Protest is part of our American DNA. From our earliest beginnings, when colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor, pushing back against the government has been a time honored, legal and popular activity within this diverse population of ours.
As a teen and young adult shaped by the 60’s, I remember well the protests that swirled around the Vietnam War, civil rights and women’s rights. Those were watershed years that shifted America society (and U.S. politics) in deep and significant ways.
The current protests to reopen America, however, are not part of this tradition. There certainly are legitimate concerns about the economy, but too many of these protesters express too narrow an understanding of the actual complex reality that is going on.
Why aren’t they protesting government policies that created vast economic inequities and an unfair economic system in the first place?
Why aren’t they protesting the corruption that is funneling recovery funds away from them and their families and into the pockets of the already rich?
Why aren’t they protesting unsafe working conditions for their fellow workers? Overworked and underpaid employees in warehouses and grocery stores and meat packing plants. Not to mention the health care workers who are standing ready to care for them and their loved ones after these protests have exposed and sickened them with the coronavirus.
There are plenty of reasons to protest. But the reopen America protests have been wrong headed and small minded.
Many of today’s protesters frame themselves as patriots; they believe they are justified in calling out government overreach, defying government restrictions and flaunting guidelines that were put in place to keep them safe. A now iconic photograph from the Michigan state capital shows a large, intimidating protester spewing hate and anger into the calm, masked face of a policeman. (I have to wonder how many of these folks conveniently use the “rule of law” argument when they complain about immigrants at our southern border. Whatever happened to the rule of law during these protests?)
The character of many of these protests elicits the question: where is the line between legitimate protest and anarchy?
Or phrased another way: which of these protesters are responding like responsible adults and which are acting like children?
“You’re not the boss of me” is a phrase many of us parents have heard at some time or another, either during the tantrums of our little ones or in the defiance of our adolescents.
Pushback at these stages is a normal part of human development; part of our cultural DNA, I think. Stages of resistance are part of a healthy process in the forming of a person’s ego identity. We parents know this stage is inevitable and we prepare ourselves to stand firm and continue to be the adult in the room, no matter the provocations. We understand that a child’s resistance to authority is part of their growth toward healthy independence.
But what happens when people get stuck in this self-centered, self-righteous stage? “What happens” is happening before our very eyes as the daily news shows images of grown ups who are anything but grown up acting like spoiled children.
Too many of the reopen dissenters have not learned the difference between damaging, dangerous defiance and the healthy protests that have historically moved America forward toward a fairer, more equitable society. For example, abolitionists, suffragettes and movers for civil rights made enormous personal sacrifices for causes that were meant to improve the lives of countless others in ongoing generations.
And again, now in our own day, in the midst of the protests to reopen America, the Poor People’s Campaign is protesting the politically motivated, slap-dash reopen policies that are endangering the lives of the workers who are putting their lives on the line on the front lines of this pandemic. Their resistance to the reopening is summarized in their motto: “Stay in Place, Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies.”
These are the types of movements that transcend narrow individualism and lobby for the good of the wider community. These are protest movements that inject justice into the public conversation. These are the truly patriotic protests.
In contrast, childish reopen demonstrators demonstrate how they are used to getting their way, no matter the harm they do to others. What we see instead of healthy mature independence/inter-dependence is a toxic, dangerous individuality. I guess their tantrums must have worked in the past so they never learned how to compromise, negotiate and collaborate.
Matthew Sitman offers a slightly different insight: “the pandemic has shown us, in starker terms than before, the extent to which modern conservatism is driven by resentment of a seemingly hostile, terrifying world.”
Sitman’s article in The New Republic considers R.R. Reno, a prominent Roman Catholic, an outspoken supporter of Trump and an active, public resister to the pandemic restrictions. Mr. Reno’s stubborn willfulness, not surprisingly, exposed him to the virus, and finally – after many days in which he probably exposed countless other people, finally after he himself became sick – he recognized how his own foolish actions had been hostile and terrifying to the world all around him. He apologized. But the consequences of his foolish choices remain.
Sitman ponders the “why” of this kind of rebellion in someone who ought to know better and he posits that one problem these folks have is that “you take your bearings less from what you believe than what you oppose…”
Reactionary opposition is much easier than responsive collaboration.
It’s easier to be part of the problem than to be part of the solution.
The reopen America protesters need to grow up. They need to step up to participate and collaborate with the rest of the adults in the room. Otherwise, it is quite obvious to all of us that what they only truly care about is themselves.
I believe there are more people who are thoughtful, responsible citizens than there are of these noisy, petulant protesters. Therefore it is up to us to continue the long proud American tradition of patriotic protest on behalf of the greater good. It is up to us to exercise our freedoms responsibly and for the good of others.
Poor People’s Campaign calls for Resistance to Reopening Plans
L.R. Knost is a favorite of mine. She writes beautifully and powerfully and offers a variety of “Gentle Parenting Resources.” Here is her essay entitled: You’re Not the Boss of Me.
Here’s an interesting opinion piece from Tom Nichols published in The Atlantic: Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President.
It should not be a surprise then, that Trump is a hero to a culture in which so many men are already trapped in perpetual adolescence.
And especially for men who feel like life might have passed them by, whose fondest memories are rooted somewhere in their own personal Wonder Years from elementary school until high-school graduation, Trump is a walking permission slip to shrug off the responsibilities of manhood.