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The protest goes mainstream (again)

Demonstrators gathered last month in Copley Square to protest President Trump’s travel ban.
Demonstrators gathered last month in Copley Square to protest President Trump’s travel ban.Keith Bedford/Globe staff

President Trump signed his immigration ban at 4:42 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27. Less than an hour later, the Massachusetts chapter of a leading Islamic civil rights group sent out an alert urging protesters to gather at Copley Square that Sunday.

Their call was like a stone tossed into a pond, creating ripples amplified by social media. Organizers anticipated about 1,000 people would protest. Instead, tens of thousands arrived in a phalanx of support and solidarity.

“People were coming in from Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont,” said John Robbins, the executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We had 20,000 who said they came on Facebook — that was purely folks who had checked in — so probably far more than that showed.”


Protester. Activist. Agitator. No longer are such labels seen as solely subversive descriptions for radicals who question authority — they are also badges of honor for those who support causes they believe in, say organizers and those who study the nation’s social movements. They cite a cultural shift, starting with the Arab Spring and Occupy movement in 2011 and continuing with Black Lives Matter, that has swept through much of the country, making protests almost commonplace in ways not seen since the 1960s.

Protesters have gathered to urge a minimum wage increase. Demonstrators have fought against building oil pipelines. Marchers have taken to the streets to stop police brutality. Antiabortion activists have rallied in the nation’s capital. Women have marched. And scientists plan to march.

“Marches and rallies [have] just become an increasingly accepted way of engaging in politics,” said Rory McVeigh, the director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements. “If you have a grievance, you band together and you make your voices heard. It’s not shocking anymore.”


Part of that has to do with the current generation learning lessons from the activists who came before them, said Sarah J. Jackson, a professor at Northeastern University who studies how activists use and are presented in media.

Millennials, she said, were raised to believe that those who boycotted, marched, and committed acts of civil disobedience helped right many of the country’s wrongs. History teaches them that those who protested the Vietnam War and took part in the civil rights struggle and fight for women’s rights “were right and just,” Jackson said.

Now, millennials are coming to terms with the fact that inequality still exists, she said, as social media reconciles reality with perception.

“People are looking around and seeing that progress isn’t linear,” Jackson said

And while pirate radio — as in unlicensed, low-wattage stations — might have been the organizing tool for activist of old, Jackson said, social media is now the go-to for today’s organizer.

Word spreads about nearly every demonstration through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, which can cause attendance to balloon.

But technology is not a substitute for the on-the-ground work that is crucial to social justice movements, said Horace Small, executive director of the advocacy group, the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. Organizers must talk to a broad swath of people to bring about legislative change, he said.

“You have a right to protest. You have a right to speak out. But if you’re doing a tactic for the sake of being seen and heard, one can make the argument it’s a failed tactic,” Small said. “In real organizing, all tactics have a connection to a strategy. That’s the real deal.”


Robbins said the Council on American-Islamic Relations had been trying to determine how best to respond should Trump make good on his controversial campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the country.

The day after the inauguration, about 100,000 people participated in the women’s march in Boston — part of nearly 5 million people who organizers said protested worldwide. That demonstration, which historians say could be the largest single-day protest in US history, started from a Facebook post authored by a woman in Hawaii, after Trump was elected in November.

After he saw the turnout of the women’s march, Robbins said, the council wanted to “capitalize on some of the energy” generated by the massive gathering.

So they picked the place where their yet-to-be scheduled rally would be held: the Kahlil Gibran Memorial at Copley Square. Gibran was a famous artist and philosopher whose family emigrated from Lebanon in 1895.

“We thought it was a really prominent way to show that an immigrant from the Middle East had left such a strong footprint on Boston in such a prominent way,” Robbins said.

They decided a Muslim prayer would be said.

Then, they waited.

On Jan. 27, the wait ended. Just one week into Trump’s administration, the president signed an executive order that halted all refugee arrivals for 120 days, bars citizens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days, and blocks Syrian refugees indefinitely.


At 5:44 p.m. — an hour after the order was signed — the organization e-mailed its members with an announcement about the protest that Sunday and created a Facebook event for it.

The comments began within minutes. Most users expressed support for the protest, even if they regretted not being able to attend. Just one of the earliest commenters took exception to calling Trump’s order “a ban.”

But Saturday evening, as word spread that travelers with valid visas and green cards were being barred from boarding planes and entering the country, new posts began to appear, alerting people to an “EMERGENCY ACTION” at Logan International Airport. It was a separate protest organized by a different group, but it got the attention of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Attorney General Maura Healey, and other elected officials.

Robbins said his group started reaching out to elected officials — and receiving calls from them as well — wondering if any wanted to speak at Sunday’s event. They did.

Warren spoke. Walsh spoke. City Councilor Tito Jackson spoke. US Senator Edward Markey spoke.

But what now?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Robbins said.

He’s committed to making sure the momentum from the massive protest on Jan. 29 doesn’t fizzle, saying his group collected the contact information for more than 10,000 people. (Boston police put the crowd at about 15,000.)

They’re urging them to lobby legislators to support initiatives that include defending immigrants and protecting the freedom of religion.


And that — creating a cultural and political shift — is what a social movement is all about, said Small. Otherwise, he said, “it’s bull, to be perfectly candid.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.