Protests Happen Between Taking to the Streets

By Aria Overli

As a cultural anthropologist, the role of ritual (repeated actions imbued with cultural meaning) regarding protest fascinates me. Evidence shows that rituals become more defined and more frequent when a group of people feel particularly without control. In the age of President Trump, we often see this lack of control coupled with anger resulting in protest as ritual. This is not a moral judgment, as ritual plays essential roles, such as strengthening community bonds and providing a sense of control and direction. Nonetheless, it should be taken into a critique of what we should be doing to strengthen our protests to ensure their roles in creating concrete action and change. 

Rituals cannot exist in a vacuum. It is easy to look at history and see the Civil Rights Movement as moments of anger that swelled beyond containment, but it was much more than that. At its core, the Civil Rights Movement was difficult conversations, relationship building, and promises of support that took place before and after their moments of publicity. Without this tireless work of community building that took place between the marches, their protests would not be remembered. 

The two primary types of organizing, movement-based and community organizing, work best together*. Movement-based organizing argues that there are moments that capture the public imagination and inspire people to rise up and create change. Moments such as these are often inspired by what is unacceptable for a significant portion of the population, such as the release of a video showing a police officer shooting an unarmed civilian or the election of a president whose words and actions have left much of the country deeply concerned. 

On the other hand, we have community organizing, in which organizers do the hard work of finding people affected by issues, building relationships of trust with them, developing their leadership, and providing them with the direction necessary to speak up as an organized force.

These types of organizing must work together. Movement building needs trained leaders and educated and empowered citizens to sustain a movement when it materializes. Otherwise, moments pass and movements fail. Communities must be organized, trained, and educated to respond to moments. Community organizing also fails when its members are incapable of adequately responding to what is happening in the world around them. If it cannot build community support through capitalizing on moments of injustice, community organizing is ineffective. 

If you’ve ever been to a protest in Reno (apart from the Women’s March and the March for Science), you know what I know: it is always the same 50 people. This is not a sustainable method for creating change. We need to do more to engage our neighbors and to reach out to the most marginalized who feel too afraid, too tired, or too uninformed to stand up for a better world. 

Ritual is essential, but it must be bolstered by relationship building, leadership training, and community organizing. Get involved outside of protest. Your voice matters.

At ACTIONN (Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada), we do the hard work of organizing extremely low-income residents, working to challenge gentrification and a burgeoning housing crisis in Northern Nevada. We cannot do it on our own. Please reach out to me if you want to get more involved: 

*For people interested in reading into more detail about these types of organizing, I recommend the book This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler. 

Aria Overli is the Economic Justice Community Organizer with ACTIONN, which works to organize communities of faith and people most affected by issues to fight for a stronger Northern Nevada. Aria is passionate about ensuring that all low-income folks have access the opportunities to succeed and to live safe and healthy lives. She was a panelist for the Nevada Humanities The Salon panel discussion on January 19, The Politics of Protest in Nevada.