What Protest Changes—It’s Not What You Think

6 mins read

When the Wall of Moms joined the Black Lives Matter protests this summer in my home city of Portland, Oregon, to demand police reform, they became part of a history of women who have taken to the streets. They demanded not only the right to vote, but also better working conditions, an end to war, desegregation, the preservation of the planet, and gun control. Often, the effectiveness of these protests is measured in goals achieved. Was legislation passed? Were wages raised? Did the war end? Regardless, many protesters find that activism changes them more deeply than it changes society. 

I came of age during the era of Civil Rights protests, anti-war demonstrations, and the women’s movement. However, it wasn’t until I began organizing a union at the newspaper where I worked as a reporter in the 1970s that I understood the power that arises when individuals who feel powerless come together. 

This is why those with power use violent means to quell protests. Yes, there can be a legitimate need to protect property and lives. But when authorities respond with excessive violence it’s because they want protesters to meet a force greater than any individual activist, greater than the transformative experience women and BIPOC have when they awaken to the power in their bodies. They hear their voice for the first time—telling their story into a microphone or joining in a chant. They sit down in places where it is prohibited, stop traffic by swarming the streets. They organize. They run for office. 

In the United States, the first strike for better wages was led by a woman at a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1836. Some 1,500 girls and women stopped working and walked out. The young woman who spoke to the group—whose name we do not know—was the first woman to publicly speak in Lowell. Think about that. The first woman to speak in public was an activist. Imagine what it felt like to stand on a limestone trough and speak of grievances when doing so might get you fired. Imagine the feeling when 1,500 of your colleagues stand quietly and listen or shout their agreement.

I see that phenomenon—that awakening—repeated in the videos of Black Lives Matter demonstrations just as I saw it when Emma Gonzalez, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spoke at the March for Our Lives. 

In 1906 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested in New York City after speaking against capitalism on a street corner. She was sixteen. The arrest didn’t stop her. During her life, she would go on to organize garment workers in Pennsylvania, silk weavers in New Jersey, restaurant workers in New York, and miners in Minnesota. She would chain herself to a lamppost in Spokane in a campaign for free speech, advocate for women’s rights, help start the ACLU, and be jailed during the McCarthy era. 

The women who walked out of the mills and glove factories and newspapers and canneries, who organized for suffrage and better working conditions, they all became Ida B. Wells, who was thrown off a train for refusing to give up her seat in a first-class car, and later documented lynchings in the South. And they became Dorothy Height, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. And Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who called for the Montgomery bus boycott after the arrest of Rosa Parks. 

These women became millions of women who marched all over the world on January 21, 2017, in reaction to the election of a president who bragged of his ability to sexually harass and assault women without consequence. 

They became the Mothers of the Movement—Black women who’d lost children to gun violence.

They became Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, who formed the Black Lives Matter Network. They became climate activist Greta Thunberg. They go door to door in the weeks before campaigns and work the polls on election day. 

Yes, we need thought leaders—people who can help frame issues and articulate goals and solutions. We need policies and legislation to enact reform. But what keeps activists coming back day after day, night after night, is an awareness that comes directly from putting one’s body on the line: people have power in their bodies. With our bodies, we can create change.

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Lois Ruskai Melina is the author of "The Grammar of Untold Stories" (Shanti Arts LLC, 2020), a collection of sixteen essays including ""Bread and Roses," which chronicles her own efforts to organize a union in the context of women’s historical role as activists. She has been a journalist, educator, and advocate for survivors of domestic violence. As an engaged citizen, she has worked on Get Out the Vote efforts since organizing for Sen. Frank Church in 1980. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and their two dogs. She can sometimes be found rowing on the Willamette River.

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