“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
This post is part of an ongoing series meant to shed light on the power of social struggle and civil disobedience. I will write weekly on various movements throughout history that have had a hand in reforming public opinion and policy.
96 hours. 96 hours was all it took for my top trending FB news story to go from Rob Kardashian being fat again to this. From my friends’ sharing brunch pics (Why are the skinniest girls always posting about brunch? Like I know you didn’t eat those eggs benedict and stay a size 0, Jenny. I looked at a lemon ricotta pancake once and gained 6 and a half pounds), to sharing these links. I’m not going to write an open letter to Trump about my optimism (I have little), or tell you that my friends and I are scared (we are), or condemn Trump’s policies ( I do), or ask us all to come together (we have to). I’m here to address the influx of messages I’ve gotten regarding the illegitimacy of protest. Between DM’s in my Instagram (seriously the days of just receiving dick pics and “u hot;)” messages seem like innocuous distant dreams) from people I once knew in high school taunting me and telling me my efforts would have no tangible effect, to memes popping up all over Facebook calling us “whiney sore losers,” I want to educate you all on the importance of civil disobedience.
First and foremost, let me just clarify, and speak for the thousands of us peacefully marching in New York City this past week, to confirm that we did not believe our tears and strides would stop Donald Trump from being the President-elect. We were not vain enough to think that our shaking middle fingers, and beautifully crafted chants, and quickly made pizza box signs in front of Trump Towers would result in his stepping down, and Hillary stepping in, and a happy ending (Ok, the only happy ending would be a Sanders-Warren ticket let’s be real). I marched, hand in hand with my best friend on Tuesday night, because it was all I had. I needed to lock eyes with a stranger, to see their mutual pain, and to know that I wasn’t alone. In a fucked up selfish way, I had to clarify that I wasn’t the only one hurting, that this was a societal sore, and that even if just for one night we could put an adhesive over it, maybe I’d finally get some much needed sleep. I needed to hear the shaking and struggle in one woman’s voice as she screamed “My body my choice!” as a pinch to see if I could still feel anything at all…And I could. I felt harder than I’d felt in the past 24 hours, shaking off my disappointment that eventually became a horrifying numbness. I needed somewhere to go after my boss, through tears, told me to “stay safe this week,” because sitting alone in my room and thinking about my blatant ignorance over the past year and a half was enough to make me vomit (which I did). This is why I protested. This is why my fellow Americans, shoulder to shoulder , so close to one another our tears fell upon the others hands, did too.
“Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
Here’s one of the memes that I’ve seen pop up in my newsfeed a lot this week:
I’d like to walk you through why protests are moments of rebuilding, not destroying, civil society. Here’s some of my favorite examples:
Vietnam War 1955-1975
The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were the most vocal and outspoken anti-war student group of the 1960s, and were founded by activists of the “New Left.” Chapters in various colleges around the US exploded throughout the country, and the group used its wide reach to organize teach-ins, provide safe spaces, and bring together protesters. They reacted directly to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decisions regarding the war, and had a profound impact on public opinion and policy.
* Fun Fact: SDS worked closely alongside the Black Power Movement (shoutout intersectionality!). Imagine that—people coming together, realizing that one group’s fight was the same as another’s—Kinda like feminists fighting climate change and civil rights workers fighting sexism….and now all of us fighting Donald Trump (and really, what he stands for).
According to gallup.com, “After roughly 184,000 troops were deployed to South Vietnam by the end of 1965, Gallup found majority approval for Johnson’s handling of the situation in four separate polls.” In other words, the majority of US citizens felt that this war was justified, they wanted to interfere in Indochina. Similarly, the majority of our electoral college, which, whether we like it or not is our current measure of democracy, wanted change, wanted to give voice to not only middle America, but every American who felt they had been wronged and forgotten by previous administrations. They wanted Trump, a man who broke the rules, insulted his enemies, and promised to stand for the suffering, well the white suffering. We get it. We hear you anyway.
In January 1965, SDS sent out letters to invite anyone to march with them after President Johnson announced the US policy of sustained reprisal, allowing US forces to begin a bombing raid in North Vietnam (Fredrich 345). This resulted in SDS’ first major successful protest on April 17, 1965—The March on Washington against the Vietnam War. 25,000 people attended.
In response, William Gamson held the first University of Michigan teach-in in March—a 12-hour marathon of lectures, Q&A’s, movies and workshops—with 3,000 attendees present to listen to his peaceful dissemination of information about the war, and misinformation provided to Americans by their government (Fredrich 145). Many similar teach-ins sprung up immediately after in the US, Europe, and Japan, showing how effective and publicized protests can lead to a domino effect of like-organization, and thus a wider, more diverse reach of participants (imagine, they didn’t even have Twitter). Right after these teach-ins became popularized, a major sway in public opinion erupted. A 1965 Gallup Poll found that in the August of 1965, only 24% of Americans felt sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake, followed by 61% in 1971 and 68% in 1993 (Fredrich 347).
“Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised.” Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change”
Mass education, the spreading of correct facts, and unbiased information about the current state of global affairs, is vital in socio-political movements, something too often tampered by various information channels, and opinionated participants, thus resulting in faltering reliability. The media told us Clinton was winning, and the stats told us it’d be a landslide in her favor…But no one bothered to check in on the people during the media circus of the 2016 election campaign. What if, throughout the election, we held public forums at every university on the policies both candidates were laying out (to be fair, Trump’s were very obscure), and what if, we marched whenever Trump spewed bigotry on his campaign trail? Maybe we would have had a better measure of his large amount of supporters, and maybe we could have better understood their frustrations, and maybe, just maybe, Hillary could have heard it too, changing her policies to reflect the growing demands of the fed-up lower middle class. Maybe an undecided voter would have picked her, because she listened, and not him, because he shouted. Of course, the anti-war movement was not perfect, and neither are our protests today, but overall it did show us that people have the ability to mobilize more effectively and tactfully when they are physically committed, when they organize and assemble, when they have SPECIFIC demands. Don’t criticize your Facebook friends for expressing their politics, but then laugh when they close their laptops and take to the streets. We’re reacting, you’re just nervous we might actually accomplish something.
“It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over.” Che Guevara, Motorcycle Diaries
By early 1968 only 35% of the population approved of President Johnson’s handling of the war, as opposed to 47% in mid-April 1966. Protest movements acted as a catalyst for impacting citizen opinion, exposing the dark side of the war and educating the masses on the questionable reasons we took to war in the first place. Other factors, such as loss of life and loss of support from other politicians, undoubtedly played an important role as well, but groups like SDS were showing citizens that it was OK to not accept the status quo, and ultimately ended up changing that same status from minority to majority disapproval of the War.
When the Vietnam War started, people didn’t understand their power of influence. By the end, they recognized their immediate agency. The people demanded truth, and Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The people marched for peace, and congress passed the the War Powers Act in 1973, made to limit the war-making powers of the President since Vietnam. The people cried out against corruption, and Nixon resigned in 1974. Remember, the word “politics” stems from the Latin root, “politikos,” of and for the citizens. We are politics. Our government is our manifestation of demands. And our protests are our means of demanding. Never forget that without you, your country, your government, and its policies, cease to exist and matter.