On Protesters

Decrying the civil disobedience of others is the mistake of a hypocrite. We always reserve the right to ourselves in case something disturbs us enough to move off the sofa, but we demand order if we feel our worldview threatened, let alone our property.

We rain disdain on the strikes by autoworkers in the first half of the last century. And we forget completely the anger that led to the Wisconsin dairy strike of 1933. We measure all protests against the civil rights movement as if anything less than segregation and slavery is beneath humanity’s notice. We draw parallels between the Boston Tea Party and the modern Tea Party demonstrations as if they are matching bookends to American history.  Lest we forget, Henry David Thoreau, American heartthrob for all political stripes, captured an important part of the national character when naming his treatise “Civil Disobedience.”

In short, when we decry the people in the streets, we insist on ignoring how much public protest is in our country’s DNA.

Let’s think about this logically

No matter how you interpret the Constitution, change was integral to the government outlined. Written at a time when power was granted for life and passed on to children, the Founding Fathers made sure our government passed through periodic upheaval. No matter what, our government changes every two years. You can never step in the same Congress twice. In practical terms, it is organized chaos (or chaos with bureaucracy, if you will).

We all love the U.S. Constitution, whether you’re a strict originalist or a living documenter. The text matters. The difference of opinion is how much can be read into it. Sure, both sides twist interpretations to suit their own ends, but let’s start where we all claim to start. The First Amendment reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”

Whether you or I feel it’s appropriate to march outside and wave signs about a particular issue does not enter into the discussion. My lack of interest or sheer laziness does not count for squat. In fact, we’d all be a bit better off if the worst thing we did was look up and say something like, “Hey, look, those people have assembled and are protesting. I can’t read their sign… Oh, all right. I guess that’s a thing. I agree/disagree. Yay for our Constitution.”

Surely, not all protests are peaceable

If we are not there, then we can hardly say just how peaceful the event was. The harm done by the Boston police strike of 1919 was still being argued over a decade later with some claiming chaos ruled while others pointing out that it had hardly seemed necessary to call out the state guard.

It would be naive to suggest that people do not get hurt or property damaged when large groups gather, but that reservation only leads to a debate about what makes a moral protest (which is no more insane than arguing about the moral justification of war, so have at it).

Also, politicians complaining about protesters from outside their district seems somewhat disingenuous if the politician in question accepts donations from beyond those boundaries. If campaign donations are protected as free speech (see Citizens United), then certainly speech is.

Protests occur at the confluence of outrage, planning, and publicity

If you take away the outrage by addressing peoples’ concerns, then you nip the protest in the bud. Eliminate the means to communicate the outrage and you destroy the community necessary for the protest.  Remove the planners and you have a riot.

The surest means for addressing the outrage is considered thought and openness about decisions. Think back on any protest. Un-redressed wrongs inspire outrage. Whether or not you or I perceive the same wrongs, the injured parties feel as though those in authority have ignored their concerns. Protests are never the first choice of the outraged. An acceptable resolution is always preferable. That’s where true politicians, the masters of compromise, should enter the negotiations. (We cannot claim that negotiations have not begun. They started the moment that the powers that be took action on an issue, if not before even then.)

Even flash mobs do not materialize out of nowhere- it only feels that way. Planning is essential to a protest. When someone says, “Didn’t anyone plan this?” what they really mean is “This should have been planned better.” Organization is the distinction between a riot and a protest march. Once again, organization is in the eye of the beholder. Gathering around a bonfire can appear beautiful or terrifying depending on the details.

What if they gave a protest and nobody ever heard about it? If you protest something and the people causing the harm don’t know, then… is that more an outdoor party? Arguably, this is the part where we all get our shorts in a bind. News reaches us that “those people” are complaining about “that thing” and behaving like asses. This is corollary to any message getting out there. We often forget that every protest has two sides: the protesters and the establishment. By definition, if you are protesting, then you feel disenfranchised. The establishment spin-doctors enter the fray and try to manage the negotiation for public consumption, portraying the disenfranchised in a negative way.

Do protests accomplish anything?

If the protest organizers succeed at defining their movement with a concise slogan, then they stand a much better chance of accomplishing their ends. Give [fill in the blank] the vote! Occupy Wall Street! Discrete goals can be accomplished.

Moreover, prepare for the long haul, whether you’re a participant or an observer. Demonstrable long-term support as part of an overall strategy defines a movement and places a single protest within the spectrum of necessary actions. Think of the civil rights movement.

Perhaps this raises the specter of revolution. In practice, modern protests in democratic nations look more like anti-revolutions. Members of our societies have generally bought into the potential for good from their form of government. They demand notice and change in policy, not in structure.

If you’re still not clear on the need for public protests with which you might disagree, you need to watch this documentary about the Hillsborough tragedy. Note the part where the government for years portrayed the victims as hooligans responsible for their own deaths. After watching it, tell me that you don’t want to go out and get in someone’s face. Remind me that you will never have reason to protest because you and yours are completely invulnerable.

Are there any interesting examples to consider from abroad?

If only we could find another place where Europeans appeared and went through the process of forming their own government based on models that they learned about back home. An interesting exception might be if the country in question had laws on the book to prohibit the freedom to assemble. Spin the wheel and it comes up: Australia in 1891! Think of every other historic workers’ union action that you have ever heard about and this pretty much fits with those. Sometimes, the authorities used private militia (like the Pinkertons), but those in power called out the army to end the 1891 Australian shearers’ strike. They arrested the leaders of the strike under an old law that prohibited group assembly, essentially quashing the movement by putting its leaders in jail for years.

Full disclosure- this led to the 1894 Australian shearers’ strike, a more violent affair. After all, the reality is a superficial solution that moves the real issue to a later time for addressing. We endorse suppression because it grants a temporary solution. This is not to suggest that truth, flowers and peace can replace difficult negotiation.  Violence creates the appearance of resolution just as shouting at your opponent creates the appearance of winning an argument. Overreaction is present emotion overcoming rational thought, including reasonable weighing of alternatives to determine what is in everyone’s best interest.

You’re overreacting

Overreacting is where we get counter-protests, the right of those arriving late to the party. Once we have two sides in the streets then we have the necessary publicity cycle to generate topics we can debate around the nation’s water coolers. That’s a negotiation, of sorts.

Perhaps, counter-protests result in nothing more than offering clarity to the other side. Consider that the shutdown of Westboro Baptist demonstrations appears to be done with a weird sort of esprit de corps on both sides.  Suddenly, we have something newsworthy with more people to interview. (Lest we forget, reporters interview participants until they receive something quotable. You don’t get broadcast time or column inches because your interviewee sounded reasonable.)

What is your breaking point?

When have you had enough? Do you need to be one of the Guildford Four or the Maguire Seven? We have the lines that we would like to think we would hold and then there are the real lines. We will never agree or act on the same affronts.

The armchair quarterback response to any protest is that “those people” are overreacting. “They” don’t understand the way the world works. If they did, then they would know: 1) they aren’t going to succeed at changing anything; 2) they are doing their cause more harm than good; and 3) they are simply wrong in their opinion. Reports of violence associated with the protests justify any condemnation that we can make from the comfort of our own homes.

Ultimately, if we are right about either of the first two, then so what? They fail in their efforts. We should allow their ideas to flop on the shoals of progress. On the third point, then we can go ahead and disagree. We can argue their points from a basis in fact, either invest effort or remain passive.

We condemn the protests for not living up to the mythical standards of the movements led by Martin Luther King and Mahatmas Gandhi. Any effort at making the world a better place should be condemned for not matching the legends of the past.

We carry visions of progress through peace- flawless men who never said a false word or hurt a feeling as they changed the world for the better. We must condemn anyone who creates a spectacle.  But there we are wrong. We must not condemn their methods because then we are supporting silence, the ultimate goal of tyrants. We may disagree vehemently, but must argue stridently for the right to argue both sides with facts.

Here is the heart of the problem

Protest is subjective and we want it to be objective.  Our founding fathers recognized that democracy was the struggle of subjective viewpoints to arrive at a common objective purpose. They never foresaw all the various ways that those subjective perceptions could be manipulated, but they hoped that human nature would grow and improve with time. That’s not to claim they expected us to resolve all problems without dispute and argument, merely that our collective wisdom would move us closer and closer to paradise.

What we are really afraid of is that protests will accomplish change for the worse. Then we are going to have to get off our asses and go protest the change. It’s a never-ending cycle. How do we break the cycle? We don’t. The world constantly changes, creating new issues and demanding new solutions. People are going to get angry as we fumble our way forward.

Which leads to another thing- protests are the kettle whistle of democracy. They let people blow off steam instead of boiling over.

Here’s where you should be scared

Let’s look at a different part of the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment ensures the individual right to keep and bear arms.  A popular trope in defense of this right has been a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” Unfortunately, Jefferson never wrote or said that. Even so, it provides a nice summary of this lengthier conservative article.

So, let’s parse this concept in a direction that we might not like. We need guns in order to resist the tyranny of our government. So, tyranny? One person thinks it’s when the government is trying to take the guns and another thinks it’s when the government is trying to dictate whom they can marry.  One thinks it’s when the government seizes property for a new airport and another thinks it’s when the government stops them from building a hotel because of a butterfly.

Let’s just say the government has behaved in some provocative ways. Do we go straight for our guns? Are there some intermediary steps before we grab the old S&W? Perhaps the court system? What if the court tosses the case out for lack of standing? Is it time yet to go for the guns?

I’m thinking that we want people to protest without the guns first. I don’t like the idea of taking away intermediary steps. That’s how you end up with tragedies and complicated messages. Violence subsumes the cause even as it creates the illusion of progress.

But people will escalate

We must not fall into the trap of assuming the protesters have reached a state of last resort. If we back people into a corner, then we must remember there are more of them than we think. If we convince people that their best recourse is violence, then they will resort to it, no matter how much they have decried violence in the past.

Escalation, of course, carries the fear of reprisal by those in power. For those worried about potential retaliation against protesters as they foresee the horrors possible if totalitarian restrictions are imposed on the right to assemble, the path to redressing those wrongs has remained unchanged for decades. The horrible truth is that we have never stopped fighting to maintain our rights in the face of those who would take them from us.

We cannot fear a vile response to a behavior as the reason to avoid the behavior. That’s blaming the victim of oppression for provoking the oppression. Those who feel their rights have been impinged seek their day in court. We proudly tell patriotic stories how our courts have fixed the wrongs forced on minorities by the tyranny of the majority. No doubt we engage in fantasy after the fact as to the ease with which such victories were obtained.


We try to dis-empower protests by attacking legitimate complaints as arising purely from emotion. Our modern society is adept at emotional manipulation through PR tactics, much more so than substantive solutions. Those who claim the role of problem solvers must provide solutions that address root causes and not emotional appeals to political subgroups.

“The important thing is to stand on the side of those who are sad, because they’ve lost something – and even if they have lost nothing. I believe you and I are doing the same thing in this regard. We stand with them and that should be enough for us now, as a sign of our shared attempts to figure things out. Love, Krzysztof. We stand with them. You and I stand with the sad ones.”
-Krzysztof Kieslowski writing to Hanna Krall

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