Following President Trump’s inauguration in January, protesters flocked to the streets in droves, their shouts deafening amid the political turmoil. Now, those voices have dimmed to a whisper.
Experts conclude that this phenomenon isn’t all that rare – rather, it’s to be expected.
Social movements, and in particular protests, are a peculiar animal. In order to sustain long enough to achieve their goals, several things need to fall into place, experts say.
The social movements they are tied to need to be delicately handled, and more often than not, a lack of sustainability and adaptability is their downfall. In essence, they breed complacency rather than legitimate change, and that is what is occurring throughout Arizona. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, head of sociology at VU University in Amsterdam, touched on this happening.
“What you see in general, is that there are not many movements that live for a long time,” van Stekelenburg said.
Van Stekelenburg specializes in social movements and protest and has written extensively on the topic. She viewed the political upheaval and social demonstrations consuming America following the election as commonplace, along with their eventual diffusion back to a state of normalcy.
An ebb and flow is created within a movement, van Stekelenburg said, wherein the intensity of a movement fluctuates due to the mobilization ability of its members.
“Activism is a matter of effort, time and energy,” she said. “People can’t stay and can’t invest for a very long time, so that’s why you see that ebb and flow within movements.”
In Arizona, the three largest metro areas saw record-setting numbers in direct response to the election, as nearly 36,000 people statewide participated in the Women’s March on Jan. 21. However, in the months following, subsequent protests saw exponentially smaller crowds throughout the state.
During the Women’s March, about 20,000 people participated in Phoenix, another 15,000 in Tucson, and 1,200 in Flagstaff. Close to 2 million marched nationwide.
“I think the Women’s March was a beautiful example,” van Stekelenburg said. “This was about minority rights…and what gets people motivated is a threat to a right they are losing that they have acquired over the long run.”
Many protesters viewed Trump’s candidacy cautiously, and for this reason, protests at the start of his term flourished. On the other hand, as time passed, the turnout at these protests dwindled.
Protesters used President’s Day on Feb. 20 as another opportunity to voice their concerns, much like the Women’s March. They dubbed the day “Not My President’s Day” and demonstrations across the country sprang up. In Phoenix, the primary event that was anticipated to have roughly 200 people sputtered out at nearly an eighth of that. In Tucson, no protest was even planned.
For International Women’s Day on March 8, A Day Without Women protest was planned nationwide. About 100 people protested outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. Meanwhile, in Tucson, no more than 100 people gathered at a local YWCA to participate.
These numbers pale in comparison to the thousands that hit the streets following the inauguration.
The cause of this dissolution of civic participation can be traced back to the makeup of these social movements themselves.
“One important feature is to keep recruiting new members,” said Cindy Bogard, chair of the Department of Sociology at Hofstra University.
Bogard explained that the sustainability and consequently the success of a social movement hinges on the will of its members.
“Social movement work is hard, and burnout happens,” she said.
Along with the burnout that can be seen via the declining numbers of these protests in Arizona, she highlighted internal conflict as one of the key determinants of long-term success in a movement.
“Right-leaning social movements are at times able to find more success because conservative opinion holders are often those who are more willing to follow a leader and act in unison,” she said.
In contrast, left-leaning groups, which were the driving force behind movements like the Women’s March and Day Without Women protest, tend to fall victim to that internal conflict.
“The left has historically shown itself to be more internally divisive,” Bogard said.
Political activism seems to have tapered off in recent months in Arizona following the presidential election, and the movements that were garnering headlines and attentions weeks ago have now gone stagnant.
While it is an uphill climb to keep these movements going, there are some who are doing their part locally to provide the opportunity.
Shawn Burke, owner of the Historic Y in Tucson, planned a community volunteer fair on President’s Day to tap into the dormant energy since Trump’s inauguration.
“All the people that participated in the Women’s March, there is all that energy and interest in doing something,” Burke said. “But of those people who were at the march, a lot of those people really haven’t done anything, but they are feeling something, but maybe they still don’t know what to do.”
At Burke’s volunteer fair, more than 50 community organizations were present, providing information to people with ways to get involved, and to promote civic engagement. These organizations ranged from civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and immigration rights.
To build civic engagement, Van Stekelenburg said groups must keep pushing.
“So what we have seen since the civil rights,” she said, “is all the minority rights that have been fought for: ethnic minorities, women, gays. There are a combination of groups and issues, which is combined into one master-frame of inequality and threatened acquired rights. Demonstrations are able to get big if they can tap into this master-frame.”
Tucsonans can become connected with that mainframe at events such as the community volunteer fair, but those events are few and far between in Southern Arizona. Bogard said groups need to recruit new members, forge new alliances, and continue to use the public spectrum as a way of getting their message heard.
“To remain vibrant, social movements need to refresh themselves with new members and ideas,” Bogard said. “Building alliances can also revitalize a movement.”
Groups such as Pantsuit Nation of Tucson help connect people to that larger mainframe. The organization was formed following the presidential election, and quickly grew to about 5,500 members. Its goal is to mobilize members into supporting and protecting marginalized citizens in the community.
“Our group is the perfect place for (activists) to start,” Amanda Gormley, a Pantsuit Nation board member, said. “We consider ourselves to be a gateway community organization, for people who are interested, probably for the first time, in getting involved in civic engagement.”
Gormley views her group as an easy first step for new-comers to the activist world, and she hopes that approachability can make recruitment numbers rise, and ultimately lead to positive dividends when it comes to social and political change.
Another such organization that advocates for larger social contexts at the local level is the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, tapping into the larger mainframe of LGBT rights.
“We are seeing about 100 to 125 new volunteers every year,” said Ethan Smith Cox, director of Development at SAAF. “Last year we had 1,500 volunteers give nearly 20,000 volunteer hours – volunteers are just a huge part of the work we do.”
As is the case with most groups or movements, they are built from the ground up; on the backs of their members and the work they do each day.
“A lot of times, people can feel like whatever they are doing isn’t making a change, but getting out there and letting your voice be heard, that’s the only way that anything ever has changed in the past,” Cox said.
Daniel Burkart is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.