Why Bother to Protest?

Photo by Elvert Barnes - http://flic.kr/p/atRGLm

Fear and hopelessness can keep people from exercising their power of free speech or their right to assembly; they don’t think that they can make a difference, so they don’t even try. But while one person may not hold much influence, groups of people working together and standing up for what they believe in can — and do.

My dad got arrested last week. For many people, this might be a shameful event, one that you want to keep quiet, but I told everyone. I even posted the story of his arrest on Facebook because I couldn’t contain my pride. I was proud because he was arrested for protesting the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. In other words, he was arrested because of his love of and commitment to the environment, and I wanted the world to know.

For those who are unfamiliar with the project, the Keystone Pipeline System is a pipeline system designed to transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from Canada to multiple areas in the United States. Some parts of it are already operational and there are two proposed pipeline expansions. One is the Keystone XL Pipeline. Since it was first proposed in 2008, the Keystone XL Pipeline expansion faced opposition from environmental groups, some members of the U.S. Congress, and indigenous people; plus lawsuits from oil refineries, landowners and several environmental groups. After over 12,000 people protested its construction in front of the White House, President Obama postponed the final decision over whether to allow the extension until 2013.

Despite the dubious “win” of the postponement, people who are afraid about the impact on the environment (NASA scientist James Hansen said the pipeline would be “game over for the planet”) believe they’ve been shut down at every turn. Lawsuits have been thrown out, people’s land has been taken and many politicians, as usual, refuse to be brave and stare down Big Business. Consequently, since they’ve been failed by the political and legal systems, many environmental activists like my dad decided the time for active protest was at hand.

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Despite my family’s concern for his health and safety (Dad is a 70-year-old two time cancer survivor), he traveled to Livingston, Texas to join the other activists who literally put their bodies on the line by halting one of the trucks carrying the massive pipes needed for the Pipeline and lying under it. The risks were high, but even in the face of threats of “pain compliance,” the protesters refused to move until the truck was dismantled around them and they all were arrested. Those who could not pay the fine spent the night in jail. However, the group’s protest shut down construction for the day and raised awareness about environmental concerns.

This got me thinking. Whatever your feelings about the correctness of their actions, you have to admit that what they did was brave. They had no idea whether the driver of the truck would stop. After all, in 2003, Rachel Corrie, an American activist, was run over by a bulldozer while she was protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza. So it’s possible to be physically hurt. They also did not know what the response of the local police department would be. They could have been manhandled, like many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters were in New York City or they could have been pepper sprayed, like some of the student protesters at the University of California at Davis. Protesters never know what they’re in for, so actively taking a stand, putting yourself in harm’s way, takes courage.

And who were these people who agreed to take action to stop the harm to our environment? They included a retired minister, a farmer, a small business owner, a grandmother, a carpenter, an anthropologist and young people who believe that saving the environment is important enough to make it their career. In other words, they were ordinary people. I think this is such an important point that I will make it again. These protesters were not famous or wealthy, nor were they of any particular age, gender, occupation, or religion; they were ordinary people just like you and me, yet they did something extraordinary. So many times I hear people express hopelessness or despair because they don’t think that they can make a difference, so they don’t even try. They give up before they’ve even started and nothing changes.

While I certainly understand the fear or impotence that keeps people from exercising their power of free speech or their right to assembly, the answer lies in the power of the group. Although one person may not hold much influence, groups of people working together can. Groups not only can make their presence felt and their voices heard but they also give each other the heart to do things they wouldn’t normally do. One person going to jail doesn’t cause much of a problem; hundreds being arrested does. In short, groups make protest and change possible. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

History is replete with examples of ordinary people standing up to fight for what they believe is right. In the United States, women won the right to vote in part because the Silent Sentinels, the women who stood in front of the White House for over two years, refused to leave. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the act that outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities and women — was passed largely because of the flood of civil rights protests performed by ordinary citizens joining together. In Argentina, the grief, fury and determination exhibited by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo forced the government to stop its policy of “disappearing” people. In Germany, the Berlin Wall fell after 28 years of oppression because of the “Peaceful Revolution,” the escalating protests of East Germans to be set free. In Poland, the rise of Solidarity — a non-governmental trade union — led to semi-free elections in that country and a tidal wave of movements against Communism across the Eastern Bloc. Starting in December 2010, protests called the Arab Spring have led to the downfall of many leaders in the Arab world. All of these examples and more were caused by ordinary people banding together, standing up and saying, “Enough!”

Wherever you are in the world, surely we can all agree that we live in difficult times. The destruction of our environment is at an all-time high, human rights are being stripped from us at a rapid pace, economies are failing, wars are raging and the disparity between those who have and those who have not is steadily getting larger. Thus, the time for action is now and we all need to join in. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” There are plenty of groups out there who need more members in order to make a difference. There are people who share our values and are ready to stand with us when the need is great.

As for my Dad, he says the novelty of being arrested has faded and he is ready to get back to protesting. His example has inspired me to get more involved. I hope it has inspired you too.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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