Why Anti-Trump Protests Matter

It's more than just a release for anger – taking to the streets is a necessary way to participate in democracy

Since election night, U.S. cities and towns have rung with protest. Hundreds of thousands of people, from New York City to Los Angeles, from Columbia, South Carolina to Salt Lake City, Utah took to the streets en masse to protest the election of a man who promised, among other things, to force Muslims to register and to repeal a health care bill that helps some 20 million people get health insurance, and who has been accused of sexual assault by at least 13 women. Hand-scrawled signs declared "Not My President," "No To Bigotry," "Trump Puts My Life In Danger," and "Protests Are Patriotic."

High school students have walked out of class in protest across the country, including in Montgomery County, Maryland; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; and Omaha, Nebraska.

Teresa Díaz was one of those protesters, marching in New York on Sunday, November 13th, in a "Here to Stay" rally against Trump's proposed deportations. "As an immigrant mother of two beautiful U.S. citizen daughters, I woke up to my worst nightmare on Wednesday morning," Díaz, a member of community organization Make the Road New Jersey, told Rolling Stone. "But I'm marching today to show that I'm not afraid.”

The speed with which these protests came together and the vehemence of their reaction far outpaced the growth of the Tea Party movement in the wake of the election of Barack Obama in 2008, but there has still been a reaction from some quarters that the protesters are behaving like "sore losers."

Such a sentiment is a byproduct of the fact that Americans tend to think that the only way one can participate in politics, the only possible way to take political action, is to vote. And yet in recent years – in particular since the 2008 financial crisis – Americans have been rediscovering the power of protest. They have embraced, in increasing numbers, disruption as a tactic for making their voices heard. As they have lost faith in the elites who run the world – as evidenced by still-dropping voter turnout numbers that saw Donald Trump win the electoral college with fewer votes than Mitt Romney got in losing the 2012 election – more and more of them have turned to civil disobedience to attempt to make change. As one popular sign from the anti-Trump protests read, "Not Usually A Sign Guy, But Geez."

The anti-Trump protesters have offered up many different reasons for joining the rallies, vigils, marches and walk-outs. Some, like Díaz and Zuleima Dominguez, a member of Make the Road New York and a recipient of Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, would directly be affected by Trump proposals. "Trump's pledge to revoke DACA in his first 100 days as President would affect me because I would lose my work permit and be forced to live in fear of being separated from my family," Dominguez says. "I would be afraid to leave my home, and it would be hard for me to continue with my education, given that I could no longer apply for scholarships that require a social security number." Others decided to show up to offer solidarity to those frightened of what a Trump presidency might mean. Amy Vandenberg, a University of Southern California student, told the Los Angeles Times, "There are a lot of marginalized people in this country who are scared, are hurting. If I can protest as a white person to say, 'I see you, I'm with you and I love you,' that's what I'm going to do."

For high school students and undocumented immigrants who were prohibited from taking part in this election, these protests are a space to take part in the democratic process.

The protests offer people like Vandenberg a way to show support and people like Dominguez a place to find new allies; they create connections in a public space at a time when more and more people are isolated. For the high school students and undocumented immigrants, in particular, who were prohibited from taking part in this or any election despite being deeply affected by its results, these protests have created a space for them to take part in the democratic process, to have their voices – and their objections – heard.

In particular, civil disobedience allows protesters to "generalize the crisis," as Tobita Chow of Chicago's People's Lobby told me in 2015 as I was reporting my book, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. As people around the country continue to struggle with the wake of the financial crisis and the austerity budgets imposed by state and local politicians, the powerful rarely feel the pain they're inflicting. "The politicians and these rich people who are funding them, they're imposing this crisis on a vast majority of people, but as far as they're concerned there is no crisis, it's not part of their life," Chow said. He also noted that taking part in a protest can have a transformative effect on the people who get involved. "It expands your sense of freedom about what you're willing to do and what you're capable of doing," he said. "It has a really liberating effect on people."

Beyond the participants and the targets, protests also have an effect on those who witness them. Seeing large crowds can on the one hand inspire more people to come out for the first time – as many have done in the wake of this election. On the other hand, the protests will certainly turn off some of the people who see them. Yet in this moment, when many people may have rationalized a vote for Trump by telling themselves that he wouldn't really go through with his promised deportations and registries, street protests force them to confront these people and the lives with which they've gambled. If Trump voters simply shrugged off the harm that his proposals would cause because they don't know any Muslims, any immigrants, any queer or transgender people, street protests in supposedly "red" states like Nebraska and Texas make them look in the eyes of those people and realize that they are human, they are part of the community, that they hurt and fear.

The protests also pressure elected officials on both sides of the aisle to stand up to Trump. As Democrats attempt to regroup and Republicans lick their chops in anticipation of power, the rapid response serves up notice to the GOP that their actions will not go unnoticed, and to Democrats that they are expected to resist or face anger from their own constituents.

The movements of the past few years, as Minnesota organizer Cat Salonek told me, have been like dandelions blown on the wind. They scatter and take root and grow, and each new movement is another dandelion that sprouts. This is true of this week's protests as well: The participants were part of Occupy and they were teachers who struck in Chicago against austerity; they came from Black Lives Matter and from Bernie Sanders's support network and Moral Mondays; and many of them were new to taking action.

The question going forward will be whether they can sustain the energy for the long, ugly fights ahead. As new networks are built in the streets and online, new protests planned for the inauguration and beyond, and terms like "general strike" are bandied about, experienced organizers and newly-activated people can draw from the lessons of the movements of the past several years – from the Tea Party to the Fight for $15 and beyond – to turn disruption into concrete victories. 

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.