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.

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