New Orleans There’s something strange and different happening in the world of protests. The average bystander is unlikely to have noticed this, but as a practitioner in this trade, I couldn’t avoid recognizing a subtle, but surprising global trend: marathon protests.
Once upon a time, it was all about the numbers. Crowd claims and counts might go back and forth between the organizers and the police numbers, but big was big, and bigger was better in signaling support for a cause. If not the numbers, then the tactics, were the hook for the press and public. What was different? What was distinctive about the action that caught and then fixed attention in the push for change? Sometimes it was militance and sometimes it involved props that might offset the lack of numbers establishing mass support, but it was always something.
This new measure seems to be persistence, no matter the numbers or the tactics, but simply the act of continuing to act.
Media reports remark that the protests in Belarus over the disputed and likely stolen election of their longtime autocratic leader are now past 50 consecutive days. We regularly read about the number of consecutive days of protest that continue in Portland since the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. The same is noted about the continued protests in Louisville over Breonna Taylor or in Minneapolis itself.
A new hallmark of protests seems to be sustainability. The proof, despite the numbers or even lack of recognizable organization, of endurance until perhaps some level of victory is achieved. We’ve seen signs of this before, though largely as witnessing through individual action like the daily arrests in front of the South African embassy during the protests or now the climate-based arrests on Fridays in Washington, D.C. or the Moral Mondays a couple of years ago in North Carolina and Georgia.
Marathon protests that continue with no fixed ending date are different though. Symbolic civil disobedience is one thing, but a protest, whether involving dozens or thousands of people, means a constant evolution of targets and tactics. For organizers, this presents huge challenges on a daily basis, I would think, just to sustain interest, as opposed to building momentum or constructing organization.
Reading media reports, the focus seems to be on the transformation of individual activists. The narrative tends to be on someone, invariably young and preferably female and minority, who was uninvolved and has now, by the force of events, been galvanized and found a community and commitment in repetitive protest, all of which, to my mind, is certainly remarkable and admirable.
The organizing problem inherent in marathon protests is the same as the problem organizers always discuss about strikes. It’s easy to start them, but hard to end them, because victories are difficult to win, no matter the tactics, and nihilism is as poor an outcome as defeat.
This phenomenon will be interesting to watch for the lessons these protests will teach us all.