Is There a Right Way to Protest?

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Protesting is as American as apple pie. From the Boston Tea Party to the Black Lives Matter, people protest to make their voices heard. But here's a weird dilemma. More extreme protests attract more media attention to a cause. But at the same time, if a protest is too extreme, some people might not support the protesters. What do you think? Is there a right way to protest?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Download lesson plan and get started on KQED Learn.

What are the general rules around protesting in the U.S.?

If you head over to the ACLU’s website to look up what your rights are when protesting, it’s kinda sad. You can stand on the sidewalk with a sign, but you can’t get in the way of people as they walk by. You can pass out leaflets, but you can’t block entrances to buildings. Oh, and if you want to, you know, march in the street with a bunch of people, there’s a good chance you’ll need to get a permit. It can be hard to make an impact if you’re following all the rules.

How did people view Martin Luther King Jr. and the protests he led back in the 60s?

Today, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement are pretty much universally admired. But back in the 60s they were super controversial. A poll from 1961 found that 57 percent of Americans thought the Freedom Riders and sit-ins at lunch counters hurt the chances of integration in the South. And after the 1963 March on Washington, where MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, 74 percent of Americans believed mass demonstrations harmed the cause.


So, is there a RIGHT way to protest?

No. There isn’t REALLY a right way to protest. But we do know that as protests get more extreme, they usually get less support from the public. At the end of the day, protests are a battle to win over public opinion, and to do that, they have to navigate a weird dilemma. More extreme actions get more media attention that can spread awareness to more people, but at the same time, if it’s perceived as TOO extreme, some people might be reluctant to support the protest.


Speaking and Protesting in America (American Archive of Public Broadcasting)

Why Protest Movements Are ‘Civil’ Only in Retrospect (NY Times)

What Protests Can (And Can’t) Do (Vox) Your Rights

When Protesting (ACLU)

Protests Seen as Harming Civil Rights Movement in the '60s (Gallup)

Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements (SSRN)