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Dana Ballout/MEDILL

Syrian-Americans rallied on Michigan and Congress against government brutality in Syria.

Are protests about preaching to the choir or recruiting new voices?

by Dana Ballout
Feb 08, 2012


Dana Ballout/MEDILL

A protester at a Syrian rally in Chicago painted his face in the colors of the national flag.

“Did you know there’s an Egyptian protest across the street?” a customer in a Michigan Avenue café asked a waitress.

“No, I think its Libyan,” the waitress responded.

They were both wrong, raising the question of what makes an effective protest.

Approximately 200 protesters gathered at Michigan and Congress with Syrian flags, banners and roses in hand to stand in solidarity with the people of Homs, a Syrian town under heavy bombardment by the government of President Bashar al-Assad..

“What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” rally participants chanted.

The primary goal of the protest was to spread awareness, Syrian-American activist Eman Sahloul said.

However, across the street, looks of bewilderment moved from the face of one passerby to the next as they walked by the clearly distressed crowd.

“Do they mean freedom in America?” passerby Joshua Seliga asked.

“I just don’t understand what they are saying. Some of it was in a different language,” he said. Seliga had heard the crowd chanting the Quranic saying “Takbir, Allahu Akbar,” meaning God is Great in Arabic.

While children from the rally stood on a street corner offering roses to drivers that wished to donate to humanitarian aid, no flyers were being distributed and few cars stopped.

“I think a better strategy would be to stand on the street corner and give me some sort of flyer or something,” said one woman with her three children. “Or maybe come up to talk to us.”

She may have had a point, said Michael Shallal, an Occupy Detroit organizer who has worked with other protest movements.

“We have found it more effective to relate what is going on in the Middle East to the U.S. involvement or reaction,” Shallal said. “We would have informational flyers to pass out to passersby with information on whatever we wanted them to know with contact numbers and ways to get involved.”

While keeping the audience in mind is important, there is always a tension between self-expression and trying to connect with an outside audience, said David Meyer, sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Even though hearing the Arabic Quranic verses from the rally was a turnoff for Seliga, it may have given the protesters a sense of strength and identity, Meyer said. There are also other factors outside the control of protesters. Increased violence in Syria might yield to increased attention paid to the protesters’ messages, he said.

“Activists are experimenting and trying to see what’s going to work and what’s not,” Meyer said. “There is just no magic recipe.”