I popped out of the 86th Street station in New York City on a warm, bright, sunny day. The sky was blue, the trees were green, the clouds were fluffy … and that’s when I hit the wall.
I couldn’t move. Forced up against the green subway lamppost, I stared at the throngs of people passing.
There was a surging river of sweaty, hot pink shouting. Babies crying. A deafening helicopter above. Metallic fences all around. I had found it: the great and awe-inspiring Women’s March.
Wiping the perspiration from my brow, I set out to join the marching masses; but after a few hours of slogan-repeating and sign-reading, I began to question why I had come.
To be clear, I completely support protests. They have the power to be extremely effective in making crucial change, and they give a voice to the voiceless who’ve had enough. That said, “mass protests,” as I like to call them, have lost much of their efficiency and with it, much of their power.
The problem with mass protests like the Women’s March is that they don’t speak a useful message to an audience that can apply it. As I continued marching I saw signs for every issue imaginable: the wage gap, the climate crisis, LGBTQIA+ rights, abortion, immigration, impeachment … and thus the march had no singular message — each cause was lost in a torrent of righteous anger.
While I completely agreed with most of the bobbing signs and spirited shouts at the Women’s March, I didn’t feel that letting my friends and neighbors know that I’m pro-choice, for example, really did anything to advance the goal of expanding or preserving access to abortion. I thought about how shouting that message outside (or even better, inside) the Supreme Court would be much more effective.
The biggest women’s marches generally take place in cities like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. These are all places whose states boast some of the higher percentages of pro-choice people in their populations.
Mass protests like the Women’s March are meant for the media, but conservative-leaning media don’t cover these protests enough. And when they do, they tend to do it through a negative lens.
According to PolitiFact, Fox News, the nation’s No. 1 most watched news network, horribly undercovered the women’s march. The network also tends to promote anti-choice views so it’s hard to imagine they would be unbiased in their reporting on the issue.
So when people at the Women’s March express their opinions on a woman’s right to choose, they’re effectively preaching only to the choir, not reaching the pews.
That said, movements like the Women’s March tend to empower the choir to take action. However, a more efficient way to mobilize a larger audience is through a realistic call to action. There’s a lot of value in saying “guns make America more dangerous” to a street full of people who concur, but the message is even more effective if it’s followed by “so write your congressperson about (specific gun legislation) at (congressperson’s email address).”
Again, the key here is to speak to an audience who can effect change. Any audience has the potential to effect change if given the right job, but mass protests don’t tend to be that specific.
This leads me to my most important justification in sitting out mass protests: slacktivism. Slacktivism is defined as a fake form of activism that takes very little effort, requires very little commitment and makes almost no impact at all.
It’s a “feel-good” measure. Putting an “I stand with ___” filter on a picture and posting it on Instagram is a great example of slacktivism. As president of my environmental club in high school, I saw slacktivism in action in plenty of students who chose to sit out park clean-ups or phone banking sessions because they felt like they had already done their part for the Earth by attending a mass climate protest.
A danger of organizing mass protests as a means of change-making is that you end up channeling the finite supply of energy in a movement toward a dead end. In this way, “feel-good protests” can actually inhibit change that could have happened faster if the protesters had been more efficient in their messaging.
This is not to say that organizing protests is a form of slacktivism. Organizing protests is extremely difficult, complex work that can sometimes yield very valuable results. Attending protests like the Women’s March without taking further action is slacktivism.
Of course, there are people for whom the system has failed. They may believe that voting is useless because one party is too ingrained in their area or that a dialogue with their representative would go nowhere. Those people absolutely should protest — just by having a specific message tailored for the world — since exposure to an audience can help support their cause and bring attention to it.
To all the activists out there, next time you’re thinking of organizing a protest, make absolutely sure that you’re speaking to an audience that can help your cause, you have a clear call to action and that you have an immediate step two for your audience to take when they hear your cries.
These second steps can be letter writing campaigns, phone banking, bake sales, raffles, voter registration and more. Activism is democracy, and protests can be valuable. To be successful in preserving our rights and making important change, we must be active, efficient and effective.
Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from New York, New York. She’s a big fan of the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.