Good Question: Do Petitions Or Protests Actually Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO)First, it was Tea Party protests. Now there are Occupy Wall Street protests in cities around the country, and hundreds of online petitions are being launched every day. The United States seems to be entering a period of increased activism. But do online petitions and protests work?

“Swaying the public opinion will be our benchmark for success,” said John Steitz, one of the dozens protesting in Government Plaza in Minneapolis.

“We are having victories, but they might be coming slowly,” said Steitz.

“I think the Occupy movement has had a tremendous impact on the framing of discourse in this country. We were talking primarily about the debt, the debt, what are we gonna do about the debt,” said Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. Rachleff researches and teaches on the history of protests.

“And now the issue is jobs. It isn’t necessarily the Occupy movement that has said jobs is the issue, but it has really changed the discussion,” said Rachleff.

Without the Tea Party movement, Rachleff said, we probably wouldn’t have been talking about debt in the first place. A period of citizen activism has really taken over the public discourse.

Online petitions are a part of that process. A woman in her 20’s started a petition to get Bank of America to stop its plan to charge a $5 fee for debt card users, More than 300,000 people signed it, and the fee plan was eliminated.

“Where will it end?” asked Anthony Hardwick, a Target employee leading another online petition.

Hardwick didn’t like that Target planned on competing with other stores opening at midnight on Black Friday. He started an online petition, that already has 95,000 signers to “Save Thanksgiving.”

“You work so you can live. You don’t live so you can work,” Hardwick said.

Target pointed out that Hardwick is not scheduled to work that day, in fact, a spokeswoman said he asked to not work Black Friday so he could work at a different job.

“They may fail,” said Rachleff, “They probably will have to go to work at midnight. But they’ve made a lot of us think about whether it’s fair for clerks and store employees to have to work, just so we can go shop at midnight,” he said.

Rachleff said throughout history social change takes a long time.

“The consequences sometimes take longer than the time frame appears to be,” he said. “What may appear to be successes in the short run, doesn’t work out. Or what appears to be defeat turns into something else in the longer run,” according to Rachleff.

He said the fight for civil rights started in the late 1800’s, and didn’t achieve major profess until 60 or 70 years later.

The fight for workers to have safe working conditions and the right to unionize also took decades.

“The metaphor I use is zigging and zagging. It’s not that there are two extreme sides and we settle in the middle. Rather the social movement goes this way,” he said, illustrating the zig and the zag.

In the short term, it’s often very difficult to tell if a protest movement is having success or failure, he said. Historians can see it.

Online petitions can have success, but not always on the specific issue they’re working on.

“I think it educates people, and more of us are more aware of more issues as a result of these petitions that end up in our inboxes,” he said.

More from Jason DeRusha
  • BigjohnT

    They do not work. They just bring more of the same problem. It’s the law of attraction. You attract what you don’t want by obsessing about instead of attracting the things you do want. Once I started seeing how the law of attraction works my life has improved tremendously. Don’t protest get out there and make things work instead of whining about them.

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  • really?

    Protests DO work. They ended British rule over this country, unsafe working conditions for our people, and the war in Viet Nam, just to name a few things. This country was not founded on a wait and see attitude, and protesting is a valid way to make your voice heard and get things done. How else will the ordinary majority get heard when politicians are so out of touch with their constituents? I’ve never had a news crew descend on my house because I’ve written my congressman a letter, but they turn out in droves for well organized protests…hmmmm!

    • AntiTeabagger

      So tell me how did the Vietnam Protests work? what did it do? NOTHING. The problem is that you have too many sheep and not enough leaders leading this so-called protest. To the rest of the world, you are people who just want attention about 1 million issues that no one can strike down with one blow and cure.

      Pick an agenda, get a leader, get objectives, and for godsake, stop whining about how poor little ol’d me is being put down by “the man”

      • Bill

        The ‘Nam protests did nothing??? You’re kidding, right? If it weren’t for the ‘Nam protests, we’d probably still be there…

        • DougT

          The Nam protestors lost the war we were winning. Sure it was a mess – wars are a mess. But American lives were lost for nothing. The protestors were spoiled brats manipulated by the commies in Nam . – And it was easier and more fun to hang out, chant, have “free sex” and complain……

          I am sure the “occupy” people would like that too


          • Citizen

            @DougT. Your post is nothing but fiction. We were losing the war in VietNam just as the French lost the war before us. I’m flagging your comment….

      • dan

        Great point! The Vietnam protest were liberal democrats much like the Occupy crowd. Dirty, worthless, unemployed scabs of society. Spitting on Soldiers? Needles hidden in leaf piles, sex in public and lack of bathrooms says alot about these protestors.
        Go Home!

        • really?

          It just shows how ignorant you are to blame a whole group of any kind for the stupid actions of one or two. Most of the people protesting actually have jobs, and it speaks a lot about you that you think any human is worthless, or a scab.

      • frozenrunner

        There is not enough space here to explain to you in terms you would understand. Buy a book and read. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era – Charles DeBenedetti, would be an example. Protesting changed the public opinion. Although the war was ongoing, the buildup of US troops did not happen until July 65. The antiwar movement soon followed. Note there is not a large scale protest over the mideast wars and troops are still there 10 years later.

  • PShredder

    I grew up in the 60’s watching with disgust the Vietnam protests in the Univerisity of Wisconsin-Madison campus. I didn’t understand why people distroyed property and terrorized the locals just to call attention to their cause.

    Ever since, whenever I see a protest, I just shut them out. To quote Grocho Marx, “Whatever you are for, I’m against it.”

  • just sayin

    They don’t work. Just like the OWS protesters themselves, they don’t work.

  • l

    protesters were horrible to the veterans who fought for their rights to protest those protesters should be ashamed of themselves and thank a veteran today.

  • Kevin

    Again I ask….do the dozen people in occupy MN really deserve all this news coverage? Who is supporting them? How many are really from MN? And why does the news continue to compare them to the Tea Party? There is no comparison! And why are they not protesting the Govt….the Govt is at fault here…..

  • Ordinary Guy

    The varied themes of protest are symptoms of real national problems that manifest themselves in many ways. Our nation must resolve the underlying problems that are for many, too vague or complicated to tag.

    The party that can heal these symptoms by first, identifying and clarifying, then solving the underlying problems will prevail in coming elections. Or at least, that’s the hope. You can’t claim that bailouts and foreclosures, job losses, stagnant growth, and wealth disparity, rising debt, are just wild accusations.

  • John Frykman

    If you have a message that can be communicated with a sentence or two, then protests MAY make a difference. The Tea Party message was and is, Lower Taxes, Smaller, more Responsive Government. The OWS has no such message. Although the MSM doesn’t point it out, they have no message. They just want more stuff, and want other people to pay for it. But of course, that message cannot be communicated by people who largely don’t even know what they are protesting.

    • Frankie

      The problem with the OWS message is that it is nebulous enough that people like you make up what their goals are. Nowhere do they state they want more stuff and someone else to pay for it. Enjoy your ever shrinking portion of the wealth.

  • withabang

    all you nay sayers, just give up your American rights now that all of you seem to think are worthless.

    They, as well as all of us on U.S. soil, have a right to protest.

    Take away that right (regardless if “it works”) and we may as well not be free.

    • DougT

      There is a difference between protesting government policies etc… and Street Theater. The “occupiers” are a group largely made up of professional agitators looking for a protest, Union Thugs, lost sheep, and then a few (the minority) who actually have seen some hard times and are looking for some help.

      Still – if they had a point apart from a hissy fit over the mean unfair world – then the real majority might take notice…..I mean they should be called the >.0001 %

    • dan

      Its not the rights that are worthless, its the people that are protesting that are worthless.

  • Callina

    Tea Partiers got their share of bashing and crude nicknames. Now it’s the Occupiers’ turn.

    Being able to protest is a great thing. It is a RIGHT, protected (or it should be protected) by law.

    All that many of us ask, though, is that you obey the laws, respect people, respect private AND public property, and clean up after yourselves! You’d gain a LOT more respect for your protest if you did these things consistently.

  • Don

    You people make me sick. Do any of you have jobs? Grow up and get on with your lives. .i’m a vietnam vet and proud of it..

    • Mark

      @ Don
      I am a proud participant in Occupy.
      Here are a few facts for you:

      1) I have one full time job and 2 part time jobs. I have worked six days per week for the past 20 plus years.
      2) I also volunteer for different groups, and schools.
      3) I am also a vet, and proud of it as well. I fought for, as did you, for this freedom that all of us hold dear. The think to remember is we are NOT willing to give this freedom up. Not to you, or anyone else.

      Remember your oath sir:

      I promise to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, Foreign and Domestic.

      Last I checked, we at Occupy are not attacking the rights of others. However OUR rights to speech and the ability to redress our grievances are truly being attacked.

      Thank you for your service to this wonderful nation.

      • Desert Eagle .50

        People have the right to freedom of speech and assembly, but only up to a point. No one has the right to trespass, break the law, or create a public nusaince. Can you pitch tents on an entrance ramp and block access to 494? I don’t think so. Occupying a park and denying space to others……

        Even the 2nd ammendment, of which I am most fond, has limits to where you can carry and a permit is required, just like a permit is required to hold a parade. You can’t just do what you want where and when you want to.

        Do you support public carry of firearms without a permit or training because the Constitution “says so”?

      • Common Cents

        Really Mark? You right to speech is being attacked? I didn’t know we were challenging or repealing the 1st ammendment right, where is the data to support that?

        You have the freedom to free speech, but you do not have the freedom to force anyone to listen to you who doesn’t want too.

        Maybe if you worked at your 3 jobs instead of commenting on a message board all day, you wouldn’t have to work 3 jobs….

        Not sayin, just sayin…

      • Citizen

        @Mark. I support you and the OWS protesters. I also want to state the the oath you took was also taken by our legislators and the president. All those conservative pledges signed to support Grover Norquist’s no new taxes agenda to starve the U.S. Government, are, in my opinion, treason to the United States. I keep waiting for someone to bring charges against the people involved.

      • really?

        Well said, and thank you for serving our country Mark!

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