Do protests change anything?

The murder of George Floyd earlier this year led to an explosion of protest and activism larger than our country has ever seen. But so far, this immense amount of energy has led to only a relatively small amount of change, far less than organizers were hoping. That might make some wonder — do protests work at all?

Looking back through history, we can get a definitive answer to that question.

Athens Protest History Week
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We know that the eight-hour work day, laws against child labor and other protections we take for granted were won through a long and bloody struggle by American workers over decades. The civil rights movement, still ongoing, has achieved huge success over the years, particularly in the 1960s: segregation by law no longer exists after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Likewise, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected our right to vote in the south for many years.

Sometimes protests can be so effective, changing a culture so completely, that paradoxically they are forgotten, or assumed as a historical inevitability. Who can now imagine that children might still be legally employed in factories or farms in the US? Likewise, how do we come to grips with the fact that merely a century ago, women were not able to vote in this country? Or that just a few short years back, gays and lesbians were not able to marry in Georgia?

It can be easy for the privileged to forget, but we should take a moment to remember that these victories were won by the blood and sacrifice of those whose lives and human dignity depended upon it. These changes probably could not have happened any other way.

Yet, even some who participate in a successful protest may be unaware of the change they are helping bring to our society and institutions. Victory for a particular protest movement might happen immediately, but it could also take months or even years. Change might happen through a series of small, almost imperceptible tweaks to powerful institutions or in the culture at large.

Of course, not every protest is successful. In fact, without sustained effort, one-off protests often fail to achieve any kind of lasting effect. But with a movement behind it, and support from the general population, I would argue that protests are usually successful at achieving at least some of their aims.

So, let’s take a look at recent protests from Athens’ history and evaluate their level of success. Hopefully, this will give us insight into the reasons why some were successful and some were not.

Recent Protests in Athens

Iraq War Protests (2003 – 2007)

Goal: End the war in Iraq; erode public support for the war
Size: Large
Opposed by: The Republican party

The protests against the Iraq War were some of the largest in US history at that time, but nevertheless failed to achieve their main objective. A majority of Republicans believe that the US made the right decision in invading Iraq, which helped shield the Bush administration from receiving any major consequences from their aggressive and illegal invasion.

Partially effective

On the other hand, these protests probably did help erode public support for the war, which steadily declined in a bipartisan way as the occupation stretched on. In Athens, we did our part by holding many protests over this period. Most notably, the Women in Black continue holding a silent anti-war vigil at the UGA Arch every Tuesday, as they have for nearly twenty years.

Verdict: Partially effective

“Fix the Light!” Pedestrian Safety Protest (2006)

Goal: Stop people from being hit at a dangerous intersection
Size: Tiny
Opposed by: Institutional inertia

The intersection of Baldwin and Lumpkin Street was extremely dangerous for pedestrians back in the early 2000s. Due to bad light timing, both pedestrians and cars would often end up traveling through the intersection at the same time.

In 2004, a Drama professor was thrown thirty feet after being hit by a car at this intersection, suffering a fracture of his kneecap and wrist. When another professor was hit in 2006, the Drama department couldn’t stand it any longer. They took action to demand that the intersection be made safer for pedestrians by parading back and forth along the crosswalk holding a large banner. Despite crossing in a perfectly legal manner, they caused a bit of a traffic jam and successfully demonstrated the problem at the intersection.

Protester holding a banner, crossing a crosswalk
Photo / AJ Passman, The Red & Black

Due to this protest, UGA administration finally took action and the time of the stop light was extended, giving pedestrians more time to cross without fear of being hit. 

This protest was successful, possibly due to the energy and performance ability of the drama students who were involved, but more likely because they simply had no opposition. No one opposes pedestrian safety. All it took was a bit of effort from a tiny group of people; they were able to get results after years of inaction by the administration to fix an intersection known to be highly dangerous.

Protests apply force in a particular direction, with the force increasing as attendance grows. Protests are nearly always successful at this, but sometimes the applied force meets determined opposition. As in the case of the Iraq War, the opposition may even be enough to make the protest itself appear futile. When opposition is light (or nonexistent, as in this case), even a tiny amount of force can bring change.

Verdict: Completely effective

Living Wages at UGA (2006 – 2010)

Goal: Raise wages for the lowest paid UGA workers
Size: Moderate
Opposed by: Institutional inertia, tight budgets

The Economic Justice Coalition began organizing UGA workers to fight for a living wage back in 2006 when the minimum rate for new hires was only $12,000 a year. The University Council lent support to their efforts, and the minimum salary for full-time workers has been slowly improving ever since (it’s at $25,175 today).

UGA Living Wage protest
Photo / Economic Justice Coalition

While wages for some part-time and temporary workers are still low, overall the EJC’s Living Wages campaign has had a big effect on the economic well-being of some of the lowest-paid UGA workers. The living wages campaign also pushed the local government to raise wages for all full-time workers to a living wage as well, showing the effectiveness of the EJC’s efforts and the strength workers have when they organize.

Verdict: Very Effective

Immigrant Rights Protests (2010 – present)

Goal: End the ban on undocumented students at UGA, stop cooperation with ICE, stop arresting people without a driver’s license
Size: Moderate
Opposed by: Systemic racism, Republicans

Immigrants in Athens have been organizing for about a decade through various groups including Freedom U and Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens. During the Obama administration, their primary focus was on overturning the ban that prevents undocumented students from attending the top 5 universities in Georgia, including UGA. This reasonable demand was rabidly opposed by Georgia Republicans. Since Republicans control both the Georgia legislature and the Board of Regents, the ban is still in place today despite many well-executed protests.

Despite this initial failure, later immigrant rights protests were quite effective in Athens. When Sheriff Ira Edwards began helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deport Athenians in 2017, the public outcry was overwhelming. The resulting protests (and threatened lawsuits) were enough to force Edwards to back down and reverse course. In 2020, Edwards was defeated by John Q Williams, a candidate running on firm non-cooperation with ICE — a victory which highlights the strength of this movement.

After successfully playing defense against ICE, immigrant rights groups completed another successful campaign the following year. This new campaign saw not only the adoption of a commission resolution in support of Latinx people, but also led to a change in policy by the ACC Police Department. ACCPD will no longer arrest people driving without a license, as many undocumented people are forced to do in Georgia (a state which refuses to grant them driver’s licenses). As long as the driver is able to identify themselves, such as by showing a passport, they won’t be arrested even if stopped by the police, and are free to get a friend to come and drive them home.

Combined with the ever-growing success of Latinx Fest, it’s clear that immigrant rights organizing in Athens has been extremely effective over the years.

Verdict: Very effective

UGA Beyond Coal (2010-2015)

Goal: Decommission the UGA coal boiler
Size: Small
Opposed by: Institutional inertia

The University of Georgia once had a coal boiler near the science library which was used during winter months to provide extra power and steam for the nearby science buildings (the steam was used to sterilize lab equipment). It sat there for almost 50 years, spewing out hundreds of tons of pollution a year into the air above Athens. It seemed like it would be there forever until a group of students decided to step up and do something about it.

UGA Beyond Coal protest
Photo / UGA Beyond Coal

UGA Beyond Coal formed in late 2009 and set out to educate and engage students, community members and UGA administrators alike. As the coal boiler neared the end of its useful life, these students were concerned that UGA would simply replace it with another coal boiler. Instead, they ended up replacing it with an electro-boiler which uses power from the grid instead of producing it on site. This new boiler is already more efficient and more environmentally-friendly than the old one, and it will grow more so over time (the grid is becoming greener every year).

Although UGA Beyond Coal was helped in their efforts by changing market conditions and the decline of coal generally, there’s no doubt they were effective advocates for their cause. They achieved total victory during their five-year campaign.

Verdict: Completely effective

Medicaid Expansion Protests (2015)

Goal: Expand Medicaid in Georgia
Size: Moderate
Opposed by: The Republican party

Lack of Medicaid expansion in Georgia has caused death, pain and the closure of several rural hospitals in recent years. Despite this, Governor Kemp and the Republicans in the state legislature seem unwilling to budge, and even today are intent on eliminating the ACA marketplaces that tens of thousands of Georgians rely on to get health coverage.

In the mid-2010s, a powerful protest movement emerged in Atlanta and Athens, demanding that the state expand Medicaid. Many high-profile legislators and current candidates for public office were arrested during these protests, including former State Senator Vincent Fort, Reverend Raphael Warnock and Athens’ own Commissioner Tim Denson.

To keep up the pressure, Athens for Everyone organized a protest of the Republican State Convention on May 15, 2015, delivering hundreds of letters in support of Medicaid expansion to state officials.

Yet, these pleas fell upon deaf ears. The protests may have succeeded in raising awareness, but they failed to achieve any amount of tangible success. Facing hardened opposition, the protesters were unfortunately too few in number.

Verdict: Ineffective

AADM Protests (2016)

Goal: Establish a civil rights committee, pass a non-discrimination ordinance
Size: Moderate
Opposed by: Institutional racism, inertia

When Mokah Jasmine Johnson heard that a Confederate-themed bar in town had a drink named after a racial slur, she knew she had to take action. Hundreds of people gathered downtown with her, raising their fists and marching through the streets against discrimination. Mokah then put in the work to turn this angry moment into a movement, organizing protesters into a group known as the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM).

Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement Protest January 2016

AADM’s original goals were to establish a civil rights committee and pass a non-discrimination ordinance. Although some were disappointed by the initial response AADM received from the mayor and commission, in retrospect it seems clear the protests set off a chain of events that will lead to complete success for those initial goals. Although neither the committee nor the ordinance are yet in place, they are right around the corner. The ship of state turns frustratingly slowly at times, but it is turning. When it does, it will be due to the AADM protests from four years ago and the continued advocacy by Mokah Jasmine Johnson and others.

Verdict: Completely effective

J20 Day of Resistance (2017)

Goal: Resist the Donald Trump administration
Size: Massive
Opposed by: The Republican party

The election of Donald Trump lit a fire under sleeping Democrats and the jaded left alike. They came together in the streets for the Women’s March and J20 Day of Resistance following Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

Partially effective

This was the largest protest in Athens’ history with several thousand people showing up downtown. Although they stayed on the sidewalk and chose not to block traffic, their presence sent a clear message that Trump’s Presidency would face strong opposition. If accomplishing nothing else, this protest allowed for networking among old activists and recruitment of new ones to the struggle. Their energy would be channeled into activist groups, some forming for the first time, but also into advocacy work and political campaigns that would eventually lead to Trump’s defeat in 2020.

Verdict: Partially effective

March for Recognition and Redress (2019)

Goal: Get UGA to acknowledge their role in white supremacy, make reparations
Size: Moderate
Opposed by: Institutional racism, inertia

The discovery of African-American remains underneath Baldwin Hall in 2015 started a controversy which is still ongoing. UGA’s insensitive actions, such as the secret reburial of these remains, inflamed the situation. These events are chronicled in the documentary Below Baldwin, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

March for Recognition and Redress
Photo / Spencer Donovan, The Red & Black

Protests erupted on campus, demanding that UGA fully recognize their history of slavery and white supremacy and that they make reparations to living descendants of slaves and every black high school graduate in Athens. They also called for improved wages for UGA workers. 

Partially effective

Most of their demands remain unmet, but after the protests UGA committed $100,000 towards the study of its own history of slavery, a positive first step.

Verdict: Partially effective

Defund the Police Protests (2020)

Goal: Justice for black lives, reducing police funding and reinvesting in community uplift
Size: Massive
Opposed by: Institutional racism, supporters of the police

The George Floyd protests were the biggest in US history, by far. They’re still too recent and too powerful of an event for us to be able to view them with any kind of historical perspective. In light of this, the analysis I can provide might not be very useful, but let’s give it a shot anyway.

In Athens, activists were disappointed when Commissioners Mariah Parker and Tim Denson’s plan to reduce police funding by 50% over 10 years failed in the commission. Does this mean the protests also failed? Not necessarily, in fact, they’ve already had some effect — a task force will be formed to evaluate the whole of the police department, something that would not have happened otherwise. A civilian oversight board for ACCPD is also in the works.

Justice for George Floyd
“March for a World Without Cops” May 31, 2020
Photo / APN

It would be surprising if such an enormous protest movement failed to have much success. We probably won’t know the full impact of these protests for many years. On the other hand, there is a large amount of opposition in the community to protesters’ goals. Certainly, slogans like “defund the police” tend to be inflammatory and serve to activate the opposition. To achieve success in the short-term, advocates may be wise to find ways of defusing their opponents’ anger and alleviating their concerns around some of these policy ideas. Going forward, messaging may be key to the protests’ success.

Verdict: Still unclear

Conclusion

Looking back on the history of recent protests in Athens, we can see that protests are usually at least somewhat effective at achieving their goals. Surprisingly, the size of a protest doesn’t seem to have much impact on its eventual success — even a tiny protest can have some impact, especially if there is little opposition or a large amount of support within the community at large.

When facing determined opposition, protests need overwhelming numbers, but even that is no guarantee of success.

Still, most protests eventually succeed, even if it doesn’t happen right away. Normal people like us are very capable of changing the world we live in. It takes lots of effort, and we can’t do it alone, but we can do it

So let’s get out there and make a difference!

For more on the history of protests in Athens, check out Matthew Pulver’s great article “Athens’ Black Vanguard: 150 Years of Protest in the Classic City” or follow Historic Athens on Facebook or Instagram.

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