There’s Never an “Appropriate Time” to Protest
The world has witnessed many protests in the modern era. A singular man standing in front of tanks at the edge of Tiananmen Square; the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama; the Arab Spring and the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt; Native American protests of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock; and so many more.
Social media has been used as a conduit to build support, organize events, and raise awareness on a global scale. In America and elsewhere news spreads quickly about protests in the streets, and even the evening news can’t keep up with all the different nonviolent gatherings.
Lately, there have been a series of protests around the world that are drawing the media’s attention: mainly the DropAKnee protest of the National Football League (NFL) to bring attention to police brutality and the loss of black lives at the hands of police, the Catalonian Independence protests in Spain, and the Confederate Monument protests in August. And now, with the attack on Las Vegas and the political turmoil within the United States, it’s possible that more protests will spring up in the coming months revolving around gun policy changes and second amendment rights.
For many people, these protests often seem annoying. Why would protestors use this platform to achieve their goals? Why can’t sports events simply be about sports? Why does politics have to bleed into everything?
Yet this is the essential point about protests that many people seem to forget (or at least not acknowledge): there is no appropriate nor inappropriate time to protest.
National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellows award winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is all too familiar with the nature of protests and nonviolent action. In his articles in the Atlantic, he regularly tackles controversial subjects with ease: even going so far as to state that Trump is America’s first White President, essentially noting that all of Trump’s policies are motivated by dismantling President Obama’s policies simply because Obama is black.
In an interview with late-night host Stephen Colbert, Ta-Nehisi Coates notes how protests are treated by the masses, both historically and in the modern day: “It is the natural course that a protest starts in a really radical place and ends where it is now; where Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys all take a knee and the message is ‘unity.’ All protests face that issue, but the fact that Kaepernick…has at least forced the (National Football) League to somehow address this; I think it is significant.”
When asked for a response to the common concern “you’re politicizing a sports event, this is not appropriate,” Coates responds: “It is never appropriate. You see this from time to time — you saw it with Black Lives Matter — but there’s an idea, for instance, that during the Civil Rights Movement Martin Luther King was very popular, that Civil Rights Organizations were extraordinarily profitable and popular and appropriate, and people approved of their protests. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we have polling data from that period, and it’s very similar to how people feel about NFL protests today…in 1966…60 percent of Americans disapproved of Martin Luther King, specifically, as a person. It was only after his death that he became deified, you know, and virtually everyone approves of him.”
Protests are organized simply to draw attention to an uncomfortable truth: that a power structure is damaging, oppressive, or restricts the actions of a smaller group of people. They are never seen as appropriate, because they call a dominant power out for injustices. However, long after the fact, the actions of those within the protest are often seen as heroic or inspiring. Martin Luther King Jr. is an excellent example of how that popular view of individuals or the protest they represent can evolve over time.
In Catalonia — no matter what your stance on the secession may be — the dominant power, Spain, was unjustly persecuting and targeting the smaller community of people who were demanding the right to vote on an issue that directly affects them. The immediate protests after the fact helped raise awareness of the injustice, but the EU and many within the country of Spain will call this inappropriate and illegal. The justification for their actions will come years later, but only if their movement is successful. If it is not, it will disappear into history: overwritten by the dominant powers in play.
During the demonstrations against the Confederate Monuments, the true counter-protestors were the White Nationalists. The threat to their power structure — the loss of “historic” symbols and the growth of diversity in the United States — made them feel as if their importance was diminished. Nationalism is diminishing, but their cause has political power and money. The statements by Trump (that “both sides” were very good people) validated their presence and their reigning power. In this case, the Antifa movement is the one painted as “inappropriate” and “violent” by society’s standards: although that reality is slowly shifting.
Similarly, the NFL protests in America will eventually be seen as heroic and powerful. For now, the protests are portrayed as an Anti-American action, instead of its intended purpose of drawing attention to the loss of black lives at the hands of police. This happened with the Civil Rights movement the 1960’s, and one can almost envision how this modern-day rendition of the Civil Rights Movement will play out. At the time of the 1960’s protests, many people complained about how people of color and Black Americans were making everything so political when it didn’t need to be. However, once it drew enough attention, it resulted in policy changes like the desegregation of schools and public places. It had a direct effect on policy, and once that transition occurred the protests and movement became acceptable.
As Coates says in his interview: “No! Why would they approve [of the Civil Rights protests]? That’s part of the reason why they were actually protesting. It was a challenge: if the majority of Americans approved of that, there would be no need for a protest in the first place.”
Historically, large protests have changed many aspects in society. Not only has policy changed, but family dynamics, employment, educational opportunities, and much more- all for the better. More diversity means more innovations and technological advancements, better economic opportunities for everyone, and a general improvement in the lives of all.
If you find yourself questioning the appropriateness of a protest, check yourself. Does your concern stem from an actual critique (as was the case of the White Nationalists), or does it stem from feelings of discomfort? Do you truly feel that people cannot stand up for their rights and voice their concerns? It’s best to acknowledge your discomfort, as protests are not meant to coddle feelings. Protests lead to change, and shine a light on conflict. Sometime down the road, maybe your mind will be changed, too.
Will you be on the right side of history?