I feel like I ought to explain myself. Why am I blogging about the protests? Why has the focus of my health & fitness blog completely shifted in the past few weeks to talk about these high-profile murders, about race in America, and about police reforms? Are protests even something that deserve our attention?
When the George Floyd protests broke out a month ago, I started writing about lifestyle. I knew that there were a lot of different sides forming up around the issues being protested about, and I wanted to help everyone on all the sides be more mentally acute so they could make better decisions and communicate more clearly. Then I went on to write explicitly about George and others like him, about race in America, and about the police. I did this because the persistence of the protestors and the realities of George Floyd’s case and others made me realize that I had to say something about what was going on. Being silent would not be healthy.
I talk to a lot of different people every day and I am met with radically different perspectives. Some of them just implicitly assume that the protests are a good thing, are necessary, and are effective. Others simply assume that the protests (and possibly all protests in general) are negative, destructive, and misguided. I want to talk about why I think protests can be both.
As American as Apple Pie
The United States of America is based on protests, and it is an important part of our culture. It goes back to literally the first ‘protests’, the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Many of those people came to this land to flee persecution. The culture of protest persisted here and the American Revolution is a story that begins with protests about taxation and a lack of representation in government. Our Bill of Rights secured our rights to speech and to assembly, and all the major reforms of our society have come about this way. Abolitionists protested for the end of slavery. Suffragettes protested for women to have the vote. Prohibitionists protested to ban alcohol and anti-prohibitionists protested to legalize alcohol.
Protesting is a right in this country, and an important one. It is part of the checks and balances of our society that keep us accountable to one another and keep our government and marketplace institutions accountable to the will of the people. many of the liberties we take for granted are the result of protest. Some of the same people who mocked the protests against COVID-19 lockdowns were out in the streets a week later protesting about George Floyd, and some of the people who mocked the George Floyd protestors were out there protesting against the government’s COVID-19 regulations a week earlier. I think both sides were doing their duty, not in mocking each other, but in raising their voices against what they felt was wrong.
Everything is Political
I used to be a protestor. When I was a teenager, I would regularly march in protests for or against one cause or another. I felt that this was important. We all contribute to the culture(s) we live in, and if the culture around you is sending one message–a message that you disagree with and think is wrong–it is important to assemble and raise your voice to put the counter-message out into the culture. This is why I marched agains police brutality in the 90s after being beaten up by cops, or marched for migrant workers’ rights after working in the fields and seeing how some of my Mexican neighbors lived. Protesting together is a form of telling, and sharing, the truth.
I also encountered the idea of personal protest, taking your protest out of the realms of speech and assembly and into your lifestyle and purchasing decisions. For example, when I was a vegan, I protested animal cruelty by boycotting Proctor & Gamble, McDonald’s, and leather shoes. Through this experience, I learned that it was more important to change my own actions, my own thought patterns, and my own purchasing decisions than it was to try to change other people’s minds with loud and confrontational speech. I learned that every choice we make is political, in a manner of speaking. These forms of protest, the personal kind, were much more effective than marching in the street. They were more real because they were things I lived 24/7/365, and that was more impactful than mere words.
More Harm Than Good?
I also saw the destructive side of protests. A protest is a potential flashpoint, a place where trouble–such as violence–can flare up. This is because protests, even well-meaning and peaceful protests, attract the attention of a variety of bad actors. I have seen this with my eyes and lived amongst the protest culture, so I am not making this up or repeating something I read online. Vandals, gangs, extremist groups, covert operatives–various figures who want to take advantage of crowds, cause violence, or discredit one cause or another–are drawn to these gatherings to make trouble. Police crowd control efforts can also turn into an incitement to riot, whether intentionally or accidentally.
Apart from bad actors, there are also the dangers of the hypocrite and the reactionary. The hypocrite is someone who represents your cause loudly, but is not a good example in themself. They may be so obviously flawed that they give your cause a bad name and actually turn people away from it. Then there’s the reactionary, someone who sees your protest and feels so vehemently opposed that they start to put their own counter-action into high gear. Sometimes these factors make the thing that is being protested against even more powerful and entrenched in the long-run.
Be Careful Pointing Fingers
Ok, so protests are happening and I want to talk about it. Protests are a civil right and an important legacy of our culture. Protest is a voice of the people that can be embodied in every choice we make. Protests can also turn bad and discredit your cause, or strengthen the opposition. So, where do I stand on protests at the end of the day?
One of the most important things I have learned in life is that it is more important to change yourself than to try to change other people. Every time you point your finger at someone, you’ve got 3 more fingers pointing back at you. Telling someone they’ve got to change is usually met with resistance, and it’s a resistance you cannot overcome because you cannot get inside people and force them to change their minds. Changing yourself is also met with resistance, but it is a resistance you can overcome if the change is important enough to you. You can do that hard work of change, and be an example, and speak about it with truth and candor.
So, I think protests are good and important. I also think protests are potentially dangerous and damaging. If the protest doesn’t carry on into your own thoughts and actions, then it was a waste of time and energy. Be careful pointing fingers. Sometimes they need to be pointed, but remember to internalize the change your are calling out for. Speak up in every setting, not just in the protest. Make sure you’re not being a hypocrite. And, if someone else’s protest upsets you, make sure you ask yourself why and spend some time working on how to clearly communicate your own response.
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