Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts
by Ian Sinclair
18 December 2018
A common response to those protesting is to dismiss it is a waste of time – “the government doesn’t listen”, “things never change” opine the naysayers. Frustratingly, this argument is sometimes even made by those doing the protesting themselves. On the 10th anniversary of the huge 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park that day – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.
Leftists and activists working for progressive social change would be wise to steer clear of this kind of negativity, and instead remember that actions and protests often have unexpected, positive effects on other people and the wider world.
This rule very much applies to protests that seem like a failure at the time.
For example, in the early 1960s, Lisa Peattie, a young American widow, took two of her children to a vigil in front of the White House to protest nuclear testing.
“The vigil was small, a hundred women at most”, Paul Loeb, a friend of Peattie’s, writes in his bestselling 1999 book The Soul Of A Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. “Rain poured down. Lisa’s children were restless. Frustrated and soaked, the women joked about how President Kennedy was no doubt sitting inside drinking hot chocolate, warm, comfortable, and not even looking at their signs.”
A few years later, Peattie attended another march in Washington D.C. about nuclear testing, this one significantly larger. One of the speakers that day was the famous paediatrician Benjamin Spock. “Spock described how he’d come to take a stand on the nuclear issue”, Loeb notes. “Because of his stature, his decision was immensely consequential, and would pave the way for his equally important opposition to the Vietnam War.” And here is the kicker: “Spock mentioned being in D.C. a few years earlier, and seeing a small group of women marching with their kids in the pouring rain.”
“I thought that if those women were out there,” Spock said, “their cause must be really important.”
According to the author Tom Wells, “few activists” in the anti-war movement Spock went on to play such an important part in “fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed.” Despite this ignorance the movement “played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, Wells concludes in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam. This analysis was confirmed by Admiral Moorer, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon Administration, who told Wells, “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.”
The Vietnam War provides another case of the unexpected impact of activism. In the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg worked as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation where he helped to compile a top-secret study of the history of the war that had been commissioned by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “He was very hawkish”, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett said about Ellsberg, having met him in Vietnam in 1966 when he was leading a patrol to locate an enemy sniper.
Growing increasingly disillusioned by the war, around 1969 Ellsberg began going along to anti-war movement events and protests, encouraged by his then girlfriend, and now wife. While attending a War Resister’s League conference and listening to draft resister Randy Kehler talk about his fellow activists going to prison, Ellsberg experienced a kind of epiphany. “It was as if an axe had split my head”, Ellsberg recounts in the 2009 documentary about his life, The Most Dangerous Man in America. “But what had really happened is that my life had split into two. It was my life after those words that I have lived ever since.” This life famously included deciding to leak, in 1971, the top secret history – now known as The Pentagon Papers – which exposed the lies the US government had been telling the American people for decades. “If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy those papers”, Ellsberg later said.
With the release of the Pentagon Papers failing to rouse the American public to rise up and stop the destruction of Vietnam, the documentary describes how Ellsberg felt he had failed. But while his actions may have failed to stop the war – an impossible feat for one individual, of course – he had a huge influence on another whistleblower more than four decades later: US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.
“While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary [The Most Dangerous Man in America]”, Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents in 2013, told the Guardian in January. “Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.”
This process of apparent defeat turning out to be the start of something hugely influential and powerful can be seen in UK protest too.
In the early 1990s a group of concerned young people set up camp at Twyford Down in 1992 to try to stop the building of the M3 motorway extension through beautiful chalk downland. This construction was part of “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”, the Tory government had boasted in 1989. After living in tents in terrible conditions for several months, in December 1992 the protesters were violently evicted in what became known as Yellow Wednesday. Defeated and physically exhausted the group left the camp, and while there were many other protests, the road went ahead.
However, though the road was built, the Twyford Down protests lit the fuse for a growing movement against road building across the UK, with camps and nonviolent direct action sprouting up against the M11 Link Road in east London, at Solsbury Hill, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle, the Newbury Bypass and many other places, causing the government and road builders huge problems. With the Tories on their last legs and public opinion shifting, the road building programme was effectively scrapped. The 600 proposed new road schemes dropped to 150 by 1997, with Labour putting the whole programme on hold after that year’s general election. The activists at Twyford Down and the other anti-roads protests had lost nearly every individual battle, but in the end they won the war. Moreover, the anti-roads activists influenced the next ‘war’ by inspiring the founders of Plane Stupid direct action group, who played a key role in the halting of Heathrow expansion in the 2000s.
In a perfect world, every protest would produce clear, direct and quick results. In (messy) reality the exact impact of a protest or movement is often difficult to discern, with its full effects sometimes not felt for years, decades even. The 2003 anti-Iraq war march and movement that Tariq Ali disparages has had a whole host of long-term influences, from helping to shift public opinion against UK military interventions and shortening Tony Blair’s political career, to being a key factor in the historic 2013 parliamentary vote that stopped British military action in Syria. In 2016 Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, argued “We cannot overlook the fact that widespread opposition to the [Iraq] war… played a big part in [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s rise.”
Indeed, as Snowden shows above, it’s possible the people who will be inspired by a protest are not even born when it takes place.
More broadly, it’s always good to keep a positive attitude about the possibility of making a difference. As Bertolt Brecht is said to have argued, “Those who struggle may fail. But those who do not struggle have already failed”.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral history of the 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.