Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803    ~    Pittsburgh, PA  15227   ~    412-310-4886    ~
Copyright Patricia A. O'Malley    ~    All rights reserved
Established 1993

 Protests and Demonstrations Do Bring Change
We Can’t Make Progress Without Them.
​June 28, 2018

Many Americans think that mass public demonstrations began in the 1960s.  Actually, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and they’re familiar throughout the world.  Demonstrations are a necessary ingredient for social evolution.  No significant social, economic, or political change has ever happened anywhere in the world without some form of protest or demonstration.

Although we often use the terms interchangeably, protests, demonstrations, and rallies are different.  Protesters oppose a particular situation, incident, or policy. Demonstrators may support or oppose an issue and want to express their views. There are many ways to protest and demonstrate.  A rally is an event designed to instill enthusiasm about a topic in those who attend, similar to a pep rally.

Our right to protest is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Republicans are trying to make it illegal, primarily because the sight of a few dozen professional athletes protesting the murders of black men by police and millions of Americans protecting immigrant children from kidnapping and abuse offend their delicate sensibilities.

Protests and demonstrations have enabled much, including:

  • The American and French Revolutions
  • Political independence for dozens of colonies throughout Asia and Africa, including Indian independence from Great Britain
  • The abolition of American slavery, the civil rights movement, and the end of South African apartheid
  • Women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and reproductive rights
  • The international labor movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, and the peace movement
  • Temperance and prohibition, the repeal of prohibition, and drunk-driving laws
  • American Indian movement, LGBT rights, and disability rights,
  • The environmental protection movement, and excessive police force
  • And all of the movements toward democracy in the Middle East.

In 2011, Wisconsin teachers, public employees, and their supporters protested Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting efforts by demonstrating in Madison and elsewhere for five months.  Some of the people went there every day. 

This year, there have been teacher strikes – including demonstrations – in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Indiana, and Arizona.  And they’re winning.

Some of the most important and respected world leaders have used protests and demonstrations to make their points, including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Mother Jones, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Russell Means, Cesar Chavez, Abbie Hoffman, Molly Rush, Harvey Milk, and Nelson Mandela.

The GOP has been attacking the American middle class for decades.  And people are sick of it.
There are demonstrations against the Trump Administration’s malfeasance every day.  I’ve attended several myself.

Once we decide that we want change, we must get our message to the powers that be.  Typically, those in power are monumentally oblivious to public opinion.  They’re too isolated from real life.  When we exhaust all of the “appropriate” forms of inquiry – with no results – we must be heard.
This is the way we do it. 

Our protests let our elected representatives see and hear – loud and clear – what we want and how many of us want it. 

They remember at election time.

Your protest may include a march from one location to another, or it may remain only in one location.
The organizers will let you know.

  • Connect with an organization working on the issues you care about.  They’ll keep you up to date.
  • Show up. 
  • Wear T-shirts, hats, and buttons with relevant slogans.
  • Carry a sign with your message.
  • Wear comfortable shoes; be prepared for a lot of walking and standing.
  • Arrive early; sometimes parking is difficult to find.
  • Yes, you can bring your children.  We encourage it.  I took my son to his first demonstration when he was five years old.

Sometimes, a demonstration includes civil disobedience.  That’s an action in which protesters make their political point by deliberately breaking the law.  No one will ever force you to commit civil disobedience.

In fact, the organizations that conduct civil disobedience actions train their members in what to expect, and make sure that they are ready to participate.  They have lawyers and bail money on standby. 

Rosa Parks’ refusal to change her seat on the bus was an act of civil disobedience – and incredible courage.  She didn’t have anyone on standby because her act was a spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

Most Americans have a baffling fear of demonstrations.  In the 1960s, demonstrating somehow became “un-American”. I was a bit too young to participate then, but I’ve attended many such events since the 1980s and I enjoy them. It’s the purest form of democracy in action. People are happy. Hugs and smiles abound. It’s an incredible feeling to stand in the middle of a crowd, knowing that, at least on this issue, WE ARE ONE.  Everyone should experience a good, well-organized demonstration frequently.

Contrary to urban legend, few protests are violent or dangerous.  Most are peaceful, friendly, and invigorating. Arrests at demonstrations are actually quite rare. I’ve been to dozens of demonstrations, and I have never seen a single incident of violence. Yes, I know that things do occasionally get out of hand. I’m well aware of what happened at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Sometimes, demonstrators try too hard to make their points. Sometimes the police are too eager to make arrests. Sometimes both things happen at once. But that’s also extremely rare.  A riot is an entirely different thing.  Really, I’m a big chicken.  If I thought it was dangerous, I wouldn’t be there.

At the recent major demonstrations in Pittsburgh, the March for Our Lives and those surrounding the murder of Antwon Rose by Michael Rosfeld, tens of thousands of people jammed city sidewalks and spilled into the streets. The protesters didn’t commit a single inappropriate incident, and the police were generally calm and helpful.

Now, I don’t recommend protesting as a lifestyle, but when there’s a demonstration on an issue that you truly care about, don’t be afraid to participate.  Spread your wings.  Try something new.  Take a friend.  It’s a great American tradition.



 History is made by those who show up.  Hope to see you there!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

– Margaret Mead –

For more information:
Anti-Protest Bills Around the Country:  American Civil Liberties Union
See Working America for information on economic and social justice demonstrations.
Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Centerpublishes a calendar of local peace and justice events.
There’s a good article on the history of protests on Wikipedia.
Welcome Your Rosa Parks Moment

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There’s a demonstration at Mellon Square in Downtown Pittsburgh

on Saturday, June 30, from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM

against the Trump administration’s atrocious immigration policy.

Children are in cages.

They need you.

Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice