I came across another article about protests and when and what to protest. This one was local and kind and just wanted energy focused on what can be changed. And all I can picture is President Jed Bartlet from the TV show “West Wing” yelling at his chief of staff Leo McGarry.
“You fight the battles that you can win!”
Leo McGarry responds, “You fight the battles worth fighting for!”
Protests, broadly speaking, are a form of free speech and civil disobedience. They are part of what this country is founded on are meant to disrupt and draw attention to a cause or an injustice. From the temperance movement to the civil rights movement, people have attacked protesting as invalid and a waste of time. Laws have attempted to narrow what is allowed and make punishments harsher for civil disobedience. Yet with all the forces against the tactic, it is part of what has made this country great.
Protests and protesters are attacked for many reasons and dismissed by some for the strangest of reasons. People try to invalidate them because they are disruptive, whiners, criminals, lazy, and, most annoyingly, paid. Let’s talk about attacks on the validity of protesting.
1. “They are a bunch of lazy people, get a job!”
I wouldn’t need a job if I got a nickel for every time I heard that being shouted at protesters. This is a false narrative. There is a reason you don’t see too many protests Monday through Friday 9-5. Because people work. There are exceptions like a protest at a plant closing. But most protesters have jobs, just like most Americans.
As far as being lazy? If you think traveling, sometimes across the country, to meet up with people to march 5 miles and stand for another hour during speeches is something lazy people do… I tried to come up with some clever quip here but protesting is the least lazy response to something that happened to people you don’t know and can’t directly help.
Then you have the organizers. These people are the most active people I know. Setting a time and date, or an immediate response protest. Coordinating with other activists. Getting the word out. Figuring out the logistics from transportation to speakers to locations. Then trying to control an angry crowd into some semblance of order. It is a lot of work.
2. “I could support the protest if it didn’t block traffic or hurt businesses.”
Tell that to those who sat at white-only lunch counters, or through tea into the Boston Harbour, or to Kim Davis who refused to give out marriage licenses to gay couples. Protests work because they disrupt people’s lives. Protest that does not disrupt some aspect of people’s normal routine is not a protest. Me writing about protests is not a protest. If I went to a public square and started shouting these words I am disrupting those in that square.
Even if you think a nondisruptive protest is still a protest, it is ineffectual it’s not going to make news that a dozen people held a sign quietly in a park. The point of a protest is to make itself aware to those not participating.
3. “Bunch of liberal hippies.”
Oh yeah?! There hasn’t been a fifty-year continuous protest outside abortion clinics in America. The Tea Party was not a protest movement. Gun right activists have never held a rally. Do I need to go on?
4. “Paid and Professional Protesters.”
This is a relatively new one to me. The quick answer is no, there are not thousands of protesters on retainer and/or getting paid to protest. (That’s something the CIA has done in other countries.)
Yes, there are independent media people who get money by going to protests through donations and that is for their media. (Live streams, photos, social media updates, etc.) There are also organizations that plan rallies and marches like the Women’s March that raise money, organize buses, provide food and water. But not paid protesters. Most of these organizations attempt to raise money at these events, not pay it out.
5. “Why are you protesting that when this is more urgent?”
I learned a long time ago in personal relationships never to tell someone what they should be passionate. I have never come out ahead in those conversations. Now extrapolate that to thousands of people in the street. They are there because the believe they are doing the right thing. That, in this moment, this is where they need to be to fight for what is right. You choose what you protest. I’ll choose what I protest.
I have learned in my time as part of the Occupy Movement is that protests by themselves are not the ends but a means to an end. Even though Occupy hasn’t changed the world from the top it has changed conversations. Even Republicans talk about income inequality. Bernie’s success was boosted by the networks and tactics established during Occupy.
Lessons learned and voices heard in the protests today will lead to changes tomorrow. The effect of protests continues long after the signs are thrown away.