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How Protests Become Important

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Protests are erupting in many parts of the world. Television screens are filled with images of restive citizens challenging power. Now, a debate has erupted on-line regarding whether or not the protests of today matter as well as the fabled efforts of movements past - Gandhi in India, King in the United States and so on. A recent reflection on the subject contains some excellent ideas and it prompted this post. What follows is a summing up of the main insights and my own thoughts:


  1. Protests convey information to the community: "We are not happy about so and so; or we want this and that".
  2. Protests cannot convey an argument; they cannot make a polished case for change. Change agents need the media to do that for them. And that means they must get at least a section of the media to understand the argument the protesters are presenting and mass communicate it.
  3. The point of good media relations is to engage public opinion, to get the public sphere buzzing about the issue, to get other citizens discussing the issue in their homes, workplaces, clubs and so on. That requires skilled political communication.
  4. The goal is to get the issue up the public agenda - that is, become something that authoritative institutions like parliaments pay attention to. 
  5. Ultimately, the aim is to get the issue into the decision agenda, and something changes...a law is passed, a law is abrogated, a social program is set up. Something has to change for the efforts to have been worth while.

Is it fair to assume that for protests to matter they cannot be episodic outbursts but the deliberate efforts of a social movement? Or would that be going too far? Let me know what you think.

Photo Credit: Flickr user philippe leroyer

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