As evidenced by the growing number of protests, riots, and outright revolutions, we live in a tumultuous time. The New York Times reports that since World War II, mass protests have become more common year after year. The current frequency of protests is unprecedented. The point of this article is not to article a common theme amongst these protests, explain the rise in protests, or analyze how and why certain protests fail or succeed. Instead, it attempts to grapple with the very real threat of protest fatigue that threatens pro-democracy movements across the globe. The most recent, clear example of the phenomenon of protest fatigue is the 2020 Women’s March.
In 2017, the first Women’s March was organized as a response to the election of Donald Trump, and his agenda. While many issues motivated the protests, many focused on criticizing Trump’s pro-life policies. People took to the streets across the nation, peacefully leveraging their collective political power. In Washington, D.C. alone, there were somewhere between half a million and a million protestors. It was, and still is, one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. In 2020, the story went very different for the Women’s March. This year, in D.C., while the estimates are still coming in and being refined, it looks like only a few thousand turned out. This is just one example amongst many that show evidence of protest fatigue beginning to set in.
Fatigue is a global issue plaguing protests far outside the U.S.. With protests breaking out over the past few months alone in Chile, Lebanon, the U.K., Belarus, India, Colombia, and Spain, there is clearly room for burnout amongst protestors. In the U.K., anti-India protests failed to meet the expected number of protests, a senior community leader who helped organize the protest cited fatigue as a reason for the low turnout. There is a physical factor involved as well. A psychology student who took part in the protests in Chile, José Solís, thinks “there’s a fatigue factor. People are now more than 10 days into coming to protest every day, most from the outskirts of Santiago.” Others identify finances as a major strain on protests. While many view the issue as focused on a lack of funding for the organizations that help organize the protests, the fact of the matter is many people cannot protest for extended periods because they need to return to their jobs and provide for their families.
These forms of protest fatigue are a threat or pro-democracy movements. Giving up on challenging injustice just because the injustice itself is so overwhelming only allows for it to continue. In many cases, this manifests in hundreds of injuries and deaths towards civilians in the short term, as riot police move to break up protests. In the long term, unaddressed structural failures that protestors are attempting to correct could leave thousands homeless and living in poverty, like the economic inequality that protestors in Chile were attempting to tackle. Tackling the threat of protest fatigue and producing effective strategies is more necessary than ever. Many have adopted strategies of self-care to combat protest fatigue. Community leaders report doing simple things like disconnecting from the Internet or journaling to get motivated in order to continue demonstrating. While for some, this can be quite successful, for others, the very issue that protestors are rallying against is so urgent that there is no time to disconnect and take care of themselves.
For others, changing the way they go about protesting may be essential to maintain momentum. First, protestors should establish both short-term and long-term goals, many protests see making short-term, smaller demands as a sort of “move to the middle” that should not be endorsed. The opposite could not be truer, short term victories just help provide motivation for the protestors to organize for long-term, structural changes. Second, protestors should use a multi-faceted strategy. Protesting in the streets every day can be physically exhausting, as shown by those in Chile. Instead, protesting on some days and engaging in local community gatherings, or recruitment campaigns on others can help keep protests growing and less tiring for participants. Finally, making allies is important. Organizers should work to connect with other organizations and groups rallying around similar or intertwined issues. Some fear this will dilute the focus of their original protests. In reality, broadening the scope of the protest creates larger bases of support. Protests that refuse to expand their visions are ignoring the ways in which issues are interconnected, and mitigate the ability of protests to effectively analyze how other groups will interpret their messaging. Utilizing these steps is not some panacea for the issue of protest fatigue, but they are a good start for rallying support for ongoing protests that are beginning to lose steam.