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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Do protests work?
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

The images are moving, or disturbing, or enraging; the issues run across the political spectrum. When thousands of people protested against a ban on foxhunting - and five of their comrades stormed the floor of the House of Commons - the images were arresting. But was their point made?

Police officers
The battle in Seattle

They can't get into the corridors of power, so they take to the streets instead, chanting about issues ranging from the poll tax to the war in Iraq and the rights of animals. Often, protests make for good television, but do they make a difference?

Lindsey German went to her first march in the late 1960s, a protest against a visit to the UK by the South African rugby team. It got quite violent, she recalled, and she was "terrified".

Fast forward to February 2003, and Ms German is at the head of a million-strong crowd, marching through central London against the war in Iraq. It's a different feeling this time, a feeling of exhilaration, of participation, of doing something.

"A street protest educates people, if you like - it politicises them, it makes them aware of all the different issues," says Ms German, the convenor for Stop The War Coalition, which organized the massive marches. "I think they're incredibly effective."

All we are saying

Professor Peter Waddington, who teaches a 12-month university course in the politics of protest, disagrees.

He says that protesters generally have been pushed on to the streets because they can't get access to the corridors of power, and that, in itself, means the political actions are doomed before they start.

London anti-war protest
Millions protested around the world

"There's almost nothing that's effective in the form of protest.

"The number of effective campaigns or social movements can be counted on one hand," Professor Waddington, who teaches at the University of Reading, says. "People protest because they are otherwise powerless. It's a kind of gesture politics, with a loud voice."

But those who protested against the war in Vietnam - among them Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, as a part of Vietnam Veterans Against the War - believe their efforts led to the American withdrawal of troops from the country.

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry said in 1973. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Professor Waddington agrees that those protests had a degree of effectiveness - along with the actions that accompanied the so-called second wave of feminism - but says nearly all of the daily actions will fail.

Ms German, unsurprisingly, disagrees.

"What it relies on is people, all over the country, doing something regularly to get their message across," she says. "I think definitely people are taking more forms of action which are outside of Parliament."




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