Others’ Opinion: Peaceful rallies are key to a strong democracy

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

The last eight days in America began and ended with marches and protests — from smaller annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day gatherings to marches that drew more than a million people worldwide on Saturday. Protesters in 300 American cities made their voices heard on a variety of issues — ranging from women’s reproductive rights to immigration policy to excessive police force.

Email newsletter signup

Many united in opposition to President Trump’s agenda and in support of human and civil rights. They wanted their voices heard, just as the hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters who attended Friday’s inauguration wanted to express their support for the new order in Washington, D.C.

All of the demonstrations, including Sunday’s anti-abortion rally at the State Capitol in St. Paul, were tributes to this nation’s First Amendment right to free speech. The protests were bookends to another success story of this democracy — namely the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

It’s also worth noting — and celebrating — that most of the events were held without incident, although regrettably there were more than 200 arrests in Washington as anti-Trump protesters clashed with police on Inauguration Day. Now the question is whether the other orderly, issue-oriented demonstrations will move hearts, minds and bodies to political action.

Our proud history of protests has been mixed on that score. From rallies against the Iraq war to nuclear power opposition to Occupy Wall Street, some major demonstrations have not directly translated into significant policy changes. In Wisconsin, for example, tens of thousands marched on the State Capitol in 2011 to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s moves to weaken unions. Walker easily overcame a recall effort, however, and since has been re-elected.

On the other hand, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom helped prompt federal anti-discrimination policies. And rallies against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ‘70s no doubt contributed to the U.S. withdrawal from that conflict.

Major LGBT-rights demonstrations laid the groundwork for marriage equality that is now the law of the land. And grass-roots meetings and protests led to the creation of the modern Tea Party, which has gone on to elect candidates and influence the GOP platform.

It’s symbolic — and maybe even therapeutic — for people to express strong feelings through protests and rallies. But they can be more meaningful than that. Large rallies can be calls to action that inspire participants to move beyond marching, chanting and carrying signs.

The honored practice of peaceful marches and protests can motivate Americans to become more engaged citizens. If these events also lead to increased voter turnout, regardless of the issue, our democracy is the big winner.