"I don't know what this is about"
On June 30th went to the "Keep families together" rally at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago. While I was waiting on the train, I overheard two young women next to me who were clearly on their way to the protest as well. I knew they were on the way because they were talking about the protest, but they were talking about it as though they were going a school assembly.
"So like, what does keep families together mean? Like it sounds nice, but I don't get what is supposed to happen."
And then, "... I wonder what actually happens after these things. Like just because you protested doesn't mean anything is going to change."
I can't recall everything they said, exactly, but I remember the feeling behind the words: apathy. And specifically I recall them recoiling from "politics"… while they were on their way to walk in a protest march. They really didn't want it to get "political."
When something gets political, that usually means it makes someone uncomfortable, and that usually happens to someone with privilege. They're having a nice time and they don't want someone else to ruin it with their feelings to the contrary.
I was troubled by this thought. That politics is something one does only if one must. Like changing your own oil… The direct participation and analysis of the choices your elected representatives make was foreign to them. And I admit that I fall far short of the mark for direct engagement with my political process but I have at least thought about my place in it.
I could understand why they were asking these questions. A protest is a galvanizing experience (or it should be) and unfortunately, a lot of folks go to a protest the same way they go to a concert: they go there to be entertained. On a very basic level they may feel politically engaged, but ultimately they are there for spectacle. To have gone to a protest. This is a big reason why I find most "funny" protest signs incredibly dull.
At the end of the march, when many people had gone home, I watched as a black woman was trying to cross the street near the plaza and the police were blocking her way. She was not in the mood to endure the police telling her where she was going to go. It wound up getting fairly intense.
A white woman started recording/streaming the interaction… and narrating to her cloud-based audience "this is not what we came here for"- she was upset that someone was yelling at the police. I remembered having those kinds of thoughts. The idea that yelling at police who were "just doing their job" and "trying to keep us safe" was rude. The reality was I knew that the police could revoke your rights on the spot, at will, and I dared not consider the painful repercussions that power has had on thousands of people.
At protests, I don't feel all that interested in engaging with people. They're (hopefully) so amped up that a meaningful dialogue isn't going to happen there. That's fine. It's about emotion, will, and expression.
In that moment of tension between the police, the woman and the watcher, I realized there were at least 3 events happening simultaneously.
- There was a protest of the moment, the one pressing issue that sparked this event: illegal separation and detention of migrant families.
- There was the ongoing monopoly of state violence that manifests itself in so many injustices: most commonly against those that do not fit into an established white normality.
- And there was the spectacle. The funny posters, the sale of merchandise, the performative "good guy cops" shaking hands with protesters.
I believe that the three need to exist together, otherwise you do not have a coherent response to the "what is this about" question asked by the newcomer. It is hard, almost impossible, to put into words. They have to be shown, and they have to see the three sides of the protest. It may not come into relief at first, usually the spectacle wins out as it asks the most of our senses and the least of our hearts.
When the protest ends, hopefully something has changed or shifted in you as a witness and participant. And then you move forward with greater knowledge and an increased will to see something made better.