20th October 2012 saw one of the largest protests in recent years. Titled “A Future That Works”, around 150,000 students, activists, politicians and other members of the public filled the streets to voice their disapproval and anger at the public cuts, welfare budget cuts and against austerity measures put forward by the Coalition government. Additionally the protest aimed to change the way politics works in Britain. Their objective is to create a nation which pays workers a living wage, where bankers do not get high bonuses, where the government ensures the inequality between the rich and the poor is shrunk. These objectives are not new and throughout the years citizens have demonstrated against their government’s policies in hope of change. But does change ever come?
Undoubtedly some protests can have devastating effects on the governments. The Arab Spring is a perfect example of small scale marches turning into full-blown revolutions which resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Protests have also had a positive impact in America where slavery and segregation were abolished thanks to the protests and marches organised by Martin Luther King. Finally, Gandhi had an innovative idea of protesting – peaceful non-violent civil disobedience which led to the independence of India from the British Empire.
However, recently a large number of people have claimed that protests do not achieve anything and looking back over the last few years it is understandable why that is the case. Almost a million marched against the war in Iraq in 2003, yet the march did not prevent the invasion. Thousands of students marched against the rise in tuition fees, yet once again the results were unsuccessful. One has to also ask what the Occupy Movement has achieved over the last year except media coverage.
Evidently some protests and marches achieve their aim and some do not. Perhaps one explanation for this could be the cause of the protests. While most marches have some validity, one can argue that marching against authoritarian regimes and against slavery and segregation is far more important than marching against a tuition fee rise or austerity measures. In addition, some of the causes which have been successful are quite objective. Anyone with any sense of morality would agree that racism, slavery and life under a dictatorship is wrong and thus it was inevitable that change would eventually come. Austerity measures, education cuts and even the invasion of Iraq are issues which are less clear cut and can be viewed as rather subjective.
Does that mean that less important matters should be left untouched by activists and protesters? Absolutely not: the secondary aim of marches is to illustrate the dissatisfaction of citizens against a particular policy and additionally to spread the narrative among the public who may not be aware of the damage these policies may be causing. This is exactly what the protests against the invasion of Iraq, against the tuition fee rise, and the most recent austerity march has achieved: the illustration of anger at the government and widespread media coverage attracting others to the cause.
Let us also not forget that student demonstrations can be very effective. For example, thousands of students took over the university as part of the uprising of the Polytechnic University of Athens. As a result the military junta stormed the university gates using tanks. The outcome was the killing of many students by the dictatorship, however, a few days later a nation-wide uprising took place against the junta. This demonstration resulted in the creation of the famous legislation known as the Students Asylum or Academic Asylum. This law was introduced to protect freedom of thought and expression on campuses in 1982, when memories of Greece’s repressive military dictatorships of the late 1960s and early 1970s were still raw.
So where does this leave modern day protests and marches? As the NUS prepares for another demonstration on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is just another waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results. From the examples given in this article it is clear that many marches do create change, regardless of whether it takes weeks or years. In addition these marches can achieve much more than transformation of the society. They can ensure the government is well aware that their citizens are not prepared to stand back and let the establishment make unpopular choices. Demonstrations keep the government on their toes and ensure politicians are always accountable for their actions. For these reasons, protest and demonstrations are vital ingredients of our political system and have an intrinsically important role to play in society.
Photo credit: Selena Sheridan