Last week’s fiery events at Berkeley ignited a new debate over the drawbacks and downfalls of protesting. Armchair activists, safe behind their keyboards, stick their nose up and declare protests to be a nuisance or claim that these riots have somehow discredited any peaceful opposition to the “alt-right” and the Trump administration. These are the same people who said, “Get over it” the day after the election. Even among those on the left, the common condescension is, “You should have voted.” Maybe they didn’t get the memo: Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton and we still got the Tweeter-in-Chief as president. And that’s not even considering how many more were barred from voting due to Republican-trademarked voter disenfranchisement laws.
Our civic process is more nuanced than just one election every two years. It’s an ongoing dialogue between the representatives and the represented, and it doesn’t end at the voting booth. Maybe we need a history recap.
Since the Boston Tea Party, the American people have wrestled control of their political destiny from the hands of oppressive governments through protests, demonstrations and violent, fiery riots. Women, African-Americans and the LGBT community didn’t gain the rights they have today by asking nicely. They got out on the streets and pissed people off. When the time came, these movements translated protests into ballots, but between elections the American public held its representatives accountable through the flamboyant exercise of its First Amendment rights.
Protests force our government to pay attention. Demonstrations magnify the influence of popular opinion past the voting booth. Modern American protests bind the public together under a common cause. Events like the Women’s March convince citizens not only that their rights are worth fighting for, but that individuals are not alone in their fight for them. They offer the average person a very real way to get involved in the civic process: You really just gotta’ show up; the cardboard sign is optional. Just as they did during Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement and the Stonewall riots, protests keep the dialogue between the public and its government going.
Our duty as citizens to fight for equality and freedom today is no different than it was in the 1960s, the 1920s or even the 1770s. The constitutional tools at our disposal today are the same, but the stakes are higher. We need to stay involved, and it is America’s nascent protest culture that will keep us engaged and informed throughout the next two years.
We shouldn’t be afraid of the students rioting. We should be afraid of the people they’re rioting against. Secretary of Education Becky DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, successfully confirmed as of Wednesday, threaten to dismantle decades of civic progress. Trump’s immigration order has been smacked down in the courts, but it hasn’t faced the Supreme Court yet. It is not just Obamacare that’s under fire from this administration. Our entire constitutional infrastructure is in danger. It is apparent that Donald Trump wants nothing more than to silence the press, eliminate the entire judicial branch and outlaw public assembly all so his paper-thin ego can get a break. For us to become complacent between elections is exactly what this administration wants.
Protests aren’t some malfunction in the fabric of society. They are a symptom of a healthy democracy. Like when you’re running a fever: It means your immune system is working. Trump’s brand of fascism is the virus that our democratic immune system is trying to rid itself of through protest. The threats that we face from this administration dwarf any amount of broken windows or offended white people. It is more vital now than ever that we get outside and piss people off.