The first few weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency seem to be widening the divide between the American people. Among the division are those who question the purpose of peaceful protesting, and those who champion it.
Protests and demonstrations have been popping up across America since President Trump was elected in November, most notably at airports Jan. 28 following his controversial executive order barring travellers from Muslim countries with valid visas from entering the United States.
His troublesome rhetoric is just the issue of the moment – peaceful assembly is nothing new. It dates back to the U.S. Constitution itself, with its First Amendment granting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
It is considered an international human right, but 10 states are currently seeking legislation to crack down harder on peaceful protestors, using the excuse that protestors “block traffic.” The recent airport protests, women’s marches, pipeline occupations and inaugural protests have unearthed the same old conversation about its effectiveness.
Some say, “What’s the point of protesting? Sit down and shut up.” Others question why protestors don’t take more concrete steps toward change: “don’t just chant, actually do something.”
Those who protest believe it is important to speak out in large numbers – most recently, against the president and his callous remarks about women, immigrants and Islam, against oil companies, against police brutality and against Wall Street. Some extreme protestors avoid the word “peaceful” entirely, as the hundreds arrested for vandalism and violence did on inauguration day.
The recent women’s marches are proof that, subject matter aside, large gatherings of people standing up for what they believe in, without force of any kind, can be moving and encouraging. Women, men and children across the nation and globe marched on Jan. 21 in the name of equal rights, not only in the reproductive realm, but also for pay equality, stronger sexual assault legislation and other basic human rights that they feel are threatened by the president’s rhetoric.
People marched on Jan. 28 for the rights of unborn children who can’t march for themselves; they marchers believe the unborn are being deprived of the chance to live because of a decades-old Supreme Court ruling.
While these two groups do not necessarily agree, they do have at least two things in common – they are American, and must try to respect one another’s right to speak their beliefs.
There is great disagreement about what makes a protest meaningful, but why does it even matter?
It depends on one’s definition of “effective.” Even if Trump hasn’t heard the chants echoing nationwide for months, even if Congress does nothing to change legislation for a given cause, even if a protest doesn’t lead to actual, tangible change – if it moved one person, changed lives or inspired people to do better and to keep believing in this great nation, it was effective. If two people who may not have met otherwise found common ground at a protest, it was effective. If stories were shared and voices were heard, it was effective. It mattered.
It’s not about the number of people in the crowd, even if that’s what the new president and his press secretary want to make it about. It’s about gathering with people who believe in the same things, showing the government and the rest of America: this is where we stand. Peaceful protest is one loud, giant “FYI”: this is who we are. This is why this topic matters. This is why you should respectfully listen, whether you agree or not.
It’s not about the homemade signs they show on the news, not about the hashtag #WhyIMarch, not about the loud chants or grand statements or clever T-shirts.
These are only one part of the modern-day protest, a modified version of what the founding fathers had in mind when they started a revolution. (Thanks, “Hamilton.”) They wanted to unite people who think differently – who saw more from themselves and expected more from their government. They wanted to form a nation where people didn’t have to start an actual war to get their leaders’ attention. They knew that the way to do that was by granting citizens the right to just show up and speak their truth.
Those who don’t believe in its effectiveness should ask themselves whether the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would have issued a stay, blocking Trump’s un-American executive order banning Muslims last month had it not been for the massive crowds of people who gathered to show their support for the detained. They weren’t there just to spite Trump – they were there to show the Muslims being held that a lot of Americans think their president has the wrong idea about what makes America great.
The staying power of peaceful protest, from the civil rights era to the women’s movement to the Vietnam War to today, is proof that Americans aren’t going to stop gathering in the name of what matters to them.
If anything, it’s a good sign. We still care. We still care enough to get up early on a Saturday morning and march. One Iraq war veteran cared enough to drive two hours to the Washington Dulles International Airport Jan. 28 to give a detained Muslim his purple heart upon release, because “this isn’t what I fought for.”
We still care enough about our country to ask more of our elected officials and to donate to the ACLU.
We definitely don’t all agree, but we all care. And we can’t forget how lucky we are to live in a country that lets us care – loudly.