Wisconsin teachers, public employees, and their supporters have now been protesting Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting efforts by demonstrating in Madison for two months. Some of the people have been there every day. As the GOP attack on the middle class advances, an informal network of labor unions and other organizations sponsor supportive demonstrations throughout the U.S. participation in these events slowly grows, but I know that millions more support their goals.
Many Americans think that mass public demonstrations began in the 1960s. Actually, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and they’re familiar throughout the world. Although we often use the terms interchangeably, protests, demonstrations, and rallies are different. Protesters oppose a particular situation, incident, or policy. Demonstrators may support or oppose an issue and want to express their views. There are many ways to protest and demonstrate. A rally is an event designed to instill enthusiasm about a topic in those who attend, similar to a pep rally.
Demonstrations are a necessary ingredient for social evolution. No significant social, economic, or political change has ever happened anywhere in the world without some form of protest or demonstration. Once we decide that we want change, we must get our message to the powers that be. Typically, those in power are monumentally oblivious to public opinion. They’re too isolated from real life. So our message must be loud and clear. Protests and demonstrations have accomplished many changes, including:
The American Revolution and the French Revolution,
Political independence for dozens of colonies throughout Asia and Africa, including Indian independence from Great Britain,
The abolition of American slavery, the civil rights movement, and the end of South African apartheid,
Women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and reproductive rights
The international labor movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, and the peace movement,
Temperance and prohibition, the repeal of prohibition, and drunk-driving laws,
American Indian movement, LGBT rights, and disability rights,
The environmental protection movement, and excessive police force,
And all of the movements toward democracy in the Middle East.
Some of the most important and respected world leaders have used protests and demonstrations to make their points, including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Mother Jones, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Russell Means, Cesar Chavez, Abbie Hoffman, Molly Rush, Harvey Milk, and Nelson Mandela.
Most Americans have a baffling fear of demonstrations. In the 60s, demonstrating somehow became “un-American”. I was a bit too young to participate then, but I’ve attended many such events and I enjoy them. It’s the purest form of democracy in action. People are happy. Hugs and smiles abound. It’s an incredible feeling to stand in the middle of a crowd, knowing that, at least on this issue, WE ARE ONE. Everyone should experience a good, well-organized demonstration least once in life.
Our right to protest is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Sometimes, a demonstration includes civil disobedience. That’s an action in which protesters try to make their political point by deliberately breaking the law. No one will ever force you to commit civil disobedience. In fact, the organizations that conduct civil disobedience actions train their members in what to expect, and make sure that they are ready to participate. Rosa Parks’ refusal to change her seat on the bus was an act of civil disobedience – and incredible courage.
Contrary to urban legend, few protests are violent or dangerous. Most are peaceful, friendly, and invigorating. Arrests at demonstrations are actually quite rare. I’ve been to dozens of demonstrations, and I have never seen a single incident of violence. Yes, I know that things do occasionally get out of hand. I’m well aware of what happened at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Sometimes, demonstrators try too hard to make their points. Sometimes the police are too eager to make arrests. Sometimes both things happen at once. But that’s also extremely rare. A riot is an entirely different thing. Really, I’m a big chicken. If I thought it was dangerous, I wouldn’t be there.
At the most recent demonstration in Pittsburgh, the April 4 action to protect the middle class, nearly 1,000 people jammed city sidewalks and spilled into the streets. There wasn’t a single inappropriate incident, and the Pittsburgh police were fully calm and helpful.
Now, I don’t recommend protesting as a lifestyle, but when there’s a demonstration on an issue that you truly care about, don’t be afraid to participate. Spread your wings. Try something new. Take a friend. It’s a great American tradition. History is made by those who show up. Hope to see you there!
For more information:
- See Working America for information on economic and social justice demonstrations.
- Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center publishes a calendar of local peace and justice events.
- There’s a good article on the history of protests on Wikipedia.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead –