Tales of a New Protester, Part 1

Since November 2016, I’ve become a protester. I’m far more comfortable in board rooms, classrooms, at my computer and on my couch than in the streets yelling, chanting and holding signs to make my voice heard.  I don’t like being in crowds. Noise saps my energy. But, like this blog, it’s something I can do to show the kind of world I want to live in and help make it so.

Besides, sometimes it’s the only way to be heard. And sometimes, it’s necessary to join with others—to amplify the message.

At a recent protest, while hanging “no hate” banners on a freeway overpass, a fellow protestor asked if I thought people who won’t protest or speak against racism or authoritarianism are complicit. In another case, a friend, alarmed by seeing a truck with Neo-Nazi symbols driving through her neighborhood, unleashed her anger, ranting about how self-satisfied and insular people are, eating their high-priced lunches, talking about their upcoming vacations, while the world burns around them. Why don’t they get up and do something to stop the destruction? They can afford it. Are we complicit, if we don’t stand up and speak out?

When the call went out to Stand with Charlottesville in a nearby town, notice was short. One day. The organizer, like so many others across the country, felt the need to take an immediate, visible stand against hate and violence in the wake of the attacks. The word spread through social media, and I helped pass it along. When we arrived, only a half dozen or so people were there. Are we really going to do this, we thought? What if we’re the only ones? And we’ll be on a sidewalk of a major street. What if someone decides to drive into us?

Eventually though, a few hundred people turned out, carrying signs and children, in a town that’s known as blue-collar and rather conservative in a liberal enclave. We lined both sides of a long block of a main thoroughfare in front of city hall. Across two hours, many drivers honked, waved, and flashed thumbs up and peace signs, in support. When you’re standing on the street, holding a sign making patently clear what you believe, it’s amazing how confirmatory these honks, waves and gestures feel. To know that others, though they’re not standing on the curb with me, feel as I do tells me that the world I live in is safer, and more accepting, than I might otherwise believe.

I shared this experience with the person who asked me if people are complicit if they don’t come out to protest. And when I said, we got so many honks and waves, it was amazing, her eyebrow raised, in disbelief. So I added, we only got a couple of middle finger flipoffs—and I didn’t even see those, someone told me about it. “Oh, that figures,” she said, invoking the reputation of the town where the protest was held.

But wait, do we only accept confirmatory evidence? The overwhelming response—almost unanimous—of passersby was supportive. So why do we ignore such evidence, rather than change our view?

And were people complicit for not protesting? Perhaps they didn’t know about the event. Maybe they already had unbreakable plans, or family or other community obligations. Or maybe it was a day of reprieve for them. One thing I’ve learned is, political work takes its toll. You have to give yourself downtime. And drivers’ honks and waves were their own way of participating—and they added to the support and energy we all need to go on with it. The overwhelmingly positive response was heartening. Which isn’t to say there aren’t people who don’t care, or who do support racism, violence and hate, but…

All nations, especially one as big and diverse and complex as the U.S., will include these opposites—and all points in between. It’s a matter of what our culture and systems support. I want an America where the peaceful and humane far outweigh the haters, where we’re much more likely to encounter people who are willing to help us than to harm us. And where we’re willing to question our beliefs, and change our views when evidence suggests other than what we believe.

But that ethos must be reflected in our policies, businesses, media and churches. By and large, it hasn’t been for quite some time. In media, violence has become so endemic, it’s entertainment—not something that propels a plot, but that is the central focus. What sometimes is billed as comedy even turns on humiliation and brutality.

Until recently, when mainstream religious leaders spoke out in condemnation, religion has been used as a weapon by extremists. Congress has separated and segregated itself into opposing sides, the animosity and obstruction destroying a unique system centuries in the making. And CEOs have allowed greed and self-absorption to narrow their responsibility and corrupt American culture.  When compassion is seen as weakness, and mercy as letting someone off the hook, and cooperation as losing, life becomes brutal. This, I believe, is what we must counter. And I know from my experience as a new protester, I’m in good company.

In a recent Atlantic article, former Vice President Joe Biden said “we are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.” Some may believe this is hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration. But that’s the way it feels to me, literally. Protests, though I’ll never be comfortable in them, give me hope, bring light, and make me feel that, in some small way, I’m contributing to making the world better for us all. And they show me that most people, like me, want to live in peace and wish others well.