it devolves into violence.

Civil societies run on the presumption that nearly everyone will agree to cooperate and comply with civil authorities. It's easier and cheaper that way. The leadership does not have the resources to control a population who will not comply.

Protests can be a way to remind the leadership of this, not through force, but by simply not complying in small ways. For example, thousands of people walking in the street; a mere traffic citation. Or dozens of people sitting where they're not supposed to in defiance of law. These passive, peaceful people must be forcefully dragged away, sometimes with excessive violence; it's bad optics and it drains government resources.

Example: Critical Mass Rides

Sometimes protests choose to comply with the law to a fault to highlight an injustice in the system.

For example, traffic infrastructure in the US is overwhelmingly car-centric to the point that many places don't even have sidewalks and there are no safe cycling routes.

Critical Mass bike rides advocate for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. These are when dozens, hundreds, or thousands of cyclists get together and all legally ride in the street together taking up all lanes. The mass of cyclists can stretch for blocks. It effectively closes the streets to cars while the mass is passing through. A relatively minor inconvenience of a few minutes, which to car drivers can be a lifetime. And it can be dangerous, car drivers get violent when they are blocked even for a few minutes.

The message is that the status quo sucks for cyclists. Consider us in the transportation plan or we can make it suck for everyone.

It worked here in Portland, Oregon, USA. After a decade of Critical Mass rides, and sometimes extremely violent police actions for minor traffic violations, bicycles and pedestrians were enshrined in the transportation plan. Things have been improving since.

A Short List Of Things Gained Through Protest (USA edition)

They are also politically inconsequential even to other mechanisms of limited efficiency such as signing petitions

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    Great answer, but just for completeness, worth mentioning that most of the world is a tougher stage than Portland, Oregon in recent times. Just in the US, civil rights protesters got beat up, imprisoned, or worse. Vietnam war didn't end for another 6 years. Both of those movements coincided with more militant modes (riots, officers fragged), as well as global communism offering a compelling alternative to some. Union struggles in the US were marked by stiff violence against them, and response, and their key tool was the strike. The Palestinian nonviolent "March to the Wall" saw great brutality
    – Pete W
    Apr 16 at 3:07
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    The change may not happen, but the call for change will not be ignored. => most are indeed ignored in practice. Apr 16 at 5:30
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    The civil rights movement should not be in a list with the others. There is a large difference between careful selection of leaders over decades of planning, carefully timed arrests to send a message, carefully planned strikes and boycotts with informants leaking information to federal law enforcement, etc. and random people gathering with no aim, no strategy, and certainly no idea what they are doing. The latter is what you call protests and it's track record is why the original question was asked. The former is a carefully engineered political movement that took decades to execute.
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 16 at 15:10
  • @uberhaxed both involved protests. Just because the protest organisers are organised doesn't stop what they are doing being what they are doing
    – Caleth
    Apr 17 at 8:04
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As a case study: recently, millions in Germany have been protesting against the extreme-right. Is this going to weaken the extreme right electorally? Hardly. In fact, if everyone from communists to conservatives and populists along with cultural associations, sports assocations, media organisations, other associations join up against fascism and xenophobia and for our liberal democracy, it might strengthen the extremists in their framing of the system being against them (cf. "drain the swamp"). Indeed, opinion polls do not show any major weakening of the extreme-right since those protests reached a peak in early 2024. But that's not the point. In 1933, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the Nazis were not democratically elected in Germany. They reached about ⅓ of the vote in the last democratic elections, and were then helped to power by nationalists and conservatives.

The intended audience of the recent protests in Germany is not the extreme right. Rather:

  • To the centrist and centre-right parties: don't do this again! Don't help extremists into government again!
  • To everybody: the extremists do not represent a silent majority — we are the (not so silent) majority.
  • To foreigners, minorities, muslims, freight bike riders, feminists, and anyone else targeted by the extremists: you are not alone, we stand with you

Is it effective? Maybe. Today in Germany, as of 2024, the consensus among conservatives and right-wing liberals remains to rule out any renewed enabling of extreme right parties such as AfD. In the neighbouring Netherlands, where such protests are absent, mainstream parties are in coalition talks with a party that wants to abolish liberal democracy by closing all mosques and banning the quran, and have previously cooperated with racist parties in regional governments, denouncing any attempt to keep such parties out of power as disrespecting the "will of the voters" (referring to a 20% party).

From personal experience, having participated in such protests, I am extreme pleased that German conservative parties such as CDU, CSU, and Freie Wähler are (in many cities) joining the rest in calling for participation in antifascist protests. As an immigrant, it makes me feel much safer than in other countries I've lived, and seeing the protests and participating in it strengthened that feeling of belonging. So the breadth of the protests has already reached one aim: to make immigrants like me feel more welcome.

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  • +1 but I'd say the chapter on AfD (and the far right in general) is far from closed in Germany. It's plausible for the far right to end up getting 50.01+% at a future election, at which point they'd no longer need any coalition partners. And before you say its impossible, go look up all the pre-2016 videos laughing at the idea of Trump winning the presidency. Apr 18 at 15:43
  • @JonathanReez This is possible, and already happened on a local level; and they can get 51% of the seats with 40% of the votes if several parties end up below the 5% threshold, which is conceivable in regional elections in east german states this year. There are discussions to raise the majority needed for constitutional court judge appointments from a simple to a two-thirds majority, but the flip side is that this would give the AfD a veto if they get 1/3rd of the seats.
    – gerrit
    Apr 18 at 16:12
  • @JonathanReez But I don't think the AfD will ever get 50% of the popular vote federally, and I don't think Trump would ever get 50% popular vote federally if the US had more than two viable options. But I don't feel entirely confident about this. Fortunately now there are a couple of new alternatives, such as the one by Sarah Wagenknecht, which is populist but not extremist, and might have the potential to eat somewhat into the share of the AfD voter base that is angry, but does not actually agree with the more extremist views held by AfD politicians.
    – gerrit
    Apr 18 at 16:16
  • Yeah, it probably wouldn't be AfD specifically but I'd be very surprised if Germany doesn't become more right-wing within the next 20 years, at least when it comes to immigration. Apr 19 at 19:59
  • 1
    @JonathanReez The mainstream right does not support removing the right to asylum. This right is consensus among all democratic parties, the disagreement is in the implementation. The pro-business right are also entirely fine with social dumping and poorly paid exploited immigrants; agriculture would collapse without those, and farmers are a loyal voting base of conservative parties. Extreme-right immigration policies would mean the end of agriculture in wealthy countries, and no peaceful country has ever succeeded in reducing immigration as they don't want to wreck the economy.
    – gerrit
    Apr 20 at 20:00
6

This subject leads to a lot that is interesting and currently relevant, but this answer will stick to what I think is the core of the Question posed:

"However, it seems that protests against principial deep state policy such as Iraq War or support of Israel in Hamas war have no mechanism to be effective."

I can think of mechanisms that are direct. These are more or less endgame stages

  • Forcing out the government. This "cure" often worse than the disease
  • Winning over the group of people who implement the government's power, or just organizing them into a coherent self-aware whole, where they were not before. This makes possible a more pragmatic solution, if potentially incomplete. A recent example, is the refusal of US service members to fight against Syria in the early 2010's. It worked to the extent that the Iraq method was not repeated, and US troops were not deployed. Was certainly more successful than the anti-war protests against the Iraq war in 2003, in which I participated.

Earlier stages:

  • Seemingly ineffective protests, as group-bonding activity. People are motivated knowing they're not alone in something, experiencing it in person is far more powerful than through a computer screen or television. The cost of failed actions varies of course, but there can be safety in numbers, at least.
  • When repression enters the picture, there is a whole pathway to radicalizing an audience, by making a show of the repression itself. At this point we're talking about acts of sacrifice.

All of this has been gamed to oblivion, unfortunately. Governments have gotten better at defending themselves against it. And there is a long history of either the audience or the participants being taken advantage of by sponsors, rival political groups, or provocateurs. So careful and critical research of past examples is warranted.

6

https://commonslibrary.org/protest-movements-how-effective-are-they/

There are three particular success factors that stand out as seeming to have large effects on movement chance’s of success, as well as having a strong body of evidence behind them. These three factors, in no particular order, are

Nonviolent tactics

Favourable sociopolitical context

Large numbers of participants

They are effective, but it depends on certain criteria. Obviously, if you have only a few dozen persons protesting, then it won't be very effective, but obviously if 90% of the population protest in a democratic country, then yes it's going to be very effective.

So the protest need to be non-violent, there needs to be a favorable context where the leaders may be more inclined to listen and there's enough support among the populace, and there needs to be a large number of participants. I think one of the most successful movements lately is the BLM movement.

1
  • 1
    For a worldwide audience, you might want to clarify BLM, which might not have received much attention in countries that do not have strong bonds with the USA.
    – gerrit
    Apr 16 at 6:35
1

I agree with many of the reasons listed in other answers here, and I would emphasize

  • broadcasting (advertising) the existence of a group or concern (raising awareness as stated in the Q)
  • laying claim to the right to leadership (when multiple groups are vying for power)
  • providing morale to a group, recruitment
  • demonstrating the cost of further conflict, consuming resources (economic cost), providing reason to negotiate
  • lack of standard political channels as alternative, bringing attention to unbearable circumstances ("give me freedom or...")
  • The will to risk life and limb for a cause is often visceral. There is often no necessary reason other than expressing emotion.

While the OP plays down the utility of the first point, note how significant mere publication of an article in a newspaper can be. Governments don't like bad publicity for many reasons. Getting re-elected (if that is at all a concern) is one. Keeping the peace is important and promoting the economy is also important.

I am not sure whether the OP would include insurrection under demonstration, but it is an extreme form. Yes, demonstrations consume state resources. That can be part of the point. Some societies begin to fray as a result (e.g. Myanmar) and this can trigger change. This was the bolshevik approach, violent revolution.

Many groups use mixed strategies including armed and peaceful, sometimes the parties involved are coaxed to the political bargaining table to avoid further conflict.

Many political movements have long histories full of costly failure and frustration including leaders jailed or murdered and decades of bloodshed, but upstart groups are sometimes ultimately successful either directly by subjugating opponents or by being brought into the political mainstream. The list is very very long. I could add examples but leave it as a fun and educational exercise to the reader.

The OP emphasized examples of civil disorder in response to breaking news. Such reactionary behavior ("tipping points") may be emotional and not very different from celebrating a victory publicly after an important sporting event. Apologies if some find the analogy offensive, the point is that the response can be emotional and be cathartic, not doing anything can bring depression.

2
  • I can see how it is beneficial for political leaders to have protests for their causes. What I don't see is long-term benefit for the protesters as a whole.
    – alamar
    Apr 17 at 10:50
  • @alamar I don't think you can generalize. As you see from my answer there is a long list of reasons why you may demonstrate. Your examples also illustrate this. The opening one in your post can be justified as a call for solidarity. Also, remember that the press, despite claims of impartiality, might emphasize the dramatic to increase readership.
    – Buck Thorn
    Apr 17 at 11:22
1

Protests are akin to starting a business

Anywhere between 50 and 90% of businesses end up failing, depending on which statistics you look at. Possibly up to 99% of entrepreneurs never end up making more money in their own business compared to working for a large corporation. And yet people start businesses all the time, either because they're hoping for a great payout or because they hate working for "the man" or because they're really passionate about an idea. It might be somewhat irrational but it gives people meaning in life and makes them feel like they've tried their hardest instead of just giving up.

Protestors likewise face three possible options:

  1. Do nothing, accept the status quo.
  2. Immigrate to a better city/country.
  3. Protest, possibly risking arrest and prosecution if done in a totalitarian regime.

Most people choose #1. A smaller group will choose #2. But a tiny minority will choose #3. 99% of them will fail. Heck, most of them are probably wrong and their proposed policies are actually a horrible idea. But 1% of the time they'll succeed and their ideas will win. The leaders of the protest will be able to cash out their effort into speaking gigs, political positions, book publishing, etc. You'll get squares, parks and streets named after you. Irrational? Maybe. Still worth it to some people? Yes.

Navalny ended up dying in Russian prison and skeptics might say it was all done in vain. And sure, perhaps there was only a 1 in 1,000 chance of him ever becoming the Russian President. But if he did nothing he'd have a 0 in 1,000 chance of becoming President and a very high chance of being a "nobody" instead. Being a "nobody" is a perfectly acceptable outcome to most people but there's always a tiny minority that has bigger aspirations in life.

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  • My problem is not with "start-up founders", but with unpaid protests' "first employees". The risk is all theirs but the payout is virtually nonexistent. It seems to me that the pool of free protest labor is shrinking fast now that it is recognized to be gamed away.
    – alamar
    Apr 18 at 17:36
  • @alamar people do things for non-monetary gain all the time. I.e. you're not being paid to post on SE but you still do it. Apr 18 at 17:57
  • My SO points and "people reached" grow and I feel appreciated in general. That's a dubious thing in case of protests, since by induction people have incentives to perform dangerous stunts due to their high visibility and media attention. Indeed something to consider.
    – alamar
    Apr 18 at 18:03
  • @alamar well, you're discussing the protestors so clearly their message has reached you as well. If it didn't, you wouldn't be discussing them. Same deal as SE points. Apr 18 at 18:06
  • I'm mostly talking about the long term evolution of protest movement as people realize that a) your demands will be ignored and that fact will be broadcast, and b) you can sure get some serious publicity if you value that more than your safety.
    – alamar
    Apr 18 at 18:09

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