In the past two weeks, we’ve had massive turnout on the left — for women, for immigrants, and for refugees. In Chicago alone, we had over 250,000 people for the Women’s March and over 3,000 at O’Hare after Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order came out last Friday. As a participant, these protests were powerful, though still imperfect. But, my point in writing this isn’t to talk about the effect of the protests and protesting in general on the protestors.
I want to talk about the point of protesting. In the days since each of these protests I’ve heard this idea that “protesting shouldn’t look like that.” It shouldn’t involve inconveniencing travelers. It shouldn’t involve blocking streets or sidewalks. It should be obedient. It should be quiet. In short, it shouldn’t be protest.
In response, I posit that protest isn’t simply about showing how many people you can turn out. The point of protest is to make it difficult, even painful for an oppressive force to keep oppressing. Protest should hurt.*
Protest is a way of making real the pain that, for example, an incoming refugee from Syria might feel when he/she/they are stopped at customs and told to turn around. That refugee can’t protest. That refugee can’t make it clear to 45 that this ban literally changed the course of her life— likely not for the better— but the people of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and so many other cities can.
We can block the streets so that busses can’t pass. We can gum up airports so that business slows down. Why do we do this? Because it either a) shows supporters and/or victims that other people care about an issue and it activates them or b) it makes people angry. Specifically, it makes people angry enough to tell the airline, the bus company, sometimes even the politicians they helped to elect to make it stop. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying these angry individuals are on our side.
I’m saying that protest makes the anti-immigrant executive order cost too much. Protest spreads around the cost, the hurt, that would otherwise just impact a refugee or immigrant. Protest makes it clear that xenophobic policy is going to cost the traveling white dude something, even if it’s just time and convenience. Xenophobic policy makes the family from Ohio wait hours for a cab. It makes the church group from Florida wade through a sea of chanting, moving bodies to get to their gate. I understand that protest isn’t pleasant for bystanders or, especially, proponents of the policy. But that’s the whole point.
Protest shifts the balance between cost and benefit. These people who are inconvenienced are part of shifting that balance— especially in situations where they have more power than the people being targeted. This administration cares about the anger of the inconvenienced white dude and the church group from Florida. He cares about the anger of airlines and bus companies and taxi companies. All of these people and companies may hate protestors — I certainly saw a few that did — but, even so, their activation matters.
Now, they have skin in this game. They might simply care about making the protest stop, but the process of engaging with protest engages people in the political process of democracy. Protest stops people from simply being bystanders as politics and policy shape the world around them.
Democracy works best when people engage, when they actively make their voices heard. And this weekend, more than 3,000 Chicagoans made it clear that we won’t be bystanders as refugees, immigrants, and their families are targeted. There is power in community, and there is promise in protest. That promise helped us move from this:
So, here’s to protest. Make it hurt.
*Important disclaimer: not promoting violence.