Effective protest in an era of political anger

by Patty Templeton

Political discourse in America is harsh, divided, and has turned reasonable debate into continuous quarreling. Contention has turned to killing, as demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a car drove through a gathering of counter-protesters. Anger is in the ether and tension rides on political tides. Community conversation is more important than ever, but objective discussion is near gone.

When did we become a country that couldn’t sit around a table and talk? How did we get to the point where, “You awful human being,” is a common secret scrutiny we have after talking to someone about politics? It can’t continue. Rage isn’t sustainable and remaining silent isn’t an option. How do you go about political and social activism when everyone’s ears are closed? What forms of activism are most likely to unclog ears and change minds?

Turns out, one of the most of effective ways to rally against our decaying society is individual human connection. Here are forms of activism that connect people rather than pit them against one another.

Seeing each other as other than monstersAs recently as Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” it was believed that people were fundamentally out for themselves. The stance in evolutionary biology was that humans are all fairly monstrous, in the sense that you’d trounce anyone in the path to get ahead. Self-interest keeps you from death. Now, social scientists are exploring the idea that there is such thing as “survival of the kindest,” meaning, humanity may indeed possess a selfless gene. These scientists think that humans are defined by a sense of fairness, sticking to group norms, and willingness to share for the good of the group.

Currently in America, it doesn’t feel like we are looking out for the good of the group, but we could. If systematic issues of oppression were introduced earlier into education, Americans could be held accountable for that knowledge and build on it. It’s also important, as Dr. Anthony Nocella, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Fort Lewis College, said, “To meet people where they are.” For those past schooling age, subjects such as feminism, racism, and disability discrimination can be introduced through activists holding community conferences and free educational forums. Take for example the work of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico (TGRC). Co-directors Adrien Lawyer and Zane Stephens are on a constant tour of community forums. They bring free, welcoming talks like “Transgender 101,” about the lives and issues transgender folks face to the public via libraries, churches, and anyone else who will host them.

Disruption as a key element of protestThe key to an effective protest is disruption. Here, disruption doesn’t necessarily mean chaos, rather an interruption in someone’s day. It’s a stopping point that causes even brief contemplation. That interruption doesn’t necessarily mean protesters shutting down a highway. It could mean a conversation. It could mean wearing a shirt that makes people ask you questions. It could mean inviting someone to a public forum or out for pizza.

“How do we get mainstream people that are not really aware of political issues, as well as people on the opposite political side of us, to talk to us?” Nocella said. “The best answer is through hosting educational forums like workshops, teach-ins, lectures, debates, town hall meetings, conferences, movie showings, book talks, and events of that nature. Then you have an opportunity to face-to-face with individuals where more honest, longer conversation can occur.”

Daryl Davis is an example of someone who disrupts belief systems to enact social change. An author, actor, and musician, Davis, who is black, has a hobby: He befriends members of the KKK. Davis asks, “How can you hate me if you don’t know me?” He believes that the key to growth is to, “Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.” Through conversation, Davis has personally converted about 200 klansman into anti-racists, as seen in the documentary “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, & America.”

Other de-escalation protest formsSometimes, respectful disruption may do more harm than good. Certain times call for quiet or even silent activism.

“If we are in a really heated conflict … then moments of community gathering that aren’t about education but are about respect are effective,” Nocella said. Charlottesville is an example of a situation that has and can move into de-escalation tactics. “That looks like vigils, moments of silence, symbols, wrapping ribbons around trees, putting a red ribbon on your shirt,” said Nocella. These sort of actions can bring poignancy to a moment and bond a community.

Protest shouldn’t only happen after a horrific or tumultuous event. Activism is an everyday affair and starts with engaging in local civic events like town halls and board meetings. These gatherings are an important step in learning how government gets done and having your opinion represented in the decision flow of your town. “Attend all the local city meetings that you can,” said Karen Pontius, retired aviation professional and community activist. A way to disrupt these meetings is to ask questions at the appropriate, scheduled time. “If you ask a question, don’t accept a non-answer,” said Pontius. “If someone is not answering you at a town hall, say, ‘That’s not what I asked. I really want you to answer my question.’ Be firm but polite. Being assertive isn’t being provocative. It’s trying to clarify.”

Pontius mentioned several other quiet techniques of disrupting someone’s day to bring about polite social and political conversation. “When I worked in a cubicle, all along the outside wall was stuff I thought people should know. I used those walls to post issues I cared about. People would come by even when I wasn’t there to read my cubicle.” The BDS movement is another effective protest form in today’s capitalist society. It stands for boycott, diveset, and sanctions. You can boycott products made by companies you don’t approve of. Divesting your money means moving it from an irresponsible, corrupt bank to a credit union. Sanctions are tricky for an individual, rather than a government to inact. “I use (sanctions) as an educational element by letting people know about a company’s behavior and saying, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t buy from there because they aren’t in line with your beliefs,’” said Pontius. She also used her business cards as an activism tactic. The card listed the organizations she volunteered for on the back. “I don’t know how many people noticed that, but it was another way to start conversations.”

Escalation tacticsActivism and protest can’t always been quiet daily conversation. Grand gestures have their place. In a 1964 speech, counterculture icon and civil rights activist Mario Savio said, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The basic escalation tactics used in activism are protesting, sit-ins, teach-ins, walk-outs, and rallies. “The whole point of an escalation tactic is to force something from the margins to the center,” said Nocella. “It’s to intensify a particular issue so that it is focused on by the mass media, social media, and so that politicians must speak on it.”

In closing Be inclusive. Be wide-reaching. Know when to listen. Try to reach out to people outside of your friend and professional groups.

“Always be willing to be challenged and learn from other people, no matter how many degrees you have or how old you are,” said Nocella. “You don’t have to portray yourself as perfect. Crying, being lonely, being sad, being frustrated: embrace those emotions. Understand that you’ll make mistakes. Strive to be humble and know that you don’t always have to be strong.”

People want connection, people can change, and, as Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


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