As Egyptians take to the streets in mass protests, it’s easy for Americans to distinguish such actions from their own. After all, the United States already has the political freedom sought by protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other non-democratic nations. But France, Spain, and other western European nations also have political freedom – yet mass street protests in these countries are routine. For example, while students across Europe have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest tuition hikes, U.S. students have not – despite college costs going through the roof. Nor have there been public street protests among the poor and unemployed, despite the highest poverty levels since 1959. Street protests in the United States primarily arise in response to the start of unpopular wars, or to police shootings of racial minorities. Many believe that U.S. residents don’t take to the streets because conditions here are not desperate enough; but there is a more powerful reason.
In the United States, the Egyptian protesters risking their lives to defy curfews is seen as a quest for freedom by a desperate people. It recalls our own American Revolution, or the courageous protests of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
But for much of the world, street protests are not limited to revolutionary struggles. Such mass public disruptions are common throughout Europe and South America, where people see it as the most effective strategy for asserting their interests (for example, Bolivians used such protests last weekend to stop planned fuel increases).
Why are such protests so rare in the United States? And who benefits from their absence?
The Myths of Individualism and Political Democracy
We do not see mass street protests in the United States, for three chief reasons.
First, the myth of American individualism instills people with the belief that their problems are their own fault, not society’s. That’s why collective action in all forms is less common in the United States than in other nations.
Second, our police are nearly as repressive on cracking down on unauthorized protests as they are in non-democratic nations. Even peaceful protests outside the Republican National Conventions in 2004 and 2008 in two supposedly liberal cities (New York City and Minneapolis) spawned police violence against activists.
Third, and most importantly, the United States creates the illusion of offering an extraordinary array of options for expressing dissent without mass protest. These options are promoted, advertised, and persistently instilled into people, leaving those engaging in spontaneous protest at risk of being seen as unhinged, potentially violent and disconnected from political reality.
The common view is that mass protests are missing because even the poorest Americans have televisions, cars, and other attributes of middle-class life. But not only is relative deprivation
rather than abject poverty a key spark for protest, but with millions of Americans homeless or ill-housed, the conditions on the ground in the United States would have already triggered mass action if occurring in a European democracy.
Our Anti-Protest Culture
: In the United States, it is often said that those not voting in elections have no right to complain about the outcome. Voting is extolled as our primary civic duty, and the most legitimate means to express protest.
The fact that corporations can now freely give unlimited sums to influence voting for candidates, that they have long been able to fund state ballot measures that undermine the democratic process (with such measures imposing 2/3 vote requirements for tax increases instead of a majority), and that the entire structure of the federal government rewards the minority over the political majority (from filibusters to 2/3 vote requirements to North Dakota’s estimated 646,000 residents having the same U.S. Senate representation as California’s 36 million) is forgotten. Americans have the right to vote, and that makes street protests out of bounds.
Political v Economic Democracy
: Whereas political democracy in the United States is deemed our defining virtue, the term “economic democracy” is only heard in college classrooms and among the progressive left. This means Americans are far more likely to channel dissent into the “acceptable” political realm, but not to take to the streets over corporate control of public resources, an issue that has caused massive public upheavals across the world.
New York Times
columnist Charles Blow recently noted
that President Obama’s recent State of the Union address “was only the second time since Harry S. Truman’s State of the Union address in 1948 that such a speech by a Democratic president did not include a single mention of poverty or the plight of the poor.” Obama ignored this issue despite the percentage of people living in poverty in the United States at the highest since 1959, and with those earning under $15,000 the constituency that most backed Obama in the 2008 election.
In countries where the poor believe that they have the right to protest rising income inequality and poverty, and where the leader they elected publicly ignores their problems, people take to the streets. In the United States, they abandon voting (as occurred in the midterm elections) and turn away from politics.
:Unlike non-democratic nations, the United States has permit procedures to allow street protests. These procedures contribute to the sense that mass protests must be organized well in advance, legally permitted, and ideally located in a large public space like the Washington Mall which ensures that no disruption of daily life occurs.
The net result is that such mass street protests do not challenge authority. Meanwhile, non-permitted protests outside officially sanctioned locations are discouraged if not suppressed.
To be clear, there are many street protests that disregard official protest rules. But in the United States these typically involve such foolish acts as vandalism against property owners who have no connection to the underlying injustice, or blocking traffic against innocent motorists to establish “no business as usual.”
In the United States, one rarely sees ongoing mass, non-violent, non-sanctioned protests in public parks, public squares, or in other areas where powerful opposition can be demonstrated without hurting those not responsible. People have been too conditioned to believe such powerful protests do not make a difference.
As frustrated, struggling Americans are inspired by the scenes from Egypt, one wonders if some will question their own quiet acceptance of their plight, and start thinking of how they can creatively use nonviolent activism to improve their own lives.
For hope and inspiration in these trying times, try Randy Shaw's Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.