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The Privilege of Protest

by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 30, 2012


I took some time I didn’t feel like I had on Monday to join the anti-fracking rally and march that gathered in the Corning Preserve by the Hudson River, made a stop at the DEC building, and ended up at the Capitol building, addressing Gov. Cuomo loud and clear about the fact that the science is in and it would be an irreversible disaster for our state to permit fracking to go forward.

It was an amazing, well-organized event that brought together over a thousand people (on a Monday morning in August no less) from all over the state, young and old, urban and rural to deliver their message. If you couldn’t be there, now is the time to contact the governor and your legislators in support of the Assembly’s bill AB 7218, and in opposition to any pipeline construction from Pennsylvania through New York state. You can start here: bit.ly/unTn1O.

But while I left with a head and a heart full of inspiration and worry about fracking itself, the event also left me (as they so often do) musing about tactics and process. When I stepped out of the crowd to head home a little early for a meeting, I walked by a couple people in a row who were vocally angry at the protest for delaying their buses.

Now, my first reaction was along the lines of thinking how Dr. King surely tied up traffic on his long arc to justice. Innocent people surely had their travel schedules disrupted by the freedom riders. Suffragettes and abolitionists probably made quite a few people late to work in their day. In the process of getting us the weekend and the 8-hour day, unions shut down quite a few workplaces entirely. Sometimes a long-term good trumps what we would usually consider to be the rules of engagement to be a polite fellow member of society.

That’s not to suggest that every group that gathers to march and shout about something is the equivalent of those particular movements. Nor is taking the streets always called for or always effective. Deciding when it is called for is a matter of strategy and can probably always be debated (but should always be considered).

But let’s say in a given instance that it is called for. My first reaction isn’t enough. We can’t ignore the fact that the people who are screwed by it are disproportionately those who are already getting the short end of the stick—often of the very policies being or actions being protested. There is a divide, if not a neat and clear one, between those of us who can take Monday morning off to protest, and those of us who risk getting fired if we’re late to work or getting charged something we can’t afford if we can’t pick the kid up from day care on time. As Troy resident Dan Lyles puts it, “one of the most effective ways to keep people out of the game and uninvolved in these conversations is to keep them held hostage” to mountains of debt and other tenuous hand-to-mouth situations, and therefore vulnerable to serious repercussions from disruptions like these. Ignoring that because it’s unavoidable “flattens the discussion,” and does a legitimate cause a disservice.

Without being consumed by guilt over these side effects of protest, I think it behooves us as activists and organizers to think about how to acknowledge those folks whose first, and possibly last, reaction to something like Monday’s march is anger over a late bus. Not in an evangelical, patronizing, “We’re doing this for you, you know. Here’s why this cause is more important than your job!” way, which would be insult to injury.

But there is little as powerful as a sincere apology and genuine listening. In a online conversation about this, Sarah Rain of Delmar suggested an approach that really appealed to me: assign a group of people whose role in a given march was to listen to folks who were upset by the disruption and offer both apologies (without defensiveness) and free bus passes. Not in the assumption that the latter would make it all better, but as a tangible acknowledgement that the effects they are experiencing are concrete and real.

I would add that they would hopefully also be offering information—about bus rerouting or alternatives and about how long the disruption would last—and ideally then be available to engage the people they are talking to in a conversation about their concerns and the factors affecting their lives. This would not be easy—it would take a significant amount of training to not get drawn into argument, and a willingness to not be single-issue, even at a single-issue event. And it would not replace figuring out how to bridge those gaps in more lasting and proactive ways either. But it would be an important step toward walking our talk.