A common refrain I’ve heard since the presidential election is how useless protesting is.

I’ve had numerous conversations with people who were simply exhausted with the presidential campaign who are now doubly frustrated that voting didn’t have the calming effect on American politics that they expected and hoped for. “Wait and see what happens!” they say. “Be nice to each other! Protesting does nothing!”

While the idea that quiet acceptance of a situation will somehow make things better is a nice dream, it has been proven false many times throughout history.

America itself is based on the belief in freedom of speech, including (maybe especially) protesting. From the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movements to the Stonewall Riots, Americans have exercised their rights to protest in both peaceful and militant ways. And, really, to effect large-scale social change, using both of these methods together has proved necessary.

One particularly illustrative example is the activist response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

The more I’ve read about the epidemic, the more I’ve realized how difficult overstating the tragedy is. Tens of thousands of Americans died while misinformation and fear was being spread about a disease too new to truly understand.

On top of this, the epidemic was largely ignored by the government for many years, mainly due to the populations being affected. Scholar Deborah Gould, in an article titled “Rock the Boat, Don’t Rock the Boat, Baby: Ambivalence and the Emergence of Militant AIDS Activism,” describes how “in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, all levels of government responded with a deafening silence that was supplanted in the mid-1980s with inadequate funding and increasingly repressive legislation.”

Then-President Ronald Reagan still hadn’t used the term “AIDS” five years into the epidemic, according to author T.V. Reed in his book about American protests. Silence from the presidential administration and discriminatory fear being spread about the gay community left them without much political influence to effect change.

When put up against this silent administration and legislation that was encroaching on gay and lesbian’s Constitutional rights, activists decided to mobilize, forming groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP combined both emotional, militant protesting tactics — like marching on Wall Street, developing impactful posters and performing theatrical demonstrations in government committee meetings and on the street — with scientific knowledge, as sociologist and medical expert Steven Epstein writes about in his book Impure Science. The demonstrations made national news of a subject that had been avoided by the presidential administration, and brought attention and support to the people being affected by the AIDS epidemic. Availability of treatments was increased and prices of medication was driven down.

What are we, then, to understand from this information? The protest techniques of the activists in ACT UP elicited results because the increased attention placed more pressure on those in control to actually make changes. Before staging public protests, the activists were mainly in caretaking roles helping those with AIDS. No one was paying attention, including the government. Once they were given time and attention, the activists could demonstrate the logic and knowledge they had gained through years of careful research and lived experience.

In this year’s political climate, we seem to want to silence many voices without actually listening. But history has shown us that protesting has real value in addressing social problems and inequality.

The way I see it, the best way to prevent protesting is to actually address the problems protesters are perceiving.

Kim Carter is an English student at the University of Maine at Augusta with an expected graduation in December 2016. She is also involved in many other activities on campus including working as a representative in the Student Government, tutoring in the Writing Center, playing the guitar and singing at campus events, speaking at academic presentations, and giving campus tours.


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