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PROTEST ACTIVITIES AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS

Protest activities involve demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, and more recently various forms of electronic civil disobedience or “hacktivism” both in the United States and abroad (Whyte, 2011) that dramatically emphasize, often with the help of news and social media, a group’s grievances or objectives (Staggenborg, 2016). Often, such strategies, along with rioting or other use of mass violence, have been considered tools of those who are unable or unwilling to engage in the more conventional lawmaking or who regard it useless (Meyer, 2015). A celebrated act of protest, and one with which most readers are familiar, involved Rosa Parks. On December 1, 1955, Parks sat down in the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, then refused to relinquish her seat to a white man when the “white”’ section of the bus became overcrowded. Her action launched the famous black boycott of Montgomery buses that created a new era in the civil rights struggle and provided considerable impetus for civil rights legislation.

It should be noted at the outset that “the relationship among law, protest, and social change is neither unidirectional nor symmetrical—nor always predictable. One major function of protest may be to secure changes in the law as a means of inducing change in social conditions. Another may be to bring about change directly without the intervention of the law. Still a third may be to bring about legal change which ratifies or legitimizes social change accomplished by other means. These functions are not mutually exclusive” (Grossman and Grossman, 1971:357). But the impact of protest activities on law creation is clearly evident, for “the law in general, and the [U.S. Supreme] Court in particular, lacks a self-starter or capacity for initiating change on its own”’ (Grossman and Grossman, 1971:358).

People of color, feminist activists, poverty organizations, antiwar groups, environmental activists, and opponents of nuclear power and nuclear weapons have been among those who have employed protest techniques in recent years in attempts to create laws in favor of their objectives (McCann, 2006). Much of this activity is designed to generate favorable media coverage and, through this, the support of organizations and persons important in the eyes of lawmakers.

To what extent protest activities provide an impetus for lawmaking is difficult to say (McCann, 2006). But,

few major social movements or great changes have occurred without the unrest and disorder which, if one approves is called protest or civil disobedience, and if one disapproves, it is called breaking the law, violence, or worse. Violence in particular is as much a part of enforcing the law as it is of seeking changes in the law.

(Grossman and Grossman, 1971:358)

Most protest activities represent the efforts of social movements to change existing conditions. Over the years, there have been many examples of social movements that have culminated in proposals for or the actual creation of new laws and social policies (Lipschutz, 2006; McCann, 2006; Snow et al., 2004; Tilly and Tarrow, 2007). By definition, a social movement is a type of collective behavior whereby a group of individuals organizes to promote certain changes or alterations in certain types of behavior or procedures. The movement usually has specified stated objectives, a hierarchical organizational structure, and a change-oriented ideology. The movement consciously and purposefully articulates the changes it desires through political, educational, or legal channels.

A classic example is the movement to legalize abortion (Staggenborg, 2016). People had for some time regarded illegal abortion as dangerous, but efforts to legalize abortion (and thus end the death or serious injury of women) were unsuccessful. Then, a combination of women’s rights and medical groups began to demand the legalization of abortion. Medical spokespersons argued that abortion is rightfully a medical decision to be made by a physician and his or her patient. Feminist activists argued that a woman has an unassailable right over her own body and ought to be able to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy

These initial efforts succeeded to an extent, as several states during the 1960s began to repeal or greatly liberalize laws against abortion. Within this climate of opinion, the Supreme Court completed the process in 1973 by declaring in Roe v. Wade that state laws against abortion unconstitutional except in the case of the last 3 months of pregnancy.

This landmark is still the law of the land, although a 1989 Supreme Court decision sharply restricted the availability of public funds for abortion. Still, Roe v. Wade remains a classic and routinely cited example of a social movement’s impact on the law.

 
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