Are Mass Protests and Civil Disobedience Still Effective?

As millions prepare to return to the streets January 20, debate swirls about the power of protest.

Photo Credit: bakdc/Shutterstock

As millions prepare to return to the streets on Saturday, January 20, for a reprise of last year’s Women’s March—the largest mass protest in American history—people of conscience are actively debating critical questions about the power of protest. Are mass protests and civil disobedience still effective? What are the most effective strategies for achieving lasting social change? What is the connection between protest movements and electoral politics? Do we need more marchers or mayors?

The Power of Protest, a new documentary film we're launching on Kickstarter, seeks to answer these questions in the Trump era. The film will follow a year in the life of contemporary social movements like the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Gays Against Guns, Lancaster Against Pipelines and Indivisible to see how they frame and pursue their objectives during a period of intense social turmoil leading into the 2018 midterm elections, and beyond.  

We will also hear from strategic leaders of the civil rights movement, the Tea Party movement and the recent struggle for marriage equality to explore how social and technological changes are transforming what environmental activist Bill McKibben, one of our project advisers, calls the "rapidly evolving new science" of non-violent protest.

Case Studies in Resistance

The Kickstarter campaign we’ve produced offers a sample of our approach. It tells the story of a small but influential group of activists fighting to stop construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline in the heart of Central Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

The 184-mile pipeline is designed to carry fracked gas from the Marcellus shale fields in Northern Pennsylvania to Maryland and the Gulf Coast for industrial use and export to foreign markets. Its original route passed right through the backyard of Mark and Malinda Clatterbuck, whose house sits in a shady hollow in rural Lancaster County. Mark, a professor of religious studies at Montclair State University, and Malinda, a Mennonite minister, are unlikely activists. But after a land agent for the pipeline knocked on their front door in March 2014 and tried to bully them into leasing their land, their living room quickly became ground zero for local resistance.

The opening gambit of Lancaster Against Pipelines was to pass a local ordinance to prohibit the pipeline. But even though the majority of their neighbors supported the ban, Mark says, the town lawyers discovered it was illegal to pass legislation that “discriminates” against fossil fuel companies, and the effort failed.  

Next, they tried to convince federal regulators to stop the project based on its potential for environmental damage, but even with support from the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, construction was approved in September 2017.

"The issue that really frustrates me," says Malinda, "is that Williams, a company based in Oklahoma, has the right to come into our community and do what they want on my land and I don't have the right to say no, you can't do that on my property. That's unconscionable to me."

"Nonviolence to us means no violence against people and no violence against possessions, so we're not doing damage to equipment," says Malinda, whose direct action inspirations include Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel and Philip Berrigan and John Dear. "It means that we use our bodies to stand in the way of equipment that's destroying the land in our community."

"Basically, we feel like our resistance highlights a moral crisis," says Mark. "And that moral crisis doesn’t come to the surface unless there’s confrontation."

"I think there's nothing more patriotic than what we're doing,” he concludes. "Throughout the history of our country, as we all know, principled resistance, principled protest, is really the bedrock of democracy."

On board: Danny Glover, Bill McKibben, Roberta Kaplan

By setting the efforts of activists like Mark and Malinda Clatterbuck alongside the work of the Women’s Marchers, Black Lives Matter, Gays Against Guns and Indivisible, we hope to better understand the moral and social tensions now reshaping American politics—while also mapping out the most effective tools and strategies now available for a new generation of activists.

We’ve assembled an advisory board that includes civil rights veteran Danny Glover, environmental activist Bill McKibben, lawyer Roberta Kaplan, and veteran journalists Ray Suarez and Rory Kennedy. 

The time is ripe to understand the power of protest.

Support the "Power of Protest" Kickstarter campaign. Get more information and share suggestions for movements or stories.

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Micah Fink's most recent film, Beyond Borders, explored the lives of undocumented Mexican-American families in the U.S. and aired on public television stations around the country in 2016. He has produced documentaries for HBO, CNN, ABC News, National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Wild, and PBS Wide Angle.