Never let anyone tell you protests don’t matter.
From the French Revolution to Selma, and from the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to Standing Rock, otherwise powerless people gain influence when they join together to defy the government, corporations or the law of the land.
Often this kind of statement requires some law-breaking. It was the case in the Boston Tea Party, it was the case in the Nat Turner’s Rebellion and in more recent cases, too.
Protesters must ask themselves if they are willing to break the law in order to stand up for their beliefs. They must ask themselves if the law in question is immoral or unconstitutional, or better yet both. They must ask themselves if they are willing to go to jail, willing to be kicked and punched and humiliated.
There is a line of thinking that protesters are sitting on their rumps, collecting welfare and waiting for any micro-aggression to get bent out of shape about while the rest of us working stiffs earn our paychecks. But living through the blizzard in North Dakota right now is anything but easy, as anyone who went outside their front door for more than a few minutes during this week’s snowstorm knows. Likewise, there is nothing easy about heading toward John Day and seeing police lights in your rear view mirror.
Black Lives Matter protesters have blocked streets and even highways, and similar tactics were used by protesters against Donald Trump in Portland last month. Negatively affecting other people’s lives is no way to engender support, but organizers believe the problems they create bring light to their concerns.
And yes, there are insurgents who try to capitalize on the illegal aspect of protest, who try to twist the mob mentality. Protests require extreme vigilance and dedication to stay on message, to keep everyone on the same page and to disavow violence at every turn. How well organizers and protesters can do that often portends how successful their protest will be.
Success is not assured. In fact, it’s often unlikely. The anti-Trump protests in Portland were mocked, infiltrated by a violent element, and ultimately did no good except to reiterate that many people don’t want Donald Trump to be the next president.
The thousands of people at Standing Rock got at least a temporary win, and brought their concerns to a much wider audience who found their plight sympathetic and honorable.
The people who occupied Wall Street were unable to reach the politicians who had the power, despite months of media coverage.
Nat Turner was hanged for his violent rebellion 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
The Boston Tea Party spurred the creation of the most powerful nation on Earth.
Maybe because this country was conceived in protest, the Founding Fathers made sure to protect the right to assembly and speech. It’s something we shouldn’t take for granted, and we should always be wary when peaceful protests are banned preemptively or shut down violently.
But it’s also not a right we should misuse. Potential protesters must go forth understanding the risks, their rights and what they are trying to accomplish.