Today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, thousands of people across the country will continue to protest the Supreme Court’s leaked draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But before the paint can dry on a picket sign, someone will invariably shove a microphone in the face of a protester and ask what, exactly, this is going to accomplish. Which laws will be overturned? Whose rights will be restored? How will anyone’s life get better because of all this?
This is the modern contradiction when it comes to protest: Millions of Americans seem willing to go out into the streets to protest — perhaps more than even in the 1960s — and yet more people than ever also seem to severely doubt the pragmatic and political power of street action. Given the procedural and incremental way we look at politics today, which involves a lot of hand-wringing about how certain policies or slogans will affect some far-off election, it’s easy to forget that two of the biggest protest actions in American history took place in the past five years: The Women’s March in 2017, which drew an estimated three million to five million people from around the country, and of course, the summer of George Floyd, which brought out millions more here and around the world.
You could look at these two moments and claim that they accomplished little outside of meaningless social media posts from corporations, a spate of toothless diversity workplace initiatives and a handful of political promises like disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department that were quickly walked back. Abortion rights are now on the chopping block. Unarmed Black people are still being shot by the police, who have seen increases in their budgets in cities across the country.
But such quick assessments not only wildly underestimate the difficulty of fundamentally changing American institutions; they also miss much of the point of protests. No organizers worth their mettle believe that getting people to march together and chant will immediately lead the powers that be to meet all their demands. Rather, the goal is to create an event in which people who are outraged can gather together. Within that space, connections are made, new ideas are tested, and the infrastructure for political action gets built. The street doesn’t always have to be a place to list demands for instant change. The Floyd protests, for example, led to a boost in voter registration for Democrats. The point is the people.
If you want another example of what long-term activism can yield, consider that the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade took 50 years of dedicated organizing. Though the ultimate decision will be made by Supreme Court justices, the engine of the anti-abortion movement has always been street protests — sometimes violent — at abortion clinics, state legislative buildings and big gatherings. These have been paired with well-funded campaigns that put pressure on elected officials at nearly every level of government. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, for example, didn’t ascend the ranks of the conservative judiciary through the traditional pathway of Ivy League schools. Instead, according to Margaret Talbot’s profile in The New Yorker, Barrett’s nomination can be attributed to the way she appealed to religious activists who had expanded their power in the conservative legal movement.
For decades, as Roe stood, anti-abortion activists made incremental progress at the state level, much of which took years to secure. Early on, before they’d made real inroads, you might have asked them, “What’s the point?” The National Right to Life Committee, for example, started in 1968 as a group of Catholic bishops who opposed state abortion laws. As the movement grew, it dropped its affiliation with the church and, after a few organizational missteps, grew to become one of the most influential anti-abortion organizations in the country. Speaking in December on the possibility of Roe’s being overturned, the group’s president, who now oversees more than 3,000 local chapters, said, “We’ve been working towards this goal for many years.”
I have reported on protests from Ferguson to Standing Rock to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea. I have attended small conservative meet-ups, sat with anti-affirmative-action legal activists and met with private citizens who round up large sums of money for right-wing causes. All this has convinced me of one thing: Those on the right are better at organizing than the left. They seem to believe much more in its power than their counterparts on the other side.
This doesn’t mean the left doesn’t have organizational might. The millions who showed up for the Floyd protests are testament to that. What progressives lack is institutional support and elected officials who turn that energy into policy.
You almost never see Republican politicians denouncing protests from their side, no matter how violent or insurrectionary. (Even Jan. 6 is now seen as legitimate political discourse by the party, despite initial condemnation.) When faced with mass demonstrations from progressives, they pass anti-protest laws to suppress the right to organize. This shows an abiding belief in the potential power of public dissent; you don’t make it harder for people to protest in the streets because you think the whole thing is silly and pointless. You make it harder because you actually respect its power.
The Democratic establishment’s response to progressive demonstrations, in contrast, is to pat the protesters on the head and then, when the streets have cleared, blame them for the party’s failures. This week, Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio released an ad. He opens by saying, “Defunding the police is way off the mark” — choosing to define himself by disparaging activists who have barely been seen by a television camera since the end of 2020. In these moments, it feels as if nobody in America hates the idea of protest more than establishment liberal politicians.
And yet the future of reproductive rights will likely rely on the willingness of those liberal politicians to stand with the thousands, likely millions, who will head to the barricades. It will be on them to find a solution that represents the 62 percent of Americans who do not want to see Roe overturned.
On Monday night, many people on social media rightfully pointed out the breadth of the draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion and how it could open the door for challenges to other once-settled protections, whether of gay marriage or even school desegregation laws. Does it make more sense to try for a maximalist approach that argues that the G.O.P. will not stop at just Roe? Or should the message be about this specific decision and the threat it poses to the lives of women?
The answers will likely be found at demonstrations and in organizing meetings. There is no clear path toward a legislative restoration of abortion rights, no politician who can be the white knight, and solutions like court packing and abolishing the filibuster seem impossible. That’s precisely why people need to take to the streets.
It is no small thing for people to leave their homes to protest an injustice. The thousands who show up to these protests should be applauded for what is fundamentally a patriotic and hallowed act. Now is not the time to worry about the expected value one expects to receive in return for a day spent at the barricades.
Nor is this a time for squabbles over which group gets to lead, who is most affected by this ruling and whose voices should be prioritized. The politics that emerge from these protests need to be capacious and active; no people should think of themselves as only allies. Instead, they should echo the sentiment of something I heard an organizer in Oakland, Calif., say once, something I’ve written about before and a refrain that plays in my head on repeat every time I see people on a picket line: “There is no such thing as a good protester or a bad protester. The good protester is the one who shows up.”
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”
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