When a protest is not a protest

Here’s what was missing on Jan. 6, 2021.

May 31, 2023 5:00 am

Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time. That, and a big goddamn poster.” Red in the 1994 film, “The Shawshank Redemption,” is talking about a prison break, but he could be just as well talking about protest. 

Protests are sweeping the world. In Israel about 5% of the country’s population turned out week after week to protest the government’s desire to limit the authority of its judiciary.  In France, up to 1 million people marched, across the country, to protest a proposed change to their national retirement age for 62 to 64 (roughly equivalent to our Social Security eligibility, now at 66.5 years for full benefits). And in Iran, women, girls, and men who support them have been risking and losing their lives in protest for months over their government’s oppressive regulation of women. 

What is protest? It is a form of communication; a large-scale, forced civic conversation on a topic that some of us insist that we have, even when others are resistant. Often, the recalcitrant party is the government, and the efforts of governmental bodies to stop a protest can become part of the conversation. In America, protest is protected by our First Amendment rights.

What about the event at the American Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Was that a protest? 

Our cultural norms, laws and policies on many issues have changed through mass movements since this nation was founded in protest in 1776. They often take time to make a difference – change is hard, conversations about change included.  The crusade for a woman’s right to vote moved this country (well, mostly men) from ridiculing the idea that women had the capacity to make political decisions to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees that right. It took literally decades of mass protests which often turned violent, and put many women in jail, to force the issue. The Civil Rights movement, which has its roots in the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War, is ongoing, and the national conversation about full equal rights for people of color continues to be advanced, in part, through protest. 

Sustained pressure, time and messaging.

Protests persuaded the American government to abandon the Vietnam War, to begin to address the AIDS crisis, and to think about the environment and climate change. In America most recently, we have seen large national rallies about police violence after the murder of George Floyd, and about the overturn of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court. Very locally, a protest for and against abortion rights resulted in a violent confrontation, and another for the rights of the homeless took the form of a tent city outside the State Capitol. Efforts to change the gun culture in America have met great resistance, but the overreaction by the Tennessee Legislature to a protest on this issue – they expelled two lawmakers who joined in – was extreme enough to get national attention. Sustained pressure, time and messaging may begin to move the needle.

Where does this leave us regarding the events of January 6th, when violent rioters attempted to interrupt the peaceful transfer of American presidential power? This event was meant to interrupt the government’s activities, and those of law enforcement. The intention was not to reform or improve our society, or to persuade others to rethink an issue and act accordingly. Rather, it intended to subvert our system in order to keep one person in power. That is not a protest.  Our constitutionally based system gives us the right to assemble and petition our government. A movement designed to disrupt that 250-year-old structure might very well leave us with no rights at all. 



Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruth S. Taylor
Ruth S. Taylor

Ruth S. Taylor retired at the end of 2022 after 16 years as executive director of the Newport Historical Society. She now serves as a consultant working to improve the governance of nonprofit organizations. She also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.