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How The Word Protest Is Used For Many Forms Of Action

Michelle Maternowski
To keep socially distanced but also participate in protests, many Milwaukee marches included large car caravans of people driving along to show their support.

How do you use the word protest? Often, we think of a protest as a call for change. But there are actually many different forms of protest.

As protests over racial justice and police brutality continue around the country and in Milwaukee, we explore the different types of protest and how, despite their differences, they all are described using the same word.

Pamela Oliver is a professor emerita of sociology at UW-Madison. She has spent decades studying the different kinds of protest and their efficacy. She starts by describing the basic approach to protesting.

“[Protesters] know what [they] want, but there’s someone on the other side who doesn’t want what you want, and then what makes it even more complicated in a protest situation is there’s often lots of sides,” says Oliver. “It’s more like a game with 12 teams.” 

One form of protests are events like the Women’s March: planned far in advance, have a central organization, and focus on bringing together coalitions for a large cause.

Oliver describes the protests of the last month as ad-hoc protests. For example, in Milwaukee, protests are being put together by different community members whose goal is to make their voice heard on the issue of police brutality and racism and are much more decentralized. Despite not being planned by a large organization, these protests are also usually well organized.

When it comes to violence in protests, there is a distinction between actual violent protests and confrontative protests. The goal of a confrontative protest is not to use violence but to disrupt daily life. Tactics will often include blocking traffic or sitting-in. These protests are a result of people feeling like their voices will not be heard without some form of disruption.

Oliver says protests seeking violence are rare and most often linked to white supremacist groups. “The actual clandestine violence problem in the United States is primarily coming from those groups,” she says. The most notable example is the 2017 Charlottesville United the Right protest, which featured protesters carrying Confederate and Nazi flags. This protest ended with the death of Heather Heyer after a protester drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

These differences are important to remember because often it is difficult to get an accurate depiction of what the purpose of a protest is. Oliver says it’s important to be critical of information about protests because sources are the police and lack the other side of a story. 

"You can have really radically different perceptions of what’s happening based on where you're looking," she says.

From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.