This NYT article asks some interesting questions in reponse to the recent budget cut protests at several University of California campuses: "So what kind of protests work? How is that judged? And who decides?"
As I've noted in previous posts, some of the campus protests have turned violent. Some students, intent on occupying university buildings, have been arrested for trespass. As one student leader says, violence and vandalism may motivate some students to get involved; but it will likely repulse others, including the legislators these students actually want to persuade. Protesters have always walked this tricky line. Peaceful demonstrations can drawn some attention to a cause. The larger the assembly, the more attention protesters are likely to receive. But a sterile protest that does not disrupt campus business and thereby force others to take notice may have no real effect at all. Disruption is a powerful tool. Indeed, it may be the only effective tool protesters have. Showing up for a single peaceful rally, waving signs, and then going home is not likely to advance the cause.
The questions posed are difficult to answer. They apply to all protests, really, not just those on campuses. I'll offer this: An effective protest is one that manages to convey a coherent message, gets media and other attention, and motivates others to participate in the cause. Whether one agrees with the message or not, the recent "Tea Party" protests seem to meet these basic requirements. To require that the protest actually alter state funding decisions or otherwise reverse government's immediate plans is to require too much. The civil rights protests would not, by themselves, meet that demanding test of effectiveness. Who decides? I suppose we all do. Protesters are communicating with various constituencies and audiences" fellow protesters, the general public, public officials, and the media. Each judges the effectiveness of the protest in some manner. Among these audiences, the media can be singularly important. Coverage of the protesters' message is critical for reaching outside audiences. But as I've written in prior posts, the media are somewhat biased in favor of conflict coverage. This is another reason protesters sometimes resort to disruptive and aggressive tactics. They sometimes see effectiveness as publicity, regardless of substance or content.
There are no easy answers when it comes to "valuing" protests. Although I don't agree with all of their tactics or demands, I for one am heartened that some students are willing to participate in public displays of contention. Some have even been willing to be arrestd for their cause. This at least shows that campuses have not become, as Justice William O. Douglas once warned, "useless appendages" in our democratic society. Students protests are not likely to change the painful budget realities in California. But that does not mean they lack value or are wholly ineffective.