An Open Letter To My Child, On Protest
Let me tell you a story about your mother.
A few years ago, when you were pretty young, the first round of #BlackLivesMatter protests were gaining national attention. In the wake of a militarized police force facing off against an impoverished midwestern town on national television every night for a week or so, people from across the country were coming together in whatever way they could to show some level of solidarity. There wasn’t a real movement yet, or at least not in a way that most people could understand. There was just visceral emotion felt by a lot of people who saw the faces of black teenagers, mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, children, on streets in Missouri at night, locked arm-in-arm, in defiance of kevlar-uniformed men driving armored vehicles and carrying riot shields. Some of the people NOT in Missouri were not content to watch these events play out on the news, and needed to participate. In Philadelphia, as in other parts of the country, this meant marches — at rush hour, through heavily trafficked areas, carrying signs and megaphones and grief and anger.
“I get why they’re doing it, but do they have to do it in such an obtrusive way?” Your mother asked, watching local news cover the traffic jams and transit delays. “Don’t they know this is just going to turn people off their cause?”
You know your mother, so you know that this is surprising to hear. Your mother, the woman who only a few months later would be responsible for our entire block having Black Lives Matter signs in their yards. Your mother, who spent years before your birth working with disenfranchised, mostly black, children and families and seeing first-hand how many institutions had created barriers in the way of even the most minor successes for black boys and men. Your mother, who took you on a Black Lives Matter family march when you were in pre-school with dozens of other families, in the rain, in January, chanting and singing and feeling a part of history.
Let me tell you a story about me.
In the late 2000s, before you were born, I was in my mid-20s working an entry-level job with mounting medical bills from a bizarre sudden illness, deferred student loans from a decision to go to grad school, and shitty credit from not really understanding how money worked. A lot of the rest of the country was in a fairly similar place, especially people my age or just a little younger, as the economy started tanking in the twilight of the Bush presidency. People lost their homes, lost their jobs, lost the promises of the future that just a few years earlier seemed like guarantees. While this was happening, those institutions clearly responsible were being absolved of their culpability by a government that hadn’t done a great job getting anyone’s trust to begin with.
In response, the #OccupyWallStreet movement sprang forth as dirty hipsters chanted pretty dumb rhymes and used social media to loudly voice their anger, without any clear expectation that I could, at the time, discern. They started camping. Really. Tents were set up all around the country. 24-year-old white people with dreadlocks, 68 year old Ben and Jerry cosplayers, and literal homeless people hanging out together in makeshift cities around Wall Street or Philly’s City Hall or lots of other places. This went on for days, probably weeks, it’s hard to remember exactly because I was actively not participating. The only thing I remember clearly is that the Occupy Movement seemed to capture the residual anti-George Bush energy that propelled my own political involvement in college, along with the general anti-authority energy that propels all young people (and perhaps too many older people), with the contemporary anti-Capitalism energy that was just starting to take shape in the wake of the housing bubble collapse.
It felt, to me, like anger for anger’s sake, without a defined goal. “Why,” I wondered to anyone who would listen, “Should people take this movement seriously when it can’t even decide what it wants?”
Eight-ish years later, the Occupy movement seems like the canary in the coal mine, very pissed off that you dragged it into the gaseous pit of darkness just so it could tell you when you suffocated it. It predicted a future where the economic recovery would cause the country to generally bounce back without bringing the lower-middle class along for the ride. It predicted a future where hope feels, for many, like it was compromised in favor of cynical rationalism. It predicted a future where fewer people would trust any authority, and those authorities would continually give people reasons not to be trusted.
Let me tell you a story about where I grew up.
Cumberland County, Virginia, is tiny and without any major historical impact. Had it never existed, the world would probably be pretty much the exact same. It’s poor, rural, without any major roadways or fast food franchises or big moments.
Down the road, in Prince Edward County, Virginia, there was a fairly big moment, a couple generations before you came along. In 1951, students at Prince Edward’s all-black school went on strike. Led by 16-year old Barbara Rose Johnson, the students walked out of the underfunded school and marched to homes of the all-white school board members to protest in favor of better conditions. This protest turned into a case against the school district, which was eventually consolidated along with four other cases into Brown v. Board of Education. As a result, the US Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional.
In Cumberland County, schools were desegregated with little fanfare. I’m sure there were people vociferously opposed to this, but for whatever reason those voices were unsuccessful in maintaining their status quo and white children and black children went to school together. Your grandfather went to that school in those years, and I went to that school 35ish years later, all with people whose parents and grandparents had to go to separate schools.
In Prince Edward County, schools shut down for five years rather than desegregate. For five years, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, white children went to private academies on scholarships while black children either went without an education or had to travel out of the county in order to attend school. Some of those black children probably went to Cumberland with your grandfather. Some of those white children are close friends to our family.
Let me tell you about what I’ve learned, so far, about protest.
Protests don’t make sense to the non-aggrieved. If you are comfortable, or at least not-uncomfortable, it’s very hard to see a large group of angry people and understand why they’re so angry. It’s harder still to see one angry person and understand why they’re so angry. I’m angry, you might think, and I’m not protesting. If I’m not protesting, you might think, either these angry people think I’m wrong (which I rarely am), or they must be wrong.
Protests are a disruption, an interruption. They are, by nature, rude. They are, by nature, inconvenient. A convenient protest is a failure. It is a circle of like-minded people complaining but not calling too much attention to themselves. A convenient protest is an admission of defeat.
Protests are costly. They are designed to redistribute attention, energy, and resources toward those who feel this act is the only remaining way to be acknowledged. But they come at great cost for the protesters, too. They cost time, they cost safety, they cost a potential future. If a protest is unsuccessful, if it is defeated, those who protested will lose far more than they ever stand to gain. Those in Prince Edward County who shut down schools rather than face desegregation will never have the segregated future they hoped for; they lost. Those who attempted to disrupt the relationship between Wall Street and Washington have gained very little in the past eight years. Those in Ferguson, Missouri who expected justice and accountability for their police force are still just only beginning to see their anguish turn into real action and every step forward is followed by a few steps back.
Protesting is a lot of things, but it is never easy, for anyone involved. It is a last resort, and anyone who engages in protest does so when they have nothing left to lose.
You’ll hear a lot of criticism whenever a new protest begins. It will sound a lot like what your mother said, or what I said: “This isn’t the time.” “This isn’t the place.” “That isn’t the way.”
With luck, if you ever hear or say those things in the face of protest, eventually you’ll be confronted with new insight. Those who are protesting are doing so because no other time, no other place, no other way would have worked any better. Perhaps they’ve tried other, more convenient methods of protest, and you didn’t notice because no one notices. Perhaps, even, it truly isn’t the time or place or way. Maybe the protest is ideologically or morally reprehensible. Maybe it’s violent. Maybe it’s nihilistic. Maybe it’s self-serving. Maybe it’s inconsistent and ineffective.
Regardless: remember that people protesting have decided this is the only way they have left to be heard. You might hear them and disagree vociferously with what they’re saying. You might agree 100% with the words and disagree with the means, rightly or wrongly. But they’ve made a decision that they are willing to risk whatever they are risking in order to send this message. That means something. That means there’s a truth to the act for those participating that can only be understood by listening. You might listen, understand, and disagree. But you can’t understand without listening, and if you aren’t trying to understand, you’ll never be able to articulate why you disagree in any compelling way.
Protesting, in and of itself, is not good or bad. It is simply an act. Protesting, in and of itself, is not change. It is simply a call for change to occur. Protesting, in and of itself, is not a message, it is a medium for those who have otherwise not been given one.
Protesting is hard. Protesting is inconvenient. Protesting is uncomfortable. Protesting is costly.
Above all, protesting is a call to be understood.