It could be a summer of protests. Do they make a difference?


At 87, Loretta Weinberg has participated in numerous demonstrations.

“The whole Vietnamese movement, that’s where I came in,” said Weinberg, who has marched for other issues including women’s rights and school integration. She retired as New Jersey Senate Majority Leader earlier this year.

So in early May, when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion was leaked and she learned that Roe v. Wade from 1973 would probably be undone, his first thought was “Didn’t we do this 50 years ago, and why am I me in this discussion?”

His second thought was to protest.

Protest movements can take a long time to fully achieve their goals – anti-Vietnam War activism spanned 10 years – but experts say their value can be measured in other key ways: they change the way of thinking voters, galvanize participants, and show legislators the issues they face. that voters consider important.

“People are turned on by the rollback of our democracy,” says Andrea McChristian, director of law and policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) in Newark. “Sometimes they feel like their voice is not being heard. Mobilizing and taking to the streets shows you care, push systems and challenge power.”

Weinberg bought a billboard for her independent living community’s women’s group, a former kindergarten teacher provided a shoebox of highlighters, and a retired art teacher made sure they kept the straight lines on their panels. About 50 men and women showed up on May 13 to stand outside their building in Teaneck and share insights from the pre-Roe era, including a woman whose great-grandmother had died in an abortion .

The rally was covered by local media and avidly followed by the protesters’ grandchildren on social media, Weinberg says.

Although Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill codifying New Jersey residents’ constitutional right to reproductive choice in January, “the leaked bill calls into question the right to privacy, which could mean we see future opinions that will overturn birth control rights or equality rights for the LGBTQ community,” Weinberg says.

“We have a message for the generations behind us, so they can experience what life was like before Roe, when women were still pro-choice but didn’t have access to safe health services. And we show to our elected officials and members of the judiciary that we value our freedoms and the equality we expect to achieve under our laws,” she said.

Changing Perceptions

Black Lives Matter is the most successful movement of our time, and supporters of other causes can learn from it, says Maxwell Burkey, visiting professor of African American studies and political science at the College of New Jersey. The BLM protest movement began in 2013, after the man who shot black teenager Trayvon Martin was acquitted; in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, it had between 15 and 26 million protesters.

“Making change doesn’t mean you’re always storming the gates of the Bastille,” says Burkey, a resident of River Edge. “It’s a slow and arduous process to change the conversation.”

The term “super predator,” a major talking point of the 1994 Crime Bill, is one example, he says. BLM supporters argued that it was dehumanizing and they helped shift the political conversation. Conversely, using the term “pro-abortion” de-stigmatizes the procedure, Burkey says.

Symbols are also important. “Confederate statues were indelible features of the American landscape, and BLM transformed our conception of them from cultural artifacts to evidence of white nationalism among us,” he says.

While social media campaigns can be effective at sharing information and putting pressure on stakeholders, taking the time to show up in person and make a public statement is powerful, Burkey says.

“Protest is by nature an embodied act,” he says. “To exert pressure, you have to be visible and show yourself.”

Disruptive tactics can add to the impact of a protest, he says.

“At the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, women threw their bras in a ‘freedom trash can’ as street theater,” Burkey explains. “In 1977, seeking federal recognition of their rights, people with disabilities occupied a government building in San Francisco for several days. In 2014, Black Lives Matter protesters shut down FDR Drive in Manhattan.”

Lasting images that change hearts and minds often come out of these actions, he says – a protester placing a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s gun during the march on the Pentagon in 1967; a black woman in a flowing dress facing two Louisiana soldiers in riot gear in 2016.

McChristian recalled that the NJISJ wanted Murphy to create a youth justice task force in late 2018, with the goal of shutting down the state’s youth prisons. “The governor said he had the support of 94% of black voters, so we called our effort ‘The Movement for the 94%,'” she says. “We held a rally at a church in Newark, and he created a task force the next day.”

Over Labor Day weekend 2020, after the mayor of Englewood Cliffs charged a teenager who organized a modest rally for affordable housing $2,499 in police overtime, the NAACP president , Jeff Carter, organized a march on East Palisade Avenue. “It had gotten media attention, but we got more media attention,” Carter said. “The mayor wanted to walk with us! A day after making national headlines, he canceled the bill.

“I think rallies and protests impact government action and policy, even court decisions at some level,” says Mary Amoroso, a member of the Bergen County Board of Commissioners. “In New Jersey, following the Black Lives Matter rallies, we implemented a number of initiatives to better train and monitor police officers. Many police officers have come to realize that body cameras are not an invasion of their privacy, but a tool that clearly shows they did the right thing.”

New Jersey police officers are now prohibited from using physical or deadly force against civilians except as a last resort, and are required to intervene if they see another officer going too far.

The long game

Although strategic victories sometimes come quickly, it’s more common for progress to come from consistent hard work. Toni Martin, a Montclair resident who once worked for the environmental nonprofit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, says she enjoys the demonstrations because “you don’t feel so alone.” But she marvels at how longtime activists like Clearwater founder Pete Seeger have kept the faith. “They had to know they weren’t going to win immediately,” she said.

When Martin wanted to pass rent control in her town, she says, she found that “you have to be relentless” to bring about change. “People had been fighting for 30 years for rent control in Montclair,” she says.

During Montclair’s 4th of July Parade in 2019, she and a handful of compatriots brought their cause to the public by marching in Tenants Organization of Montclair t-shirts. “People were shouting, ‘I’m a small owner, and this won’t work!’ or ‘It was about time!’, and we walked out of the parade to engage them directly,” she says. On May 9, after two years of legal challenges, Montclair City Council passed a rent control ordinance – the first in its history.

For young people, the pace of change and the scale of the problems to be solved can be daunting. “The students I teach often seem overwhelmed by the challenges we face, especially when it comes to the environment,” Burkey says. “They recognize the problems, but there can be fatalism.” To avoid this, he suggests focusing on local struggles where they can have an impact, such as protesting pollution at a particular site.

The first step, but not the last

Protesting isn’t the only way to affect change, of course. “I would be out protesting 24/7 if I thought it would move the dial an inch in the right direction,” says North Jersey resident Janet Shapiro. Instead, she says, she contributes monthly to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Montclair activist Cary Chevat has organized protests in the past, but warns they cannot be seen as an end in themselves. “Most of the time it’s performative,” he says. “People are holding up signs and feeling good, then they’re not voting.” Chevat notes that only 40% of eligible voters in Montclair made it to the governor’s race in November. “Protests energize people, but it can’t be drama,” he says. “You need to take the next step.”

“That’s something our protesters need to focus on: getting relatives, friends and neighbors to register to vote, and then vote,” Amoroso says. “It’s the ultimate exercise of your civic power and responsibility.”

Burkey agrees, though he points out that “what we vote for is often determined by how we engage. Often what’s on the menu is lacking, and moves change that menu.”

“Every movement I’ve been involved in, whether it’s women’s rights, inclusive education in Teaneck, freedom of choice, or Vietnam, has all had positive results in terms of improving the around us,” says Weinberg.

The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion, she says, is the first she has heard of an attempt to roll back women’s rights.

After:Rally held in Wayne as part of nationwide protests for women’s rights

After:Abortion is the buzzword. But where does it come from?

After:Leaked Supreme Court ruling could galvanize midterm Democrats — or maybe not

To find out where to vote and to confirm that you are registered, go to vote.svrs.nj.gov.

Cindy Schweich Handler is editor of Montclair and Wayne magazines, and a staff writer for The Record and Northjersey.com. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @CindyHandler

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