Are protests effective? Rutgers community weighs in
While student protests and activism are not novel phenomena, the amount of protests on campuses across the U.S has spiked in recent years.
The trend can be attributed to hostile racial climates on college campuses and racial injustices in higher education, Rutgers professor Jefferson Decker said.
Decker, a professor in the Department of American Studies, said the spike in the amount of student activism is unsurprising considering the recent national debate over race and criminal justice within the context of the recent presidential election.
“College students at Rutgers and elsewhere have good reason to have strong feelings about these issues,” Decker said. “Those strong feelings provide the energy necessary for people to organize and participate in protest actions.”
The number of student protests occurring is correlated to the 2016 election results, said Stephan Bronner, a professor in the Department of Political Science.
“The increase in student protests is a product of the shock produced by a polarizing election as well as the rhetoric, ideology, and political atmosphere generated by President-elect Donald Trump,” Bronner said.
The effectiveness of protests depends on the motivation and context of the situation, Decker said.
“There may be certain times, such as an impending vote in congress when calling a bunch of representatives on the phone would be a better use of your time than marching through campus holding signs,” he said.
Some student demonstrations are effective in driving social change and reform, Bronner said. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, for instance, sought to “fight back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process,” according to the Movement’s website.
“The Occupy protests pushed the Obama administration to the left on matters of economic equality and Black Lives Matter raised a public outcry that translated into calls for increased accountability by the police and greater awareness of institutional racism,” Bronner said.
Still, not all protests yield results, Bronner said, such as the demonstrations in the early days of the Iraq War.
"Whether a protest will have an effect is impossible to predict in advance," Bronner said.
A protest's effectiveness can be determined by the scale of it, said Ross Baker, a professor in the Department of Political Science.
Student protests are most effective when they are aimed at University policies and practices, Baker said.
"On larger issues, student protests would need to be massive and nationwide to achieve objectives," Baker said.
Hannah D’Amico, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, participated in a protest at Rutgers against the election of Donald Trump and called for a sanctuary campus for undocumented students.
“I found the protest more effective in promoting awareness and gaining attention rather than accomplishing change,” D’Amico said. “In order to make an impact, students must really educate themselves on the cause and organize a tangible goal to work towards.”
The student protests against the President-elect is due to today’s largely liberal millennial generation, Decker said.
“It is not surprising that a lot of young people have been protesting the results of the presidential election,” Decker said. “The two candidates had very different positions on issues of deep political importance to a lot of Rutgers students.”
With the incoming administration, Decker said young people want to make it clear that they will continue to fight for what they think is right on issues surrounding policing, immigration, climate change and gay rights.
Protesting demonstrates that people care enough about important issues to draw time away from their work or leisure, Decker said.
The impact of a student protest is not solely measured by the outcome, Decker said.
“American history is full of stories about people who originally met at a protest or picket line becoming long-term collaborators on social activism, or falling in love and getting married,” Decker said. “That's something productive that came out of the activity, even if the protest did not persuade a single person or change an outcome.”
Victoria Nazarov is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.