The Legacy of Protest Movements

The Legacy of Protest Movements


by Fabrizio Perretti, ordinario di social movements, markets and firms

Social movements and related protest actions often develop locally and then spread national and internationally. A single episode, such as the 1969 riot at the Stonewall gay club in New York, may turn out to be the initial spark for a new type of activism (in this case, the modern LGBT liberation movement). In other cases, it is the opposition to a specific local project that determines the emergence of a new movement. In 1958, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) released their plans to build the first commercial nuclear power plant north of San Francisco. Although the area chosen for construction had no history of activism, a new and diverse group of local activists (students, local ranchers, residents, workers, a marine biologist, etc.) soon formed. After a six-year battle, the activists forced PG&E to cancel plans for the power plant. The early success of these activists is widely recognized as fundamental in supporting the national spread of the anti-nuclear movement. Many other activist groups took inspiration from this victory and began protest actions to stop construction of nuclear plants in several other locations.
But what happens in case of an activist defeat? If in fact a "victory" increases participation, mobilizes new actors and paves the way for further protest, should we expect the opposite effect in a situation of defeat?
In 1976, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a building permit for a new nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, a group of anti-nuclear activists also formed. Despite widespread mobilization and strong public opposition across New England, activists were only able to delay but unable to stop construction of the plant. However defeated, those people did not simply return to their previous lives, but continued to be activists, shifting their commitment to other causes. Despite the failure to achieve the stated goal, the Seabrook protests in fact created links with other activists across the nation and the model of direct organization adopted was a source of inspiration for many other groups that advocated large-scale action on a ranged of different issues (including activists of the ACT UP group who organized numerous protests in the United States and around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, to pressure governments to take stronger action against AIDS).
Within a larger study on the effects of mobilization related to the outcome of local protests against nuclear power plants in the United States between 1960 and 1995, these two cases highlight how - once it has come into being - mobilization does not simply die out or run out of steam: either it expands within the same realm (in the case of an activist victory) or it transforms and moves onto different realms (in the case of a defeat). And what may seem like a victory from the point of view of companies or those carrying out controversial projects in a given local area, when seen from a broader perspective can lead to defeats in other contexts. In fact, solving a local problem for some companies or projects often only means shifting the burden of the problem onto other places, or even extending it to the national level, at the expense of other actors. Also in Italy we have seen several infrastructural projects - think of the TAV train link in Piedmont or the TAP gas pipeline in Apulia - which have generated and continue to generate strong opposition from activists and local populations. Also in this case, taking a broader perspective on the consequences and repercussions in terms of further mobilization and future protest actions could be useful for researchers and policy-makers alike.

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