Milo Yiannopoulos—an incendiary speaker who gambles that it’s best to have bigger crowds outside his talks, protesting, than inside listening—got exactly what he wanted when he went to Berkeley. His talk was cancelled after a student-led protest turned into a riot, with a group of masked, “black bloc” activists smashing windows and setting fires.
The riot was ugly, and it helped Yiannopoulos more than it chastened him. It’s hard to imagine what the riot’s instigators thought that they were going to accomplish, but here’s one test for protest techniques that should have given them pause: Does this protest paint an accurate, compelling picture of the world we’re trying to achieve?
A protest isn’t only a way to gauge the strength of feeling or strength of numbers on a side; it is also a way of judging character. A person on the other side, or who hasn’t made up his or her mind on an issue, observes a protest and asks: “If they win, what would it be like to live in a community in which their side is ascendant?”
Activists often face constraints that limit how much of a positive vision they can present through protest. Activists engaging in civil disobedience have their protests chosen for them by their opponents: When an unjust law is passed, its authors have chosen the battleground. The protestors simply break the law publicly with as much patience and charity as they can muster.
When protestors mobilize in response to an urgent need, with a specific way to help, their options for expression will be limited, because the best course of action is clear. The lawyers who rushed to airports last week to set up impromptu legal clinics for travelers threatened by Trump’s executive order had an enviably clear course of action.
It’s trickier when you want to protest a law or an idea that you abhor, but have no obvious means of making the law’s injustice visible—whether by breaking it and suffering the consequences, or by tending to the people harmed by the ideology. At protests like the one in Berkeley, or events like the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the several other pending marches on D.C., the protest’s form isn’t constrained by the target of the protest. Organizers face the challenge of finding a way to present a positive vision of what they’re fighting for, not just what they’re fighting against.
So, why stick to signs and chants outside the venue where an offensive speaker is scheduled to appear? Why not host an alternate event and speaker, or a prayer vigil—or, for that matter, an ideological speed-dating event, where participants can ask someone they disagree with a question they’re genuinely curious about?
Why not undertake protest as an act of witness, offering potential attendees the chance not just to leave Yiannopoulos’s talk, but to choose something else—something with more substance than signs that say “Love Trumps Hate”? Instead of asserting it, prove it.
There’s no need to wait for someone like Yiannopoulos to come to a campus near you. People who oppose Milo or Trump have many small opportunities for protest-as-witness. If you want to do more than donate to oppose Trump’s refugee policy, you can volunteer with an organization helping refugees who have already made it to the United States. Or you can reach out to people without homes in your own city, through volunteer work or by setting a goal of having a conversation with a homeless person once a week.
On an even more modest scale, for those who oppose Trump’s crudeness and quick temper (and that should be nearly everyone, regardless of their politics), one act of protest-as-witness is to cut down on our own swearing, quick judgments, or spiteful remarks. The profanity-laced signs some protesters held up at the Women’s March seemed allied with Trump on style, even as they ostensibly opposed him on substance.
Protesters have the option to give up vulgarity as a private discipline, perhaps setting up a swear jar to make it a more rigorous practice, including for guests in your home. Asking friends to stop swearing and telling them why the habit troubles you (and asking them to hold you accountable, too) may not have the romance of clashing with riot police—but it’s much more likely to lead to a conversation, and, maybe, a conversion.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and blogs at Patheos.
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