Reflection: Not your Founding Fathers’ protests

By Lane Hedrick, F/G Scholar

While America has roots in protest, the Founding Fathers could not have fathomed the way modern protests could mobilize, spread, and find success. The year of 2018 has not been immune to heartache and damage, but it has found a series of small lights in the darkness: protests. Between Black Lives Matter, #MarchForOurLives and more, the American public will no longer stand idly by as people die.While the root of each of these protests is different, there is a fascinating reflection into the similarities. Here’s exactly what the Founding Fathers could not have fathomed: social media. Black Lives Matter was able to capitalize on the unique video-sharing capabilities of Facebook and Twitter – allowing people across the country AND the world to develop a visual connection with the violence at hand. The Parkland students who used their voices and experience to stand up against gun violence – after their school experienced a shooting – used hashtag movements, like #MarchForOurLives and #NeverAgain, to spread the word and create a sense of action amongst anyone who tweeted, typed, or messaged using the same hashtags. While reviewing literature on these protests – as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the rising White Nationalist Movement – their mechanisms for success were all eerily similar: each experienced national attention and each movement has ripple effects in 2018.

While it is clear that such national attention was undeniably the result of social media growth, the more important question is: what did the protests accomplish? There are two components to this question: 1) what were the tangible results of the movement? and 2) what were societal impacts that happened in the wake of each movement? A thoroughly successful protest will demonstrate success in each of these areas. This success was seen by the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Parkland movements, but it was not reflected in the other protests mentioned. Occupy Wall Street lost traction, and the mobilization efforts against the White Nationalists from Charlottesville grew stronger than the original movement; however, BLM and Parkland not only demonstrate success in the realm of tangible results, but also in societal movements.

First, tangible results. BLM has successfully organized itself through grassroots movements. According to the movement’s website, there are thirteen states (and the District of Colombia) that have active, engaged chapters. These chapters encourage people to vote, give TED talks, and more to encourage people to contribute their time and money to the cause. Parkland used a similar cause. Next, each experienced societal success. Parkland saw a massive rally develop in Washington D.C. and across the nation, while BLM has garnered attention from prominent singers such as Beyoncé. These societal responses encourage a larger audience; thus, encouraging more people to join the fight.

The success of these movements seems obvious, but something struck my eye while reading about them: what actually encourages people to care? This question is not new to history and has been answered by history before. To answer this question, I thought back to Lynn Hunt’s book Inventing Human Rights. Hunt theorizes that the dawn of the novel helped to spread empathy and connection by telling the stories of women, servants, and the enslaved. By telling such stories in narratives that were easy to follow and easy to connect to, people grew empathetic towards the plight of the vulnerable. According to Hunt, modern human rights were developed at this time. We are seeing a new “invention” of human rights through the use of new methods: video recordings and the sharing of harsh images. Through engaging with images that are difficult for people to see, everyone is increasing their ability to understand – thus, creating empathy. It is difficult for a white person to recognize policy brutality but seeing videos of events happening makes the issue easier to digest. This prompts action. This is what makes these movements successful in the modern age. And this is what is so fascinating – history always repeats itself, even in the most concerning of times.

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