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Actions Sparked By Protests Can Have Sustained Influence

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

With all these demonstrations taking place since President Trump took office, we got to wondering about the effectiveness of protest movements. In January, you'll recall there was a much larger Women's March followed by the March for Life by those who oppose legal abortion followed in February by the Day Without Immigrants.

We wanted to know if there's a lesson to be learned from the demonstrations or from history, so we're joined now by Professor David Meyer from the University of California, Irvine. He's the author of "The Politics Of Protest: Social Movements In America." We reached him in Irvine. Professor, thanks for joining us.

DAVID MEYER: Good to be with you, Ray.

SUAREZ: When you look at the series of protests since President Trump has taken office, cumulatively involving millions of people, what do you see?

MEYER: Well, I see an earlier take-off and a broader range of causes being deployed to take people out into the streets than in any time prior. So there were big demonstrations in 1968 after Richard Nixon was elected, but they were mostly focused on the war and on civil rights. Now the range of causes that are represented by people who are holding placards is really unprecedented.

SUAREZ: But as we see these protests roll out across the country, it felt for a while like millions were on the street in cities all over the country. That creates one kind of impression, but if it doesn't lead to something tangible, how should we understand what's going on?

MEYER: Well, the really important thing to remember is the policy change and protests take a long time. And when people take to the streets, it's usually because it's so hard to get policy reforms in the direction that they want. If Democrats control the House of Congress, for example, or if Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election, then you would not see all these people out in the streets. They're protesting precisely because it's so hard to get what they want.

Now, when we look at influence, I'm reasonably certain that we can make a pretty compelling case that the protests made it very hard for Trump and the Republicans to pass their health care reform plan. The Democrats claim victory for this. Protesters were ecstatic, but it didn't make their lives better. It didn't change policy in any way. It was a defensive win.

SUAREZ: It seems to me that keeping this up is a difficult thing logistically and emotionally, what we've seen so far in these first three months. Is it likely to wane in the coming months?

MEYER: If people just show up at demonstrations, then it gets fatiguing. So do you go to the science march this week or the climate march next week? If you go to both, then who's going to get your groceries on the weekend? It is hard. It is tiring.

But if the protests are seen as punctuation marks in a larger story of dissent in which people turn up at town meetings and ask questions about the funding of NIH, in which people run for office, in which people vote in state legislative elections, well then you can have a lot of impact and you can have sustained influence.

SUAREZ: David Meyer is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine and the author of "The Politics Of Protest: Social Movements In America." Professor Meyer, thanks a lot.

MEYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.