You are personally inconvenienced by a protest action you support. How should you react?
Last weekend, my wife and I took our baby daughter on a plane to Seattle to visit my folks. Upon landing, we found that airport security had barricaded the exits due to the large numbers of people who had made their way to the airport to demonstrate against Donald Trump’s personal war against Muslims and refugees.
On our side of the walls and barricades, our small but growing crowd of travelers was routed to a gate in Terminal A, where we waited for shuttle buses to pick us up and drive us back around to baggage claim. All told, we spent probably 30–40 minutes standing around waiting before we were able to board our buses.
Though most of us in the crowd were strangers to one another, we spent most of this time in conversation. Some of our discourse was friendly; some of it was tense, but cordial. At times it grew overtly hostile. Some people expressed solidarity with the families and individuals who were being harmed by Trump’s executive order. Others expressed a theoretical sympathy that was overshadowed by their anger at the inconvenience they were experiencing. One man was just purple-faced with rage, shouting something about the Bolsheviks.
Though my wife and I were tired (and carrying our infant child), we were supportive of the protest; after all, our minor delay was nothing compared to the ordeal faced by families split apart, elderly travelers in need of medical care being turned away, and small children being held in custody for hours on end without a friendly face in sight. So: what can you do if you find yourself personally inconvenienced by a protest action you support?
You are unlikely to make people any less upset about the delay or inconvenience they’re experiencing. You may not even manage to change hearts or minds. However, you can change the conversation and the atmosphere in a positive way, and if you can do that, you have an opportunity to shape the story that people walk away with. That’s a good thing.
1. Be calm, and project calm.
Mood is infectious, especially in a crowd. Tension, anxiety, frustration — these ripple through a crowd quickly. When these emotions settle into the crowd, they begin to take root. The good news is, composure, levelheadedness, kindness, geniality — these can be spread as well. Take some deep breaths and put on a brave face. Smile warmly to your neighbors and make it clear you’re not concerned or upset. Help everyone take a deep breath and recognize that their situation is basically fine. (It helped, last weekend, that we had a cheerful baby with us; if the tired couple with a small baby seem to be doing OK, it’s a little harder for others to find excuses to complain.)
2. Talk to people.
Say hello to the people around you. Be open and reassuring. Introduce yourself instead of isolating yourself and others. Cultivate camaraderie.
3. Be kind and understanding.
You don’t know what kind of day everyone has had. Be clear that you support the demonstrators, but do remember to be understanding of your neighbors in the crowd if they’re having a shitty day. Be kind. Strive for empathy. Basically, be a person.
Hopefully you won’t encounter anyone whose rage at the demonstrators is boiling over into something approaching riotous anger. But you might. This isn’t good for anybody. If you can, and if you feel safe doing so, try and calm the person down. Don’t match or raise their intensity; breathe deeply, and speak to them slowly, deliberately, calmly, and respectfully. Don’t engage them in argument; just see if you can get them to lower their volume, maybe take a seat and have a drink of water.
5. Don’t waste time on trolls.
There was one guy standing behind us who loudly tried to start a rumor about how all the protesters were paid by George Soros. My wife and I turned around, shot him a withering look, and just said, “Oh, please.” Don’t bother talking to people like this, as they have no interest in an honest exchange. (Seriously: fuck that guy.) Spend your time engaging with the good and reasonable people around, of which there will be plenty.
6. Focus on morality, not tactics.
You believe in this cause. You believe it is right and just. Say so. Others may be feeling the same way, but afraid to speak up in the crowd. The more people speak up, the more people will be emboldened to do so. Make it clear you see this as an issue of right vs. wrong, period. Don’t let yourself get dragged into arguments about whether this particular protest action is good or helpful. If someone wants to argue the point with you, just go back to the fundamental immorality of the current state of affairs: “It’s just wrong. It’s morally abhorrent. And when something is wrong, people need to stand up and say so.”