Last Saturday, at least 3.2 million Americans participated in the Women's March (including my family here in Boston), which made it the largest political protest in U.S. history. Several news outlets have compiled aerial photos to help us understand the enormity of this protest, including CNN and USA Today. Led by women, these rallies were a reaction to the rhetoric (and now actions) of President Donald Trump and the organizers described them as, "stand[ing] together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families - recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country."
The most obvious historical connection to this protest would be the 1913 Suffragette Procession, where thousands of women gathered to demand a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote (held the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration) and the Silent Sentinels protests outside the White House in 1917. Both of these protests were led by Alice Paul and the National American Woman Suffrage Association and later the National Women's Party (a NAWSA break-off group).
As a long-time government teacher and now teacher educator, I have often heard students say that they do not feel that their vote "counts." Having experienced two incredibly close elections in my life (2000 and 2016, where the winner of the Electoral College did not win the popular vote), not to mention many close state and local elections, there seems to be evidence that every vote does count. Yet, I can understand the apathy, especially with the amount of influence that large donors have on the political system. However, my reactions to these students' comments have always been, "Voting is the lowest form of democratic participation. Democracy is really what happens between elections, when citizens must engage in signing petitions, wearing political buttons/having political bumper stickers, writing to elected officials, campaigning for and contributing money to candidates, engaging in civil disobedience, lobbying for a special interest, running for office, and demonstrating through forms of protest" (the Center for Civic Education has a nice list of ways to participate in democracy here). The last one, demonstrations, is particularly important. In fact, there is a long history of political protests influencing U.S. history.
Compared to citizens in other nations (especially Europe and Latin America), Americans rarely protest. When I have taught the right to assemble, many of my students have confessed that they would "never do that." They say that they do not think protests make a difference or that they don't feel comfortable taking their political views to the streets. However, when conditions become so poor or people become so afraid that the basic tenets of democracy may be at risk (i.e. the Boston Tea Party, the Depression, the Vietnam War), the average person may decide there is no alternative than to march. I imagine many of the marchers this past weekend participated in their first political protest. As a social studies educator, the marches last weekend make me feel hopeful for our democracy.
So, how can social studies teachers help better prepare citizens who are more likely to participate in political demonstrations? I would suggest there are three problematic ways that political protests are presented in the social studies curriculum that contribute to this reluctance of Americans to exercise a right to assemble and, by challenging these views of protests, we can better help foster engaged citizens:
(1) Protests are usually presented as being led by a charismatic individual (i.e. Sam Adams leading the Boston Tea Party, Martin Luther King leading the March on Washington). Yet, most protests (including those two aforementioned protests from the 18th and 20th centuries) were not led or organized by individuals, but instead collective movements of people. This "individual leader" view sends the message to students that you need a captivating figure to organize protests (however, the Women's Marches are a clear example helping dispel this, since they had no one person leading them).
(2) Protests are presented as comprised of radicals, rather than "regular" citizens. While it is true that radicals often advocate for swifter change than the population as a whole and may be the first to protest, without regular citizens most protests would not have been very effective. A prime example of this is the Vietnam War era protests. While there were protests as early as 1963, it wasn't until a mass of "regular" students began protesting that the media and government started to pay attention. This "radicals only" view discourages citizens from regularly participating in protests.
(3) Protests are presented as one-time events, rather than a part of long-term movements. Most protests are part of movements extending years or decades, rather than a single event. In fact, protest movements often converge. For instance, in the mid-1800s there was substantial overlap between the participants of the women's rights and abolitionist movements. Today, the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement have some convergence with recent women's rights, immigrants' rights, and gay rights movements. The "one-time events" view discourages sustained political protests. Yet, sustained political protests are more likely to force the government to establish reforms leading to lasting change (for instance, the abolitionist movement had decades of political protests, in the form of newspapers, marches, rallies, lawsuits, and ultimately war before their goal of ending slavery was realized).
To help students better understand this nation's long history of protests, I suggest teachers have students engage in inquiry around the Women's Marches and three lesser-known political protests. After students compare and contrast the four movements' objectives and methods, a good inquiry question might be: "After examining the evidence from the Women's Marches and these three other events from U.S. history, which movement had the most effective methods of protest?" By using these protests, instead of some of the more well-known, students will be able to see examples that defy the above problematic depictions of protests.
1. Shay's Rebellion: In 1786-87, farmers in Western Massachusetts protested against economic inequity. This would ultimately lead to the Constitutional Convention. Howard Zinn had an excellent chapter on this in his book "A People's History of the United States." Here is a link to primary sources from Shay's Rebellion.
2. Anti-Nuclear Protests: In the late 1950s into the 1960s, across the United States, Americans protested for nuclear disarmament. This movement eventually influenced a series of agreements between the U.S. and Soviet Union to reduce their nuclear arms stockpiles (and actually gave us the peace symbol). Here is a link to primary sources from the nuclear disarmament movement between 1957 and 1985.
3. Anti-Globalization Protests: In the late 1990s, environmentalists and workers rights activist engaged in several worldwide protests of globalization, including the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization Meeting in Seattle. The movement highlighted several growing concerns related to globalization, including the devastating effects of free trade on humans and the environment, and in many ways these early protests have framed the major economic and political debate over the past 20 years. Here is a link to primary sources form the 1999 WTO Protest in Seattle.