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Inauguration Day is here: What do protesters hope to accomplish?

patterns of thought

Americans from around the country are marching, dancing, and protesting against President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. this week. How effective are these public demonstrations?

People protest against President-elect Donald Trump as electors gather to cast their votes for US president at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Penn. on Dec. 19, 2016.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File | Caption

A quiet residential street in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was abruptly transformed into a dance club Wednesday night when hundreds of activists showed up armed with glow sticks, glitter, and the music of Lady Gaga.

As participants in the "Queer Dance Party at Mike Pence's House" laughed, cheered, and twerked the night away, a fun time appeared to be had by all. But as organizer Firas Nasr reminded the crowd, this dance party had a serious purpose behind its lighthearted absurdity: to send a "clear message" to Vice President-elect Mike Pence – referred to jokingly by Mr. Nasr as "Daddy Pence" – that those in attendance would "not tolerate bigotry and hate in our country." 

The protest was one of many scheduled to take place this week, as hundreds of thousands of activists prepare to swarm the nation's capital to take part in demonstrations decrying the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. Large public protests, such as the LGBT dance party and upcoming Women’s March on Washington, can prove valuable in making a political statement, uniting smaller grassroots efforts around a central cause, and serving as a practical entry point into activism, scholars say. But to effectively achieve results, the momentum of the protests must carry over into concrete advocacy efforts.

An event like the Women’s March on Washington, which is expected to attract as many as 200,000 protesters, "only makes a difference, and only makes sense, in the context of a larger social movement campaign," says David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine. "But in the context of a larger social movement campaign, events like this matter."

On one level, experts say, the solidarity expressed through large-scale protests can send a powerful message to opponents and potential allies alike, as well as motivate participants and observers to engage with the cause on a deeper level.

"Symbolism is incredibly important to social movements," Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University who studies activism around race and gender, told PBS NewsHour. "For many people, and especially for many women who prior to this election weren’t necessarily engaged in activism, this is playing a really important role in promulgating these ideas and empowering people to make a change."

But some critics of national demonstrations argue that the energy put toward organizing or attending an event like the Women's March would be better spent directly on local advocacy efforts, as not all protesters will have the ability or motivation to follow up their marching with political action.

"Most people have only a limited amount of time and energy they are going to give to political activity, and the problem is when you tell people who feel strongly about something, 'Here’s what you should do, you should come to Washington and march up and down on the [National] Mall,' that’s all they are going to do," former Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts told Wisconsin Public Radio’s "To the Best of our Knowledge" in June. "There’s a certain substitutability. If you say to people, ‘Come to Washington and write a letter to your member of Congress,’ that would be great. But they don't do that.” 

The former congressman, widely considered to be America's most prominent gay politician, acknowledged that there are cases of protests effectively making a difference by calling attention to a "previously undisclosed wrong," such as demonstrations during the civil rights movement. Ultimately, though, Mr. Frank sees those situations as the exception, adding: "I’m afraid that much of what protests do is become the substitute for more effective political action." 

But other advocates say that protests add to political action efforts rather than detracting from them. The usefulness of a large-scale event, particularly one that brings together people from different backgrounds and geographic regions, goes beyond symbolism, says UC Irvine's Dr. Meyer, who authored "The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America." On a practical level, demonstrations provide participants – particularly first-time activists – with networking opportunities and advocacy tools that can then be put toward smaller-scale, grassroots action. 

"This is one way that demonstrations are actually really significant," Meyer tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "They’re building networks and building capacity. And, to some extent, adding in fun events like the [LGBT] dance party builds that solidarity even more strongly."

Organizers of public demonstrations often face a tricky dilemma when it comes to defining their cause, Meyer notes: Present clearly articulated demands and risk alienating potential participants who don't agree with every aspect of your argument? Or attempt to draw a larger crowd with a vaguer rallying cry? It's a question organizers of the Women's March have confronted in recent weeks, as debates flare up over the intersectional nature of modern feminism and what it means to support women in 2017. 

"If your short-term goal is to get as many people as possible at the march, maybe you don’t want to alienate people," said Anne Valk, the author of "Radical Sisters," a book about racial and class differences in the women’s movement, to The New York Times. "But if your longer-term goal is to use the march as a catalyst for progressive social and political change, then that has to include thinking about race and class privilege." 

While a smaller crowd may not attract as much attention, alienating some people may ultimately be worth it, experts say, as the more clearly-defined the cause, the easier it is to mobilize participants into an effective social movement going forward. 

Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University and fellow at think tank New America, tells the Monitor that she judges the success of a protest on its "ability for its organizers to tolerate critique, to be inclusive and expansive in its idea of justice, and to recognize that these activities require profound and ethical leadership for people to continue the work after it's over." 

"It's hard to say a march is successful because a lot of people showed up," she adds. "It's successful if it's able to imprint values onto its participants who will then continue that work in a number of ways."