The Power Of Protest: Are Our Voices Enough to Trigger Change?

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A demonstrator at the #BlackLivesMatter rally in downtown Milwaukee voices her opposition of police brutality that took the lives of two black men in the city. Photo by Joe Bruskly.

Vaun Mayes Bey, social activist and nonviolence demonstrator, said protesting is one of the powerful tools people can use to get their message out. Mayes Bey acted as a mediator between police officers and the family of Syville Smith, who was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer in Sherman Park on Aug. 13.

In the aftermath of the shooting Mayes Bey hosted free haircuts, s’mores and donation events for the Sherman Park neighborhood in order to shed a positive light on the community.

“As a black person in America, it is one of the ways for our voices to be heard,” Mayes Bey said.

For centuries, protesting has been done for various reasons, such as African-American rights and women’s equality. Lynne Woehrle, sociology professor at Mount Mary University, said that protesting can be a way to put pressure on people who want to keep things the same.

Woehrle described protesting as “a strategy that is necessary to achieve social change and bring awareness to a community or concern.”

Woehrle cited the use of nonviolent protest in anti-colonial movements by Gandhi and the civil rights movement in the U.S.

For Mayes Bey, protesting pushes people toward change.

“It creates a powerful platform for people who aren’t always heard, to be heard,” Mayes Bayes said.

Violent or Non-Violent Protesting: Which One Makes the Most Difference?

Milwaukee citizens rally in protest and march downtown in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. Photo by Joe Brusky.

Ann Angel, English professor at Mount Mary University, said that nonviolent protests aren’t always heard. The violence isn’t necessary and should not be practiced, but it is what brings awareness to the issues that are occurring in our communities. 

Mayes Bey agreed that sometimes violence attracts attention to a bigger cause. 

“Peaceful protests bring awareness, but they never make change,” Mayes Bey said. 

For Angel, violence isn’t something anyone wants to happen. It’s never the answer to anything and it’s sad that in order to attract attention for positivity, violence occurs.

“Sometimes, despite violence, there is redemption,” Angel said. “There was violence during the civil rights [movement], but we still got rights. There was violence during the suffrage and we got women’s rights. Violence is a last resort and I wish it did not happen.”

Woehrle said that inequality can drive people to anger, such as what occurred in the Sherman Park neighborhood.

“Violent protests often use their efforts to get ahead in society or change things that have not been represented,” Woehrle said.

Angel and Woehrle agreed that the Sherman Park protests led to the reinforcement of the community.

Mayes Bey said sometimes violence is necessary to create change. “I think it was necessary in instances like Milwaukee and Baltimore,” Mayes Bey said. “It’s sad to say that stuff like that brings change.”

Media’s Role in Protesting and Social Activism

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People gather at Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee to remember the lives lost in the city at the hands of the police. Photo by Joe Brusky.

Angel said the media can either draw attention to or away from a situation.

“There were protests of  the Wauwatosa police officer who shot and killed a man,” Angel said. “And there were protests down on North Avenue. They disrupted businesses, but they were hardly mentioned in the media, and there was no action taken. When another man was shot, it started out with people protesting and when it became violent, that’s when the media noticed. I think without the violence and media covering the violence, there would have been less ignition of a community problem.”

Woehrle said when you have a lot of people together to express their concern on an issue, it brings public awareness in the media. Social media, she said, can be a helpful tool to organize groups of protesters, providing a fast way to disseminate information. However, it can backfire.

“Many don’t understand what it’s about,” Woehrle said. “It can easily transpire into violence.”

According to Woehrle, protesting has created significant changes in society. 

“It has overthrown governments, and got people to vote,” Woehrle said. “It is an important form of persuasion … It puts pressure on the government. Nonviolence is an important tool.”

Mayes Bey said that although protesting has helped society advance, there is still a long way to go. 

“In some ways we have made progress. In many ways we have gone far worse,” Mayes Bey said. “Back then we were a community. Now we are spread out and less concerned with each other as a race and it causes issues with each other.”

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