The Productivity of Protest

by Laura Portwood-Stacer

I’m writing this post a few days after the world learned that Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to become the 45th president of the United States. In the hours following the announcement, those who had feared this outcome (even if they didn’t really expect it) rapidly transitioned from denial to sadness and anger. Every day since then, in many cities around the country, people have taken to the streets in protest. Those protests will continue in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. For the most part, the point of these marches isn’t to say that the election was illegitimate (although there are reasons to think it was) or that Trump should not actually take office (although certainly people would prefer that he didn’t). What’s really going on is that people are protesting what Trump stands for. Their presence is meant to demonstrate that any policies he and the Republican congress might enact to enshrine his bigoted beliefs in law will not have the support of (many of) the American people.

As my social media feeds have filled with images of marches, I’ve seen a few naysayers. Some are Trump supporters, but many are not. I’m most interested in the presumably sympathetic liberals who criticize the protestors, saying that these protests are “not productive.” Do these critics mean that the protests will not achieve the ousting of Trump from the presidency? In that they are probably correct, but this is far too narrow an interpretation of “productivity.” Let’s ask instead, what are these protests productive of?

I want to ask this question instead, because a similar one motivated my 2013 book, Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. That work was about a different form of protest than the marching-in-the-streets kind; it was an ethnographic study of how some activists brought political protest into the minute and mundane habits of their daily lives. Diet, dress, preferred modes of transportation, sexual practices: all became sites for the expression of ideological commitments, or what I called lifestyle activism. When I first started writing the research, the pressing question seemed to be “is lifestyle activism effective?” It’s a fair question, but the book ended up answering a more complicated one: “what is lifestyle activism effective for?”

In talking to dozens of activists, in poring over their pamphlets and publications, in observing and participating in their conferences and bookfairs and vegan potlucks, I learned that the practices of lifestyle politics do a great many things, which may be only distantly related to the ultimate goal of toppling patriarchy or white supremacy or the capitalist state. Take a very specific practice, like choosing to get around by bicycle instead of by car. (Where I conducted my research, in California, this is a much bigger deal than it might be to an east coast or European city dweller, so hear me out.) There is the moral dimension of car non-ownership, in that one removes oneself from a system of fossil fuel consumption and environmental degradation. Among the activists I met, bicycling was also about community and identity. To show up at an activist event on a bike was to demonstrate one’s unity with the dozens of others who had done the same. There were bike-centric workshops and protest events where those with a political commitment to bicycling could share knowledge and support each other. Several of the individuals I talked to saw themselves as setting an example for others; they thought that motorists having to share the road with cyclists might open their eyes to the alternatives available. In this way, this everyday practice could have a communicative function. And of course, there were the simple aesthetic pleasures of bike riding: for a lot of people, the athleticism and exhilaration were just fun.


(Bike valet parking area, Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, 2007)

To the outsider, it might be hard to see bicycling or similar practices as politically productive acts. But trying to understand lifestyle activism only in those terms is to miss a lot of the point.

I found that these little acts, which can seem frivolous to outsiders, are the cement that keep people emotionally bonded to each other and to their larger collective cause. Street protests work similarly. They are sites to express one’s political identity and to commune with others who share it. To sign up for mailing lists and learn about meetings. There’s an aesthetic dimension too: for many the chants and the signs and the diversity of the crowd are sensory delights. And there’s no denying that they bring a sense of solidarity and safety to people—women, queers, people of color, immigrants—who are justifiably terrified of losing the civil rights they’ve fought so hard for and trusted the rule of law to protect. So what do protests produce? They are productive of social bonds, of networks of cooperation, of the joy and righteous anger that will be needed for the struggles to come.


(Protest march at Trump Tower, NYC, November 12, 2016)

The key thing I learned from my research, though, is that identity and community and personal pleasure are not enough to sustain activist causes. Without clear moral commitments and strategic communication of political ideals, social movements become indistinguishable from subcultures. Subcultures communicate social dissent in their own way, but often in codes that are cryptic to the general public. This is by design, and it’s what helps subcultures survive. But whereas subcultures gain meaning from the boundaries they maintain between themselves and the mainstream, social movements can only succeed if they can convert outsiders to insiders in mass quantities. Cryptic codes won’t do; clear communication is vital.


(Protester in NYC, November 12, 2016)

So what can the protesters do to make sure their actions are as productive as possible? Don’t forget about the importance of communication. A body in the street communicates by its very presence. But when it’s possible to do more, to frame the reasons for your presence to your friends and family who might not fully understand, do that too. Explain that you need to do something with your sadness and your anger, and getting outside in the fresh air is good for you. Explain that you want to learn and exchange ideas. Explain that right now you just need to be around people who have your back. And explain that you want people who are in more danger than you to know that you’ll have their backs and can get into the streets to help them if and when the day comes that they need you.


There’s one more reason why people feel it’s necessary to protest right now, and it too comes down to communication. Many are blaming the commercial news media for giving Trump a platform and normalizing his reactionary views. If the images of thousands or millions of Americans taking to the street—and the captions and hashtags that accompany them on social media—are able to communicate that those views should never be normal, and that policies that legitimate them won’t be given into without a fight, the protests will be productive indeed.

(Protest sign found along march route, NYC, November 12, 2016)

Laura Portwood-Stacer holds a PhD in communication from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She currently works as a developmental editor for academic authors working toward publication and serves as co-editor of the Commentary & Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.

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