I Went to a Protest Once

As disappointed in the election results as I was, I was pissed when I first heard about the several anti-Trump protests across the country. I thought it was childish, petty, and further eroded the faith in the election process. After Trump and his supporters spent weeks talking about rigged elections, were these protesters any better caretakers of our democratic process?

The only thing I retained from eighth grade history class was the teacher’s raising his voice to emphasize how important and integral the peaceful transfer of power after the elections. Perhaps his face even turned red. Other countries descended into chaos and civil war after elections, but not America.

The protests were like a slap in the face. I felt like if they had a problem with the election results, they should respond through the normal channels like writing to their elected officials.

But I went to a protest once. 

Though “went” is a generous word. It was on a part of campus that I happened to walk through. I knew the protest was there, but it seemed more convenient to walk through campus than take an alternate route. More accurately, I witnessed a protest, though any bystander probably thought I was part of it.

It was during the recession, and just about everyone was hurting. University students and staff were protesting 30% tuition hikes and large staff layoffs. For most students and their families — me included — the tuition hikes was painful but manageable. For others, it pushed the dream of a college education out of reach. I went to a public school, so there was this expectation that a public university would make college accessible to people who could not afford higher education otherwise. There was an understanding or a social contract in place that if you were smart enough to get in, you should be able to attend.

The atmosphere was electric and addictive. It was like going to a concert. People were giving impassioned speeches on the steps. There were guitars. There were people who had painted their faces in bright colors with matching posters. It was full of hope, joy, and positive energy.

I was and still a fervent rule follower, and the wrongness of going against the university was countered by the atmosphere of the crowd. But as more and more speakers spoke, it felt like this protest on tuition hikes and staff layoffs was quickly being diluted or even morphing into something else. There were too many agendas with too little overlap. What I was seeing was a good — the motives of the people around me were good — but I was hard pressed to explain it to someone who wasn’t there.

Suddenly, we heard a helicopter and we looked up. Far above us, there was a news chopper with the station emblazoned on the side. And I remembered wondering if from that great height angry crowds and happy crowds looked the same.

Perhaps it was the same day or a different day, a crowd marched past the steps and I saw one of my professors moving with the crowd. He was a mild-mannered middle aged man, and he always dressed like a professor, button-up shirts and respectable brown leather shoes. Amidst the excitement, his face was calm and smiling behind his professor glasses. He was at ease.

I witnessed a peaceful protest, but there were others. There were times when students barricaded themselves in classrooms. I don’t think there were tasers and pepper sprays while I was a student, but there were riot police and there was a terrifying day when buses pulled onto campus in expectation of the massive arrests.

One day while I was putting away chairs, an older staff worker asked me why I was not protesting — the French would never stand for it, I remember him saying.

I blushed and mumbled something. I believed the tuition hikes were wrong, and the layoffs were wrong. I believed that the university was facing a genuine financial crisis, and at the same time I believed that there was mismanagement. But I wouldn’t be joining in any protests.

I was fortunate enough to have parents help me with the tuition. But I worked a lot of jobs to pay for my room and board, and there was an omnipresent fear of not making rent. I couldn’t afford to buy all my own books, and a graduate student taught me the trick of checking out books on two hours reserve (all courses were required to put all books in the library where they could be checked out in 2 hour blocks) and take them to the 2 cent copy shop. I worked in the dormitories where I was allowed a limited access to a binding machine and binding combs so I didn’t have to pay the extra few dollars to have my makeshift books bound. I wasn’t going hungry, but I was aware that I had less than some of my classmates. And I was also aware that I had a lot more than my coworkers.

One of the protesting tactics was to pull the fire alarms in the library. If my shift was interrupted (yes, I worked in the library and the dorms), I wouldn’t get paid. Which was terrifying. And oddly, the pulling of the fire alarm and the fear of losing my wages was when I could best empathize the protesters. How strange it is that the moment that someone is hurting you is also the moment of understanding.

I’m sure many of the protesters were trouble-makers and anarchists, because, as I mentioned before, kids are punks. I am sure a lot of them were spoiled, rich kids who only wore thrift store clothing and dumpster dived out of some misguided social activism or rebellion, but also enjoyed their very expensive bikes and shoes. But a lot of the protesters were truly desperate and scared and felt that this dream of getting an education and getting ahead in life was so cruelly and arbitrarily ripped from them. A lot of the protesters believed in justice. A lot of them felt that the promise of a great education was diluted by larger class sizes, class cancellations, and higher tuition.

And it is a strange thing to be twenty or twenty one years old and to have all these beliefs and ideals about yourself. To believe that you’re a good person and you stand for justice, and to have the sudden clarity that others around you are hurting. Not strangers you don’t know, but people you work with. It is a strange thing to know that your younger self would be disappointed in you, because your ideals have so easily given away to pragmatism.

I wasn’t going to a protest. I wasn’t going to march and risk getting arrested or hurt. And it’s not because I didn’t believe in rightness of the cause — I had some qualms about the details but the general idea was sound–, it’s because I thought that if I kept my head down and worked hard I could graduate relatively unscathed. I could make it. Others would not. And I wasn’t going to risk failure to help them.

So, I just hated myself quietly and carried on, and soon enough I had other anxieties and problems to plague me.

But the experience has colored my view of the 2016 Anti-Trump Protests. So after ten thousand words of context:

  • I don’t like protests because I don’t like people and I don’t like noise.
  • I think we should respect the elections process; the caveat being that I don’t think the system is hopelessly broken.
  • If you believe the system is hopelessly broken, I can see why you would want to protest.
  • America has a tradition of civil disobedience that has worked out pretty well.
  • I am not sure if this will go down in history as one of the times that it worked out.
  • If you disagree with me, I think you are well within your rights to demonstrate.
  • I have more mixed feelings about disrupting traffic. I don’t like sitting in extra traffic, but the point of a protest is to be as disruptive as possible. Though the nuances get lost, it’s a lot more effective at gathering attention than a letter writing campaign.
  • So consider a letter writing campaign in conjunction.
  • If you feel like you’re drowning, you shouldn’t go quietly. You should scream.
  • That being said, it also runs the risk of alienating and angering potential allies.
  • Lastly, unless you’re fighting aliens or zombies (pretty convinced that Trump is neither), willful destruction of property is always wrong.

2 Comments on I Went to a Protest Once

  1. Dylan
    November 17, 2016 at 12:06 pm (10 months ago)

    Voting is just one of a citizen’s rights in the United States; another is the right to peaceful assembly. When people feel their representation is not representational; when we feel any collective emotion, whether anger, sadness, or even the excited happiness of a sports team victory; we are inclined to come together and share that feeling with others. Since feelings are contagious, it forms a chain reaction that can get hundreds or thousands involved who wouldn’t be inclined to do so normally, as well as those like yourself that get swept up along the way.

    Peaceful assembly is a good, but fragile thing. The sight of many people coming together to be heard is what invigorates allies and intimidates enemies to a cause. In the case of the anti-Trump rallies, it assures Muslims, Mexicans, and other persecuted groups that there are great swaths of people that share their fear and fury over the bigot that has just been elected. It hopefully gives pause to those who would steamroll the rights of the minority.

    That said, any large group of emotional people is a very dangerous thing, capable of a chain reaction of another kind: one act of violence or chaos can easily encourage more from those nearby. It is often social pressure that suppresses our more animalistic instincts in public; if we see those around us giving in to instincts of fear and violence, and we feel we are unlikely to be punished for doing the same, many take advantage of the opportunity. Just a few people acting out is enough to propagate the reaction; it takes a strong, strong inclination towards peace from the majority of the members of the crowd to prevent small acts of violence from turning a peaceful assembly into a riot. That’s why leaders like Gandhi and MLK that teach nonviolence are so vital – that is what it takes to counter our instincts.

    Ultimately, people will always make their voices heard. It’s up to us a society to make sure it can happen peacefully.

  2. Natalie
    November 21, 2016 at 7:18 pm (10 months ago)

    Thanks for your comment.