One of the first classes I took in college was Writing 121. In this class, we learned to write a variety of styles of papers - argumentative, research, analytical. It was a required class at my university, and one of the most valuable of the "required" curriculum.
Our instructor would often assign paper topics that had to do with current events. Conveniently, I went to a larger school, so there was no lack of issues from which to choose for writing a position paper.
The military situation in Iraq first started escalating while I was working at summer camp just before my freshman year. We only received newspapers, mail, and phone calls on weekends, so the situation appeared to us rather dire and rapid. One week it was UN discussions. The next, a large portion of our staff was called up (they were reservists) and activated.
I lived just off campus my freshman year, about halfway between campus itself and city hall. It was convenient for me to be separated from the hustle and bustle of campus life, but also put me right in the center of "protest avenue." Any political protest that began on campus would pass by my dorm on its way to city hall. Drums, shouts, chants - we heard it all. When protests neared the "out of control" stage, we'd have to block our windows with towels to keep out the tear gas.[ref]Our street was far enough from both the school and downtown that it was the usual staging point for riot control.[/ref]
The political climate made for a great paper topic.
My conservative upbringing, seeing my friend pulled out of camp to prepare for war, and dealing with friends affected by tear gas because of some "idiots" outside made it easy for me to pick a position for a paper. One of my first essays in college was a five-page explanation of how irresponsible it was to protest the government.
I was wrong
My paper circled around two points:
- The assumed efficacy of democracy to elect a government truly representative of the electorate
- The futility of using a protest to sway the opinion of an entity as large and capable as the US government
The first point was rooted in my own naivety. I grew up in a world where my leaders most often represented me, not because I actually agreed with them, but because I typically formed my opinions based on those they espoused in the first place. That a politician elected by the majority could advocate a position not supported by the majority was an idea I just didn't understand.
My second point was rooted not in naivety, but in blindness both to history and contemporary events. I live in a country founded out of protest and revolution. Our Constitution's first amendment ensures our right not just to assemble but to petition the government for redress of grievances. Like many laws, though, I viewed this as an antiquated piece of legislation that no longer belonged in our society.
Over time, though, I saw how wrong I was on both counts. First, the government has proven time and again to not always represent the majority - this is why the balance of power changes from election to election when individuals are not re-elected. Second, I missed the point of the protests entirely. I thought they were targeting government awareness of an issue.
I was wrong.
Campus protests had nothing to do with getting the University Assembly to vote on an issue or convincing the mayer to change a law. They had everything to do with raising awareness within the community.
We had protests on campus weekly from the time I moved in. I never paid them much attention and never listened to their claims that "dissent is patriotic." I wrote and presented my position paper in May of 2013, condemning the protests as pointless and the protesters as good-for-nothing trouble-makers.
We officially invaded Iraq the following week.
Suddenly the protests made sense. Up 'til then I'd barely stayed up-to-date with the developing situation in Iraq. It was disturbing when my Guardsmen friends were activated, but I brushed it off as "necessary" since I trusted the government officials who told us it was. I ignored news reports because I trusted politicians who said their actions were necessary. I trusted the reports issued by the government explaining the legal justification for the invasion.[ref]Reports containing intelligence that was later proven and admitted to be false, doctored, or merely misunderstood and inaccurate.[/ref]
I realized when our troops actually invaded that the point of the protests had been to raise awareness of the issue among people like me who'd ignored it. It was to say clearly, "this is what's going on. We're against it. We think you would be to if you'd stop and pay attention."
There have been an uncountable number of protests in our country in the years since. Protests against one side of the political spectrum are universally termed "riots" by news outlets on the other. The world watches as new protests begin, government officials and police step in to "keep the peace," and many turn a blind eye to what's going on.
We've had protests at schools. Protests at churches. Protests in entire cities.
I've watched as events have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. I've watched as accounts of alleged police brutality have given way to protests of government inaction. I've watched as those same protests have given way to publicly documented police brutality.
Tear gas shot at reporters. Reporters arrested. Police armed with sniper rifles, body armor, and automatic weapons threatening citizens, sometimes lethally, live on camera.
I've also watched as entire communities have turned a blind eye to the violence and out of their own closed-minded, unaffected world condemned the "trouble makers" for "bringing it on themselves." I've seen what started as a peaceful protest labeled an "illegal riot" worthy of heavy police action by those who've seen the aftermath and just assumed the police only showed up in force, armed with tanks because people were already rioting.
When people I respect respond in such a way to unjustifiable violence, I feel sick. I feel exasperated that someone could be so blind to the evils of the world - or so uncaring about a group of people to understand why they feel the need to protest in the first place.
Then I look at the college-freshman version of me that wrote that paper, and I understand.
Duty to assemble
Our right to assemble, protest, and otherwise inform the world of our opinion is protected by law. By exercising this right we educate not only the government, but also our friends and neighbors about what's happening, why we care, and how we feel about it.
By assembling around a cause - like #Ferguson or #YesAllWomen or Iraq in 2003 - we also help tell others who feel similarly (but think they're in the minority) that they're not alone. They too can stand up and be counted. Their voice matters.
It's not just our right to speak against injustice, it's our duty.
It's our responsibility to voice opposition of injustice. To identify and speak against violence, be it against women, people of color, children, or any member of our community for any reason. To reach out to the oppressed and let them know their story is heard, it's understood, and the world wants to do something about it.
Voicing an opinion, particularly a controversial one, can be terrifying. But it's even more terrifying for others of the same mind who feel so in the minority that they keep quiet out of fear. Assembling in and making a statement as a group is empowering for those who share your view - or your history - but feel alone.
It's our duty to not allow any victim of violence, oppression, disenfranchisement, discrimination, or any other form of injustice to be alone.