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Are Protests Still Effective?

30/05/2013 15:17 BST | Updated 27/07/2013 10:12 BST

Mahatma Gandhi's words hold a shocking amount of significance right now; 'silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly'.

The horrific attack in Greenwich quickly led to an EDL protest rally in Newcastle, as far right marchers used the typical 'people power' method to express their anger. Elsewhere this weekend, an anti-gay marriage march took place in Paris while in the USA, people from across the globe gathered to protest against seed giant Monsanto. Protests are springing up everywhere, but are they actually effective?

Historian and social activist Howard Zinn said that 'protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it'. To some, the act of protesting is an important way to express ethical or political views. They claim that they have a 'right' to protest, yet this is just a perceived right. There is no human rights instrument or national constitution that grants the explicit or absolute right to protest. Such a right is instead a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, association or free speech. Protests are therefore not a given right as such and demonstrations need to be peaceful, organised and law-abiding in order not to be intervened in.

But is a gathering of so many people just rather intimidating? It certainly shows a strength in belief; the fact that a group of people feel compelled enough to unite and show the watching world their opinions suggests a certain strength in ideology. Whether a march, rally or even picketing, protests give people the strength to voice their concerns, the support that they are not alone, and the confidence to take action rather than remain silent and submissive.

However, things can quickly escalate. Protests can turn into riots; protesters who began peacefully can end up in a war with police, desperate to be heard, and drunk on the thought of revolution. To be effective and respected in their intentions, protests should be regulated and calm, memorable in their existence rather than their violence.

Yet, protests can also escalate in another direction as participants themselves can become the victim of violence. Just take the six men in the West Midlands who plotted to bomb an EDL rally in April. When one group of people feel it necessary to take to the streets to voice their opinions, inevitably there will be an opposing number who feel it necessary to stop or condemn them. The trick is for both parties to do so admirably, intelligently and legally, respecting each others' opinions rather than threatening them.

Despite these risks, it's clear that protests are still a main form of action for a majority of people, and will be for many years to come, suggesting that they are, in fact, still an effective form of demonstration.

No one will forget the march conducted by Martin Luther King in 1965, or the protest against the Vietnam War in 1970, or even the miners' strikes in the 1980s. Protests are memorable and thus effective, but they don't need to be violent; they just have to unite and impress enough people.

Perhaps this is something worth remembering in the next few months. EDL rallies are growing in frequency following the recent developments in Woolwich, and it won't be long until other groups take to the street in response. The silent but real threat of terrorism and even the latest plane scare at Stansted airport has left society feeling tense, emotionally charged and politically split. With people everywhere divided, groups will surely begin to form and protests will give these individuals the opportunity to try to affect change and ultimately show a strong, united front.

Yet we must just hope that they remain strong and peaceful; they must not escalate and they must not provoke further catastrophe, because then they become as bad as the problem they protest against.