Protest Matters. Protest Works. That’s Why So Many Keep Saying It Doesn’t.

No, public protest is not ineffective.

Nor is it too old-fashioned in the age of social media.

I have witnessed a lot of second-guessing and criticism of last week’s Women’s March as well as proposed marches and protests to come. I have read that we should “take a breath,” “give the President a chance,” “not be so naive,” “quit being George Soros’ stooges,” etc. The implication of all of this is that this protest “phase” we’re going through is just that, and juvenile to boot.

Let me assure you that everyone in history who has ever protested something important was told a thousand times that they were wasting their time. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, we tend to see the famous protests of history as easy victories. They weren’t. And the protestors for suffrage, the abolition of slavery, organized labor, the Civil Rights Movement faced critics, dismissal and  discouragement at every step. The reason we remember these movements is because two weeks after they began their protests, they didn’t listen to the naysayers and cynics who patronizingly told them that they were being ridiculous.

Everyone in history who has ever protested something important was told a thousand times that they were wasting their time. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, we tend to see the famous protests of history as easy victories. They weren’t.

These cynics in the media and elsewhere are not terrified of the status quo or of the inhumane and undemocratic policies being announced by our new government. They are either immune to those policy changes or they are in agreement with them. It’s hard to imagine, but yes, some of our pundits think that an executive order telling government researchers that their research results have to be reviewed by the President before being released is no problem. They seem also to think that reporters and protestors being charged with felonies for reporting and protesting, yeah, well that’s nothing to get excited about. They even think that it’s not grossly irresponsible and dangerous to appoint a Secretary of Education who has never worked in education and who advocates closing public schools in favor of for-profit charter and private schools. Furthermore, they hardly blink an eye at states proposing new legislation to criminalize heckling politicians, public protest, and to legalize mowing down protestors with your car if you feel like it.

Saul Alinsky, in his book “Reveille for Radicals,” describes a radical as someone “so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men.” Clearly, these pundits and politicians who are so cynical about efforts to resist the racist, sexist, xenophobic, oligarchical, anti-science, anti-intellectual and repressive policies of this government are not whom Alinsky was describing. Rather, they are the Grima Wormtongues of the world, endlessly whispering into our ears their corrosive advice to surrender, or to wait, or to just walk away from confrontation.

Do not listen. Docility will change nothing for the better.

American history is not what it is because of obedience. It’s greatest moments are the result, rather, of radical resistance. As Alinsky notes:

“There were those few, and there will be more, who really liked people, loved people – all people. They were the human torches setting aflame the hearts of men so that they passionately fought for the rights of their fellow men, all men. They were hated, feared and branded as ‘radicals.’ They wore the epithet of ‘radical’ as a badge of honor. They fought for the right of men to govern themselves, of the right of men to walk erect as free men and not grovel before kings, for the Bill of Rights, for the abolition of slavery, for public education, and for everything decent and worth while. They loved men and fought for them. Their neighbor’s misery was their misery. They acted as they believed.”

One of the most revered American presidents in our history was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A moment’s glance into history reveals that while Roosevelt had branded his forthcoming policies the “New Deal,” he didn’t exactly know what those policies would be. Historian Howard Zinn points out that early in FDR’s first term labor strikes broke out all over the country. Furthermore, “Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.”

“Without a national crisis – economic destitution and rebellion – it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.”

This notion pedaled by those who would have us wait eternally and passively for positive change in our country is that some heroic politician will arise, miraculously (but gradually) redirect policies in a more humane and compassionate direction. This is not how the world works. This is how the world stays exactly the same as it is, or gets inconceivably worse.

The cynics will point to the seeming ineffectiveness of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. Those protests, as public and as widespread as they were, seemed to accomplish very little, as no policy addressing income inequality, mass foreclosures and the regulation of Wall Street resulted from them.

These are valid criticisms, but five years later an unknown Jewish socialist from Vermont ran on a platform of resistance to income inequality and inspired millions of Americans to join him. They knew exactly what the “1%” was and what “income inequality” referred to, mostly because of the Occupy protests. Had those protests not taken place, we really have to question whether the issue would have been understood by the general public.

This notion pedaled by those who would have us wait eternally and passively for positive change in our country is that some heroic politician will arise, miraculously (but gradually) redirect policies in a more humane and compassionate direction. This is not how the world works. This is how the world stays exactly the same as it is, or gets inconceivably worse.

Nor is it logical to assume that every protest, every phase of a movement will result in the change we seek. Movements can take years, even decades to effect the change they hope for. This isn’t failure. When progress is slow, we cannot be discouraged. Rest assured, however, that if we don’t protest, if we ignore the misery of our fellow Americans, our fellow men and women everywhere, change will be much much slower. Or it won’t come at all.

Protest is no Sissyphean act. Do not give up. When Antonio Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect”  seems overwhelming, we only survive with his “optimism of the will,” a sense that we can succeed despite the multitude of obstacles in our path. Like faith, this sense is born out of love of humankind. It is not born out of pure sterile logic, perpetual caution or reverence for the status quo. Alinsky refers to radicals as “iconoclastic bulldozers willing to be regarded as profane spoilers of the sacred myths.” They are stubborn, strong, determined and indefatigable.

In an era where it seems that everything is convenient and easy to access, the notion of fighting, protesting, being disruptive seems almost unnecessary to us. Too many of us live in excessive comfort in one way or another, or think we do. Distractions prevent us from attending to those issues that truly upset us. We can ignore them, or so we think. Then we wake up one day to find that we no longer have the right to protest peacefully without facing 10 years in prison. In America. Land of the free-ish and the not so brave.

Do not listen to the Grima Wormtongues of the world. Think about what you want politically. Think hard. Speak out about those things. Wear a protest t-shirt, hat, sticker, whatever that articulates what you care about. Join a protest you care about, or organize one yourself, no matter the size. Brainstorm protest ideas constantly. Share them. Try to generate enthusiasm for them.

It will be public protest that galvanizes public opinion against horrible leadership.

Passively waiting for someone to rescue us will only end in tragedy.

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