Protest marches happen in any society with freedom of speech, but Americans have a peculiar aversion to them. This year, citizens across the country have marched in frustration and anger over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—and the economic and political conditions that marginalize black Americans. But polls indicate that white and black Americans continue to have widely different perceptions of what happened in Ferguson, and the media tends to depict even the peaceful protests as lawless and frightening rather than as expressions of free speech. The military tactics of police in Ferguson threatens to become the norm for dealing with any kind of large assembly.
Sensationalism keeps the Ferguson protests in the news, but larger demonstrations can go practically unnoticed. In September, nearly 400,000 people, including several Catholic groups, marched in New York City to urge political leaders to address the threat of climate change. The march was a one-day story, quickly forgotten in coverage of this year’s dispiriting election campaigns. Advocates for environmental protection, like backers of a nuclear freeze in the 1980s, need thick skin as opponents dismiss them as naïve do-gooders.
The “Moral Monday” marches in North Carolina, an ecumenical protest against voting restrictions and cuts in social services in that state, are discounted as partisan. Demonstrations of all kinds, for gay rights or against abortion, make people uncomfortable, and both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements went down in the polls as they became more visible. Political parties, terrified of being associated with anything like the anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic convention, discourage large crowds that are not under their complete control.
The holiday season brings large gatherings of family, friends, and colleagues, as well as Christmas Mass and other worshipful events that testify to the power of a collective voice. Too often these gatherings are characterized by a desire to turn inward rather than contemplate the problems facing people in the outside world. This insularity is helped by the shrinking public space in the United States, where people often congregate in privately managed shopping areas, casino and entertainment complexes, and other places where social engagement—whether in the form of charity drives or political petitions—can be forbidden.
It’s understandable for protestors to go where the people are. On “Black Friday,” the quasi-official salute to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, citizens frustrated at the lack of an indictment for the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown converged on shopping malls in the St. Louis area. Three of the malls shut themselves down, though there were no reports of violence. There were also protests in New York City, Seattle, and in the Magnificent Mile upscale shopping area in Chicago.
Bearing witness to injustice is something that Americans often admire in other nations. Think of the Solidarity movement in Poland during the early 1990s, encouraged by Pope John Paul II. This year, the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have been covered sympathetically by American media, as have protest marches in Mexico in response to local government’s role in the massacre of 43 students. The idea that the United States has reached perfection, making protest marches a vestige of less civilized times, is arrogant.
In a post titled “Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid,” the Atlantic magazine’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about our ambivalence, if not hostility, toward protest movements: “American society’s admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. increases with distance…the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him.”
Coates also rejects the idea that hurled bottles and overthrown cars erase the legitimacy of a protest movement. On the contrary, he writes, “The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed.”
It’s easy for most of us to say that Coates is going too far here. A life of security and comfort can insulate us from the feelings of anger and powerlessness that can only be expressed in a roar. But using the excesses of a few to delegitimize the concerns of all people who take to the streets is not healthy for a democracy or for any society. If we respect the crowds who assemble to celebrate holidays (or sports championships), we must do the same for the crowds exercising free speech.