08/21/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Ferguson Can Teach Us About Protest and Activism

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The policing tactics employed in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, has been a major point of criticism for many. The police were excessive and applied a military-style approach that was largely inappropriate for the circumstance. But the critique of what happened in Ferguson should go deeper than just a concern over tactics and armament. The police force and public officials, more generally, showed a deep misunderstanding of protest and public activism, consistently unable to distinguish between the large number of protesters and small number of looters. Unfortunately, they are not alone. Across the country, there is little awareness of what constitutes legitimate political dissent and acceptable forms of protest, and little value placed in the work of activists.

Perhaps between the concerns EE Schattschneider (1960) expressed about the upper-class accent of the "Heavenly Chorus" of Washington interest groups and Robert Putnam's (2000) Bowling Alone, mass citizen participation has waned to an extent that as individuals we have become cynical about the various ways to participate in politics beyond voting. As a professional-class of political operatives has taken charge of politics, fewer and fewer of us see the need to voice our own concerns until a crisis arises. And at the same time, we demonize the work of lobbyists, consistently viewed as the least honest profession around, worse than car sales people and members of Congress.

Technology was supposed to ameliorate these issues, offering us the chance to mobilize around issues from the comfort of a home office. However, the digital divide between those with and without access to technology and so-called "clicktivism," has greatly limited the potential of technology to democratize participation. As a result, and also out of a desire to gain control over political debate, public officials have consistently shown little sympathy for protesters and even less willingness to listen to activists.

Another reason for the poor reception to protest and for the lack of understanding of how to advocate may lie in the absence of the subject within the curriculum. Few courses in advocacy, activism, and lobbying exist within the traditional political science curriculum or across the liberal arts. While major movements are taught within topical courses, few students will leave college with an understanding of what it means to be an activist in a democracy or which skills they might need to advocate for a cause.

One session at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association aims to enhance the discourse on this issue. On Thursday August 28th at 4:15, scholars and practitioners will debate the quality of the curriculum on advocacy and interest groups, what additional skills students might need in the future, and what resources exist to teach these skills. For those who cannot attend the session, a recent essay by Daniel Lewis in the journal, Interest Groups and Advocacy, summarizes some of the good textbooks, and a forthcoming issue of the journal will address the issue more broadly.

What happened in Ferguson, MO, could happen in cities across the country that have the same type of political institutions that are deaf or hostile to public concerns. Political institutions will become more responsive if the public becomes more engaged, but also more capable of participating in government. Better teaching about activism is a first step that can improve the quality of the democracy and responsiveness of government.