Protest Critics Fear Change

Isabel Owens, Opinion and Copy Editor

Anti-protesting laws have currently been proposed in 10 states by senators aiming to increase penalties on protests which “block transportation and commerce, damage property, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk,” according to The Washington Times. If passed, the laws will increase fines and sentences for those participating in demonstrations which impact public safety, and can be bent to criminalize nearly any public demonstration. 

The bill pending in Virginia’s state senate would increase penalties for those who engage in an “unlawful assembly” after “having been lawfully warned to disperse,” according to Spencer Woodman for The InterceptVirginia State Senator Jennifer Mclellan said that Virginia’s bill is “very broad” and can easily criminalize peaceful protest. “Take the student sit-in leaders –you could put those protesters in jail for up to a year,” she told Woodman.

For people to be legally unable to express –or even simply discouraged from expressing–  disagreement with the government should be terrifying to everyone, regardless of whether you currently agree with the government’s actions. No one should be expected to refine their political views based on who is elected President, and the division in our country will not go away because people are punished from making it public. 

In the immediate aftermath of November’s election, many of Trump’s supporters used his win as a way to invalidate the efforts of protesters, as some verification of the in-disputability of their views. Others defended their ability to keep fighting against him. And then there were those who supported another candidate but believed Americans had to “unify” and “work together” and “give him a chance” rather than immediately condemn his plans.

That conversation, about protesting and division and whether the former is worth the latter, quieted down for a while. But now, following the inauguration and women’s marches, I’ve seen a renewal of backlash against those who are voicing opposition for Trump’s policies. A new wave of Facebook posts about how Trump is our president, whether we like it or not, and protesting accomplishes nothing.

The number of people I’ve seen on social media, people I know and don’t know, who think that mocking the concept of protesting actually does something to improve the political landscape is shocking. It is true that people need to back up their words with actions –if you attend a climate change protest, you should probably make efforts within your own life to be more environmentally-friendly. But the division we see now has always existed, and suppressing it for the sake of creating the illusion that we are a unified country does nothing but prolong the time it will take to solve any problems.

I’m not a proponent of violence or hate. But the people who oppose protesting in favor of “having a real discussion” are usually people who either don’t want change in the first place or don’t understand how it works. It’s not always as easy as asking nicely. Protests like the Black Lives Matter and DAPL demonstrations are usually last-resort efforts after attempts to engage in reasonable conversation, or after hundreds of years of fighting for equality, have failed.

In a simple argument, say with a friend or family member, yelling angrily at your opponent is obviously less fruitful than having a calm discussion about the disagreement. But in the case of a deep political divide, polite conversations generally amount to nothing. Only for the small minority will a calm conversation with someone from the other side change their views. In general, people will tell activists to be less violent about fighting for their causes when they really just want an easier time ignoring them.

I don’t like conflict. But the idea that an oppressed group of people has to be respectful and patient in asking to be granted basic human rights is hypocritical and, though sometimes well-intended, far too prevalent. It’s why people post and retweet the more common “hate does not drive out hate, only love can do that” quote on MLK Day rather than any of his statements condemning white apathy and promoting civil disobedience, of which there are hundreds. It’s easier for white people to use MLK as the icon of the civil rights movement, rather than a “violent” leader like Malcom X, when we remember him as someone who was nice to us. 

We expect our inferiors to love us despite our awful treatment of them, and if they don’t, we turn their lack of love into justification for how we treat them. We pretend that our treatment is a result of their anger, rather than the other way around. Using the violence which occurs at Black Lives Matter protests as justification for opposing the basis of the movement, which is racial equality, is generally a major stretch on the part of people who really want any reason to oppose the movement.  

If you’re someone who supports legislation oppressing another group of people, you can’t get offended when that group of people acts mean to you. If you support Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants and are shocked when you hear a Muslim person saying that he or she hates white people, you might need to reconsider what you expect. 

Many say that protesting is just spreading more hate and creating more division. But hate does not exist on one flat plane. Hating someone because they exist and hating the person who hates you because you exist are 2 very different things. Yes, violence is bad, but refraining from telling people who are wrong that they are wrong for the purpose of building a better relationship between Democrats and Republicans does nothing but gloss over our problems. Efforts of the oppressed to gain respect from their oppressors result in people feeling complacent in their actions far more than they result in any political change.

Before you criticize protesters for either creating conflict or not doing enough to make a change, consider whether you actually have room to make judgment. If you do, and spend all your time volunteering and donating to help others, great. But chances are you don’t. In my opinion, the majority of people who say they’re bothered by protesting because it’s a waste of time and doesn’t make any difference are really just bothered by the idea of a difference being made.