Can Protests Change Society?

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On Monday, Americans honored the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose nonviolent activism helped achieve the promise of civil rights for millions of black Americans.

Today, a new generation of activists around the world are using similar nonviolent tactics to try to achieve their own form of social change. In 2013, massive street protests erupted in Ukraine, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere — all with the common goal of ending deep-seating corruption.

But the protests we see on the news are just one manifestation of a growing awareness of the “cancer of corruption” — just as King’s March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom made visible and urgent something that many Americans already knew, deep down, needed to change. And, like the struggle for civil rights in America, this change will not come all at once, but as a result of many small battles fought at different levels of government and society.

What makes the countries listed above different from the regimes overthrown during the 2011 Arab Spring protests is that they are all democracies with legitimately elected governments. This means that total regime change is probably not a desirable option — but it also means that much of the machinery for reform is already in place.

As Anne Applebaum recently argued in Slate, the challenge for these movements is to catalyze popular support into real political change, ideally through electoral politics and legislation. She draws on the example of the Indian anti-corruption movement which launched massive protests in 2011, and was eventually able to win a surprise electoral victory in the Delhi municipal elections against entrenched political opponents.

While the final outcome in India remains unclear, it is ultimately at the political level that change will take hold. Protests and activism can raise awareness and create a sense of urgency, but this energy needs to eventually be channeled into advocacy for real policy changes — with the help of the business community — that attack the institutional roots of corruption.

Jon Custer is Social Media/Communications Coordinator at CIPE.

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