Sometimes, you just have to dress up, make a quirky sign, strike up the band and yell really loud about stuff that makes you angry. Sometimes you have to march into the streets, and be seen in a group of people who are standing together to say that something is wrong.
In one way, the street theatre that accompanies a good protest is cathartic. You're dealing with your own objections to policy and it is a good thing to see others are feeling the same way. In other ways, it helps spread iconic images to a larger audience, and helps enunciate and illustrate a point that may not be made by the powers that be.
Another function is education and connection. Sometimes you can find a better way to describe your policy goals. A really good demonstration presents opinions and points from a wide variety of advocates, and I really think that was acheived at the BP Oil Flood protest. Kudos to Murdered Gulf for organizing it in this way.
The speakers had a lot of things to say about this subject, and were anything but monolithic. Which is good, because this is a complicated issue that isn't easily navigable. Most of all, the vast majority of what was said was productive in some way - and it became apparent that opposition to BP at this time is nonpartisan and can be focused on specific, easily described and legitimate grievances.
(Ubiquitous, non-productive pseudo-anarchists were not on the speaker's list, but did have some things to say during public comment. They were removed from the megaphone during their diatribe, because their ideas were violent, unsustainable, and more likely to cause backlash than coalesce pulbic opinion. There were a healthy number of boos and catcalls from my side of the audience when they began speaking.)
Now, as a rule, I usually hate "protests." I just don't think they accomplish much. Certainly not as much as actually getting involved with your local volunteer groups and political party structures. At those places, your actions are magnified 10 fold, and you can usually see how your own political affiliation is increasingly afflicted by teh crazy and well-connected.
For every "protest" against some far-away national policy, there are literally hundreds of buffers between the attendee and the politician or interest they intend to persuade. On the other hand, consistent local involvement puts you in contact with your school board, city council, state representatives, and other functionaries which, usually, affect your life to a much greater degree.
(Besides, I so tire of hearing some young idealist try and start "we're angry and we're not going to take it anymore" chants. Really? Is there any more useless of a chant? As a matter of fact, can we leave that bullshit back in the 60's where it belongs? More policy please. Hit them where it hurts.)
Protests are dangerous, as you can be easily marginalized or demonized by media outlets. How many times have the media understated the number of attendees to a march, or manipulated the numbers based on editorial decisions? How many times have pictures or videos of the most agitated or unhinged attendees colored the commentary of a protest? Hell, just one picture of a person in mid-yell can make a peaceful protest look like a mob.
One of the strenths of both the BP Oil Flood Protest and the 2007 March Against Crime were that they combined the best elements of street theatre and people in plain clothing.
But getting media attention is kind of the idea for a protest, and part of that is the chance to spread iconic images to a much wider audience. You may disagree with their politics, but the Tea Party's use of the Gadsden Flag and Revolutionary War imagery is nothing short of brilliance. Here you have a group of people draping themselves in patriotism to advance a political cause. A lot of folks watching on TV can relate to the imagery because it is celebrated at least every 4th of July.
Luckily, we have a little iconic imagery ourselves down here in New Orleans and Louisiana. If BP and several US enforcement agencies were trying to stop the media from taking pictures of oiled animals and oiled workers, there are people who will dress up and make signs to demonstrate that image. New York can show solidarity. We can bring a host of musical instruments to make beautiful noise, and watch as movie stars and residents mingle for a cause. And who's going to argue with Joan of Arc and her knights, in real chain mail borne by real horses?
And it likely won't stop there. Already there are plans for a "Krewe of Dead Pelicans" parade and second line for this Saturday. It is not a protest, but a mourning ceremony.
Accompanied by civic behavior as devestating pictures of the damage are finally being released, they will be more iconic images for this nation to digest.
Or choke down.