Millions of people worldwide have taken to the streets to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The White House has been flooded with angry calls and faxes. In Indianapolis, hundreds of people have joined anti-war demonstrations, while nine activists were arrested at a sit-in at the offices of war-supporting Sens. Lugar and Bayh.

Butler University political science professor Terri Jett says that effective protests target decision-makers and make a clear connection to the complained-of action. Yet, with all that, we are at war. Exactly what the protesters rail against is happening: American and British soldiers are being killed, along with many, many Iraqis. (As of Tuesday morning, the war has already claimed around 500 civilian lives, according to the group Iraq Body Count, ... )

So do the protests have any effect? Or are they merely what one recent letter writer to NUVO labeled them: a self-indulgent exercise, an excuse to yell, "Hey, look at me!"

IUPUI sociology professor Robert White, who studies social movements, says the dissent has not been in vain. "I think the current protests have already had an effect on this war," he says. "The Bush Administration appears to be doing all they can to limit U.S. casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties - or at least to limit knowledge of Iraqi civilian casualties. That's in part a response to the impression that the American people won't stand for a drawn-out war with a lot of U.S. casualties."

Today's protesters are emboldened by plenty of 20th century examples of successful non-violent resistance: India's struggle against colonialism, the U.S. civil rights campaign, Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement. To White, the example that best applies to the current protests is the widespread resistance against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

"Since Vietnam, every administration contemplating war has been concerned about a potential backlash by the American people," he says. "LBJ lost a presidency over it and Nixon was dogged by it. U.S. presidents are now very worried about getting mired in any conflict."

Butler University political science professor Terri Jett agrees that there have been some impressive aspects to the current anti-war movement, particularly the coordination of several massive protests in different cities worldwide on the same day. Jett says there have been mistakes, too, noting recent attempts to block traffic in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

"Blocking the streets at rush hour and affecting people just trying to get home - people who may agree with you - can be counter-productive," Jett says. "You want to disrupt the routines of the decision-makers." As an example of an effectively targeted action, Jett cites the recent protests outside the home of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Designing the perfect protest

The most elusive characteristic of an effective protest, White and Jett agree, is also the most important: The participants need to believe the action is going to lead to real social change. "That is the trick," White says. "Efficacy is a big component of protest, and it is contagious."

How does a protest catch that efficacy wave? The perfect protest likely would include:

  • Connection between protest action and the controversial activity. "A challenge for the current protesters is the disconnect between the war occurring half a world away and a march in downtown Indianapolis," Jett says. "The civil rights movement benefited from being able to get right next to the official segregation they were protesting."
  • Poor response by authorities. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most 20th century movements benefited from repressive acts by law enforcement. From the shooting at the Kent State anti-war rally to brutal reprisals against salt protesters in India, a violent official response to protest often gives movements widespread attention and sympathy.
  • Well-known leaders. Among those who study protest movements, there is some disagreement about this. Gene Sharp, author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, the definitive text on the topic, says such leaders can be counter-productive. But Jett says they usually help. "One thing that's missing from this anti-war movement is a real charismatic leader or group of leaders," she says, noting the civil rights movement benefited from Dr. Martin Luther King's place in the public eye. "That kind of identifiable leader helps with having a consistent message and giving people in the movement someone to connect with."
  • Coordination of different protest methods. Sharp identifies some 198 methods of nonviolent protest, and both Jett and White say that different forms of anti-war action should not be elevated one over another. The perfect protest format would likely be a large public rally while simultaneously going through accepted channels to contact government representatives. And don't forget the ballot box: The folks who brought us this war will be running for re-election soon.

As anti-war protesters know too well, even the perfect protest cannot guarantee success. "There's always protest somewhere, and most of them don't lead to anything," White says.

Not that anyone is advising surrender to the young man marching around Monument Circle with his "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home" sign. "History shows us that, on occasion, sets of circumstances come together," White says. "And that's when a protest leads to real change."

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - .... For more information about Indianapolis area actions against the war, call the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center at 920-1510.