Protesting has gotten terrible publicity in today’s world. The word alone produces a frozen frame of a person —usually a person with minority status: a woman, a black woman, a young person of color, an outcast — holding a placard screaming at an off-screen target. It is easy then, to assume that the person in the frame, with such unbridled anger, is in the wrong. “What,” most people ask, “Could make you so mad that you must break decorum?” The true deception of it all is that you rarely see the target of this anger. In that person or entity’s absence, you suppose that they are in the right. We don’t stop to ask who the “initial aggressor” is or what is making people so upset. Even if we happen to pass that hurdle of inquiry, we could conclude that the anger shown is not an “appropriate” or useful response. It is unfathomable to us to seek this target of the rage: the initial aggressor, they are invisible, a white background to white noise.
Protesting has an intricate history; it leads to the rise and decline of states, it had been capable of bringing reform and disorder in some unequal measures. But what most do not realize is how often people protest. It starts with the small things, teenagers staging mini strikes at home to gain more independence from their parents to adults pretending to not hear your boss’s outrageous demands. Protesting is a fundamental aspect of humans and our civilizations. Protest functions as dissent in the face of inequality, injustice — sometimes factions break off, forming new alliances. From such protests, we have the world we see before us today.
Of course, some claim to have never done a rebellious thing in their lives — these are straight-edged rule-abiding citizens. Usually, they have hope of waiting on a God-like entity or other “acceptable” processes to fix the problems faced by society. They do the important and difficult job of waiting. They do not realize that this very act is a form of protest —although how “difficult” of a job it is to stand on the usually safe sidelines is debatable — they are contesting people seeking change through these unpopular channels. By being complacent they contest the ability of humans or unorthodox methods, to right wrongs in the world. This creates a hidden status quo bias that creates a way for confirmation bias. There is a need to maintain things in the deplorable condition for the sentiment “the world is getting worse” to be true; just as it is important for there to be tyranny (the threat of it will do) for democracy to seem attractive. However, I am told that, for example, the Christian God is “a God of action” and “protector of the weak (which can also mean disenfranchised).” Moreover, most would forget, that the preamble to democracy was equality, not tyranny. Democracy cannot function without equality being established first.
But perhaps the most important reason why protests have fallen out of favor is that the people in power have already staged their successful protest. A middle-class straight white protestant man in America has had their ancestors protest for them in the American Revolution. The straight middle-aged black man of the elite class in Ghana has had the blood of his forefathers shed for him. Their ancestors orchestrated a protest with varying degrees of success that made it possible for them to progress within their societies and be viewed as the standard. The only left to do is to climb the ranks and anoint themselves as self-made men. This doesn’t mean that they don’t ever have to face challenges; after all, climbing the social ranks is risky business. But there isn’t a systematic doubt to their ability to rise on their own volition and any attempt to deny them their dignity is met with public outcry or empathy. They do not truly know what it is to have someone doubt your abilities based on what you are; and if by chance they briefly encounter the feeling, they are consoled by the fact that a change in their social position can fix it; they know true individuality is attainable.
With individuality, they became invisible, free to move around in society without being singled out as a metonymy of a group to be for or against. Their individuality shields them from accountability. “Why should James have to hear about something other white people did or do?” (Note that African American people, for example, are not afforded this privilege. Every argument against racism and police brutality they are met with the retort of “black on black crime.” Why can’t black people protest without hearing about what other black people did?) Even worse than unaccountability is the creation of hierarchies in disenfranchised groups that allows the further subjugation of those without either quality of whiteness or maleness. Thus shielded, they see no need for a dramatic change in the system and convince others with even the smallest claim to privilege to do the same.
This creates an unusual sensation that I can only compare to a movie released this year. The movie, The Invisible Man (2020), follows the story of a woman whose abuser creates an invisible suit which he uses to mentally and physically torment her. It starts with the little things —which could be likened to microaggressions — like turning up the stove when no one else is around and pulling covers off of her at night that make her doubt herself, to insidious things like sabotaging her job interview, ruining her relationships, and framing her for physical assaults. Though the audience is there every step of the way, even we begin to doubt the protagonist. Maybe she has incongruent memory, maybe she’s doing it to herself, or as one character poignantly puts it, maybe she’s “letting the ghost of her abuser torment her.” Perhaps the best thing for her is to learn to move on. The people she depends on to be on her side cannot fathom her reality. From our point of view, everything in her room belongs there; how then, can she say she is being tormented?
Siding with these ideologies of peace and order is futile in a system determined to have inequality; those with unchecked powers can only want power. Recently some people with said power have begun counter-protests, claiming reverse-racism, misandry among other things. These events are not a break down in communications nor a mistake of perception for reality. They understand the meaning of protests and are protesting the change of the social order they were promised: a system with space for a small pool of winners, a system of bigotry, of misogynoir, etc. They are frightened because they bought into an asinine dream only to realize they possibly cannot cash in on it.
Protests can often be the way to begin to fight for one’s right to live freely and as such protests can take many forms. Next time you start to judge protest through riots, looting, and general disorder, ask yourself if everything is normal and right, or if it just has the appearance of normalcy. Imagine yourself needing to protest for something important to you: do you think the state you live in would respect your right to do so peacefully? If not or if you can imagine it for yourself but not others, do you truly live in a free and fair state? Think about why is the destruction of things owned by those in power is the only thing that can make people pay attention? Do you deserve better?