The power of protest

As Capitol Police escorted three middle-aged protesters in pink tiaras out of the Senate hearing in which Gen. David Petraeus recently delivered his Iraq progress report, Code Pink headquarters in D.C. experienced a sudden spike in phone calls.

Just a few blocks from the Capitol, full-time Code Pink activist Midge Potts, sporting long pink-streaked hair, watched the hearing on national television in a small living room festooned with pink paraphernalia. Within minutes, there was a flurry of phone calls of two types: immediate updates from eyewitnesses on the arrests of Code Pink colleagues and inquiries from around the country by those interested in joining up.

“We have an impact on the apathy of people in America,” Potts said.

A new study declares that rights-related protests that out-shouted their competition consistently influenced the congressional agenda from 1960 to 1986, possibly lending some legitimacy to disruptive protests like those of Code Pink.

And let’s face it, Washington, D.C., attracts protesters from across the nation.

Appearing in this month’s issue of Social Forces, an academic journal published by the University of North Carolina Press, the study suggests a link between public demonstrations about rights-related issues and subsequent congressional hearings on those topics.

“Activists need to know how and why they have an influence,” said Brayden King, assistant professor of sociology at Brigham Young University and the paper’s principal author. “Innovation oftentimes comes from the fringe, the margins — these people that don’t have a place at the table, but still want to have their voices heard.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) says he loves seeing protesters, even when they gather to oppose him, because they garner attention, attract the media, and thus grant him a louder voice for expressing his own policy goals. Barring a march on Washington by several hundred thousand people, protesters simply have no influence on Congress, he says, adding that the most efficient way to change minds in Washington is to elect someone else.

“They have a right to do what they’re doing, but they have no impact,” Tancredo said. “Their time is better spent trying to throw you out.”

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said protesters often have the opposite effect of the one they intend. “Members only become more hardened in their position [when people protest against them],” he said.

Stupak said some Code Pink anti-war protesters have screamed in his face, calling him a killer for supporting the Iraq war, even though he has never voted to support the war.

“No matter what you do, you don’t satisfy them,” he said.

To make a definitive impact on his thinking, Stupak said, constituents should just call him and clearly express their opinions.
“Flood my office with phone calls,” he said. “That’s more effective.”

Researchers have been unable to establish a definitive connection between protest and policy outcomes. The new study suggests that, to make a difference, protesters must assert their claims early while lawmakers are still gathering information about new issues and before they make policy decisions.

King and his colleagues — Keith Bentele from the University of Arizona and Sarah Soule from Cornell University — concluded that protesters who out-shout other demonstrators and catch the attention of the national media can succeed in convincing lawmakers to convene hearings to address new issues.

“What protesters need to worry about is how prominent they are among other protests,” King said. “The threshold is out-protesting your competitors.”

The anti-war feminist group Code Pink has consistently made headlines since its founding in 2002 for its creative and frequently disruptive demonstrations. Adorned in their signature pink attire, members break legislative rules and risk arrest to communicate with lawmakers who, they say, are insulated from common citizens.

Code Pink member Leslie Angeline, who was escorted out of the Petraeus hearing but not arrested for shouting during the testimony, commanded the spotlight last summer when she protested Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) statements about Iran with a 24-day hunger strike outside his Senate office. She said she won a small victory when Lieberman agreed to meet with her for five minutes.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a leader of the Out of Iraq caucus who has participated in many public demonstrations, said protesters who break the law to draw attention to themselves are no more or less influential than other protesters. She added that while thousands of people marching down the street would get her attention, modern protests tend to be electronic. She said her office gets several hundred e-mails from constituents every day expressing positive and negative reactions to her policy positions.

“Protest is important because it’s freedom of speech,” she said. “It should have an influence on all of us.”

King said previous studies have tended to find that successful activism has less to do with public demonstrations and more to do with organizational strength and the recruitment of allies within the legislature. These studies were, however, limited to assessing one issue at a time, using roll call votes to measure lawmakers’ sympathy to a particular protest. The new study looks at demonstrations and their relative influence on the legislative agenda.

Researchers compared the assortment of 13 rights-related issues addressed in congressional hearings from 1960 to 1986 and the composition of public protests during the same period. There was a strong correlation between protest and subsequent consideration in Congress, so long as the protest made enough noise to get noticed.

“It gives some hope for the little people — people traditionally seen as outsiders to Washington,” King said. “Protest is one of the few channels that ordinary people have to influence decisions.”

The study used protest data from a project, led by Soule of Cornell and funded by the National Science Foundation, to document protest coverage in The New York Times. Though not exhaustive, the Times is the standard source for sociological studies about national trends.

“This is very, very exciting for academics because we’re making the case that social movements matter,” Soule said.

Research seems to confirm that the team’s findings are consistent across a variety of issues and are not limited to rights-related topics, though only research using more recent data can prove that such trends continue today, Soule said.

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