If you’ve never joined a public protest, I suggest you do at least once. It’s an unforgettable experience.
In public, most of us float past strangers in a pleasant-enough way. We all do a lot of projection–assuming that everyone else shares most of our basic values and even our opinions. We give each other the benefit of the doubt.
But when you protest in public — daring to make a statement that’s contrary to the norm (and if it’s not contrary and substantial then it’s not a “protest”, really) — then everything changes. In the eyes of those who beg to differ, you become the problem. All that cheery, prefab bonhomie that gets us through the day is ripped away like so much tissue paper.
It’s at that point that you realize how precious the right to protest really is. It wasn’t granted to us cheerfully. It’s the sort of thing that was paid for in blood, and which needs to be constantly renewed. Most people just want you to shut up. They don’t want you to use your right to protest. They’d prefer you just sit down and take it, whatever “it” is.
Sometime in the summer of 1993 I joined my then-girlfriend’s family at an abortion protest outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic somewhere in the middle of New Hampshire. It was my first and so far only protest. For about an hour and a half we held up signs stating things like Abortion stops a beating heart and Abortion: 1 dead and 1 wounded on the opposite side of a rural road from the folksy-looking clinic. We watched as roughly half of those in passing cars gave us waves, honks and thumbs-up, and the other half stared us down, shook their fists, and yelled “fuck you” (among other things) out of their open windows at the crowd that included little children.
In some cases, when the drivers came into view around the bend on the highway, I could see their expressions change instantly from semi-distracted ho-hum to a virulent hatred. We had dared show ourselves and express our opinion. We had identified ourselves as a problem. We were no longer human. We were the enemy.
That ninety minutes or so passed quickly. There were no confrontations with patients at the clinic. The workers sitting on the porch of the clinic took note of our license plate numbers and watched us closely, occasionally shaking their heads in dismay. It was about as civil as such a thing could be. And yet I left with the feeling that taking a stand — any stand — in public transforms one in the eyes of others. It made me respect those who dare stand up, even if I disagree with their cause. They’re supporting the precious right by using it, and that’s what matters.
Thus I recommend that every American protest at least once, if only as a celebration of our First Amendment rights. It’s a tribute to the memory of Henry David Thoreau, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and others who have shaped the world we know. The First Amendment is mainly identified as guaranteeing freedom of speech (which it is still supposed to do). That’s all well and good. But the First also guarantees freedom of assembly. Use it or lose it.
Recently, I’ve had a series of online discussions with young people about this sort of thing. It still somewhat shocks me that someone who’s 25 or so could be my kid. But anyway, some of them are very bright and have a great deal of concern about what’s happening in the country. They are enraged by the merger of corporate and government interests. They are disillusioned by a politics that makes it impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Monsanto. They sense the government — our government — is fabricating reasons sustain an ill-defined state of war and further strip them of civil rights and privacy. They are watching their futures wash away in front of them as people in the governmental/corporate world strive to turn the US into a “low cost” country. They know that lobbyists write legislation, and that Congress is basically a front. I share most of their sentiments.
And I encourage them to do something about it. I encourage them to protest.
And in most cases, what they tell me is this: “I’m afraid to protest because I will be tracked and recorded. There will be a record of my protest. It will make it impossible for me to get a job after college. I will be stuck trying to pay back my college loans while working as a waitress/barista/tire tech/whatever. I can’t protest. I feel nervous even discussing this online.”
Yes. That’s where we are at. This is America in 2014.
Perhaps through this it’s revealed that the true purpose of the American surveillance machine is social control, and the American education business is a means of guaranteeing near-absolute servitude and compliance. After all, it was recently revealed that it would be less expensive to for the federal government to offer free college than to continue to run their grant and loan programs. But free college would be . . . free.
So, If only for a moment today, please try to consider what the implications of this really are. Try to imagine what an indebted college student or grad — the cream of our crop of citizens — could be forced to tolerate or even enthusiastically support with nary a peep.
Then consider going to a protest. About anything.
Use it or lose it.