Examining the power of protest

With revolution in Egypt, upheaval in Yemen, civil war in Libya and riots in Greece, 2011 has been a historically significant year for political upheaval and protest. Tireless news organizations and omnipresent social media have allowed us to follow these movements moment by moment.

For the past two months, we’ve been inundated with images from the Occupy Wall Street protests. Like wildfire, the movement has spawned protests across the nation, including in Tampa and the USF campus. The general population seems to be fumbling with how to deal with the events, being the first prominent, mass protest that has occurred in our generation.

During a time in which individuals have a variety of platforms to express their opinions, people feel inclined to discuss, and often criticize, the recent flume of protests.

Unlike movements of the past, social media and other Internet vehicles have had a major hand in protests of the 21st century. Shaza Hussein, a junior double majoring in environmental science and policy and chemistry, participates in Occupy USF. She said social media platforms ensured its success.

“Social media has undoubtedly shaped this movement greatly,” Hussein said. “It’s thanks to Facebook that Occupy Tampa can take actions to stand in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, despite the distance. It’s because of Twitter and Tumblr that everyone knew about the UC Davis pepper-spray incident almost immediately after it occurred.”

While it seems true that social media has been a uniting force to an extent, it also has the ability to negatively impact acts of protest. Professor Robert Benford, chair of USF’s Department of Sociology, said the cyber side of protest has pros and cons.

“We see rapid mobilization, as we saw in Egypt a year ago, in ways that, with prior technologies, weren’t possible or likely. In terms of raising consciousness across more people and more cultures, it has that possibility,” Benford said. “But, it can also be used to repress movements and control movements. It’s not a technology that’s inherently good or bad. It’s another tool, and an interesting one.”

The prevalence of labeling popular issues, occurrences and news items as “trending” topics on the Internet begs the question – is the sheer buzz-worthiness of the Occupy movement overshadowing its intent?

Thomas Frain, a senior majoring in econmics, has participated in protests across the nation. He co-founded an organization titled the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability and has been in anti-war demonstrations in St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C

“I believe these murmurs of a ‘trend’ are by the same elites that are afraid of the movement,” he said. “In today’s society, trends last days, not months. And to see it spread in such a way, to see these little towns springing up with Occupy movements, I believe it is unprecedented.”

Over the past few months, a greater number of young people have decided to do more than just post their political and social grievances on their Facebook profiles, and have taken to public realms to express their dissatisfaction. Protests have become visible presences on college campuses across the nation. This might suggest that our country’s youth is becoming increasingly motivated to voice opinions regarding societal and political issues.

“I think it’s important that these young people are engaging in civic society,” Benford said. “They’re fairly clear on the things they want.”

Benford said current political protests are far reaching, in accordance with issues affecting Americans in contemporary society. Corporate greed, austerity measures, student debt, runaway inflation for tuition, climate change and exploitation of the planet are just a handful of modern catalysts for protests.

Sally Haefling, a senior majoring in women’s and gender studies, said the Occupy movement is holistic and all-encompassing.

“The movement has many issues because, let’s be honest with ourselves, there are many issues to cover right now as we move more toward a depression and economic disparity,” Haefling said.

The civil rights movement of the mid-20th century was a testament to the fact that results of civil resistance are not immediately visible. Social change takes years, sometimes decades. Only time will tell if recent forms of protest, particularly the very new Occupy movement, will endure and make an indelible impact.

“Very few movements, early on, have a well-developed prognosis or set of solutions,” Benford said. “I don’t think it’s up to a movement to fix what we’ve messed up over several generations. I think to identify the problems is a useful step.”