What Price Protest?


I have a yellowed newspaper photo of myself holding a ‘Free South African Freedom Fighters’ sign during a rally in the early ’80s. (Upon reflection, I realize I was protesting for a cause, albeit a legitimate one, that was a continent away from me.) Since then, I have covered numerous rallies and protests, but I have actually participated in only three or four.

Protest as social activism calls for an almost obsessive commitment and fearlessness that I have never been able to sustain. Truth is, despite holding political beliefs that are decidedly to the left on many issues, I have not often acted on them in ways that would put my livelihood—often meager—or safety at risk. Is this political cowardice? Perhaps, but having witnessed the unbridled cruelty and tenacity of America’s resistance to desegregation, police in riot gear scare the hell out of me.

I also know that America does not have an unstained record of handling mass protest or civil disobedience. This nation has amply demonstrated its willingness, throughout its history, to sacrifice citizens—even young ones—to protect power and privilege.

So, when I heard reports from Seattle and D.C. about “aggressive” police tactics against protesters—the use of pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets, as well as mass arrests and civil rights violations—I couldn’t help thinking, “What did they expect?”

Call it cynicism, or the firsthand experience of the incarceration of my late son and other family members and friends, but I know the cold efficiency with which the criminal justice system chews up the lives of those under its control, even for short periods.

Did the Seattle and D.C. protesters—mainly young, white, and progressive—really believe that their government would not bring its force to bear on them?

Not to diminish the motivations or efforts of the growing protest movement—which is increasingly multiethnic and drawing people from all walks of life—but, when the demonstration is over, some people take the struggle for justice and economic parity home with them.

Forgive me, but dismantling the prison-industrial complex or conserving the environment (both issues which I fully support) will come second to keeping a grandson out of prison or getting simple necessities like toilet paper in bathrooms at the local public school.

Public protest can carry heavy consequences for people of color who have a tenuous hold, at best, on economic stability. I have a friend who heads a community-based organization. He spent 15 years in prison and is now on parole. His activism is circumscribed by the fact that a new arrest would mean returning to prison and being taken away from his wife and kids.

AT A JULY 5 MEETING, I WATCHED LAWYERS, paralegals, interns, and activists discuss legal issues and problems related to the protest being planned for the Republican convention later this month.

One attorney speculated that “people of color” who are not “young, white, and middle- class” could face “different [read: harsher legal] possibilities.” Another lawyer described the police response to protesters in Seattle, D.C., and New York as “domestic warfare.” She said, “Military techniques are being used and [are] pushing local law enforcement strategies aside.”

Since recent experiences of protesters support her observation, it is likely that someday soon, in some American city, overly aggressive police tactics will prove lethal, as they did at Kent State 30 years ago—and a tragic moment in American history will repeat itself.

“Years of pro-war/anti-war division among the American people culminated during those 13 seconds of bloody mayhem at Kent State,” writes Alan Canfora on his Web site ( Canfora was a student at Kent State on May 4, 1970, when, as he notes, “American citizens fired high-powered rifles into a crowd of unarmed American students.” Four students were killed that day.

No one was killed at the recent D.C. protest, but the police rained pepper spray on the crowd, conducted mass arrests, seized literature, and even used the fire department to raid the protesters’ headquarters, bypassing the need for a search warrant. This is an ominous sign of things to come. If anything, police and government reactions to civil disobedience have grown harsher and more restrictive of civil liberties over the past 30 years.

America has confronted “the enemy” before, and as far as I can tell, the enemy is the people.

Research: Eric Cohen and Sanaz Mozafarian