American Splendor


Nothing is more American than protest. Protest is what enables this nation, in its angriest moments, to progress, not self-destruct. It converts the despair of minorities into demands, turning the rage against oppression into an impetus for transformation. It makes a nation of individualists come together in struggle against exploitation and injustice. It keeps presidents from becoming monarchs and people from becoming subjects. Protest is the essence of American democracy.

Next month, when the Republican convention comes to New York City, protest will get put to the test. The sitting president will accept his party’s nomination to run for re-election to the highest office in the nation. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people will join their voices in a united, public cry: Get George W. Bush out.

Democracy doesn’t get bigger than this.

Not that anyone would know it at the moment. Somehow the debate over protest at the convention has dwindled to squabbles over lawn upkeep and police efficiency. Officials have masterfully reduced the discussion to the bureaucracy-speak of “negotiation,” trapping protest organizers, who are trying to secure people enough space to avoid mass arrests, into the same prosaic terms. Many otherwise politically active New Yorkers are even plotting to skip town, and a whole segment of the population seems to have grown accustomed to e-dissenting from the comfort of home.

Which would be a tragedy: Not in a generation has the need for protest been so great.

Since the last presidential election, the U.S. has lost nearly a thousand young lives in a deeply controversial war with no certain end. Civil rights and civil liberties—won through some of the most pitched protests in the nation’s history—are being revised in the name of security. Problems of poverty, education, and health care remain dangerously acute.

The nation is emerging from a period of post-9-11 crisis, ready to declare affirmatively, not just reactively, what it wants to be. The key question is: How much say will ordinary people have in setting the nation’s course?

The power of protest is a funny thing to try to describe. You know it when you see it. You only really get it if you’ve done it. Once you taste it, you never forget it. And you tend to remember your first.

You might have shown up full of fury, ready to defy the police. You might have been nervous, afraid one of those crazy anarchists you’d heard about would set off a pipe bomb. You might have known it would be huge, since it was for a popular cause, but still you were stunned once you got there, awed by the incomparable feeling you never could have imagined that comes from standing together with thousands of strangers in a single rally for a better world.

Or you might have shown up to discover you were just one of a few. You might have felt silly at first, thinking you should never have come. But then you saw the grief in the eyes of the mother whose son was killed by a cop, or the fatigue of the immigrant worker who just couldn’t be pushed anymore, or the quiet dignity of a blue-collar crew handing out flyers to save their jobs. And a few people shook your hand and were happy to meet you. And then you were glad you showed up, because you knew for the first time how solidarity feels.

The power of protest is its incredible optimism. Authoritarian types like to paint protesters as outsiders, as antisocial troublemakers who can’t live within the lines. But protest is really an almost miraculous expression of faith in the human spirit and in democracy. It is proof that people still believe, despite an abundance of signs to the contrary, that if they just keep trying, the system eventually will work.

It is a miracle of optimism that people protest when a man becomes president without a majority of their votes, rather than storming the halls of government in revolution. It is a miracle of optimism that people protest when they lose loved ones in a war they believe was corruptly conceived, rather than taking up arms themselves. It is a miracle of optimism that people protest when innocent people keep getting killed by the police, or when the friends of the leaders keep getting richer but everyone else stays poor.

It is the miracle of protest that, despite the undemocratic advantages that wealth and connections bestow in this country, the people sometimes win.

If the dispute over the convention demonstrations goes through the courts, it is unlikely that protest will be discussed as the democratic miracle that it is. Judges are not typically populists, and precedents concerning the right to protest are conservative if not outright hostile. The law generally says that, if the authorities offer some kind of arguable Plan B and utter the words “public safety,” they win.

That’s what happened when United for Peace and Justice—the huge umbrella organization of protest groups currently making news in its negotiations with city officials—sued over the denial of a permit to march against the invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003. The court opinions spoke of parade formations and contact people and advance notice of numbers of attendees—all areas where organizers evidently fell short. It was impossible to tell that a desperately urgent question of national policy hung in the balance, and that people were bursting to convey a tremendous message of opposition to the commanders in power.

But the wonder of that moment was, the protesters lived by the rules. Instead of marching, hundreds of thousands dutifully jammed into metal pens and dodged police horses in the stationary rally that officials allowed—one that stretched practically the length of Manhattan. These were democrats, not rebels.

The war still happened. President Bush gave the protests on that day, which numbered 6 million participants worldwide, as much consideration as he might have a postcard sent to the White House by a fourth-grader.

That kind of disdain only adds to the fire. Such is the miracle of protest and democracy: Ignored, the people keep coming. They never give up.