What do protests do? Quite a bit

In this nationwide outcry against police violence, the jaded can assume all of this is futile. It isn’t.

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Protesters take a knee outside the Cicero Police Department on Tuesday after looting and violence spread through the town in the wake of weekend protests over the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police,

Protesters take a knee outside the Cicero Police Department on Tuesday after looting and violence spread through the town in the wake of weekend protests over the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police,

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

So what do these protests do?

Good question. Space is limited, so let’s get to it.

Six purposes:

Opinion bug


1). Protests provoke the wrong being protested, flushing it into the light. Civil rights demonstrations worked because Southern sheriffs broke out the dogs and firehoses and showed America exactly what these marchers were talking about. Had they broken out trays of pralines instead, we might still have segregated lunch counters. Protests against police brutality wouldn’t be half as dramatic if some police didn’t, on cue, start being brutal, on camera, blasting peaceful protesters with tear gas. Not many — most showed admirable professionalism and restraint. But it only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.

2). Protests benefit the protesters themselves. Not content to sit at home watching Netflix after — oh, for instance — a police officer is captured on video slowly strangling a black man who may have passed a bogus $20 bill, they leap up, make signs, pour into the street, march, raise their voices. They’re doing something. True, the problem being protested is never fixed by the end of the day. But it isn’t as if they didn’t try. So points for trying; it’s more than most do.

3). Protests are informational. The “If the czar only knew” aspect. At the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, young people covered themselves in chocolate syrup and lay in the street to draw attention to the oil sands situation in Canada. I had never heard of the oil sands situation in Canada before, nor thought of it since. But they did raise the issue.

Is that happening now? Are there really people watching TV, thinking, “What’s this about? Police brutality? Tell me more.” Probably. Never underestimate the vast ignorance of the American people; that’s like assuming you can wade across the Atlantic.

4). Protests persuade. Indifferent John Q. Bovine looks up from his silage, see the masses and moos to his field mate, “That’s a lot of people, Suzy. This must be important. Perhaps something ought be done.” This occurs among governors, mayors, police chiefs, and such. Protests rearrange not just their schedules now, cancelling vacations, ruining weekends that should be spent at New Buffalo, but later add bullet points to their agendas.

5). Protests are a kind of blackmail. Those in charge promise a few grudging baby steps forward, if only to make the chaos stop. They can’t ignore the violence that came in the wake of these protests. Protesters insist they’re not connected. But they are. Protests open the gap in ordinary life that looters rush through. The resulting smoke obscures the protests from the sight of Fox News nation, who most need to grasp their message. They instead point gleefully at the violence to rationalize their traditional indifference and contempt. Looting is the brass fireman’s pole conveying them smoothly from initial alarm to the cocoon of victimhood they call home.

6). Protests encourage change. Not force it. Not enact it. But drip some grease into the seized-up gears of history. Just look to the past. Years of massive Vietnam protests did not end the war, but nudged America toward calling it quits. The nation had to first see gays marching for AIDS research before it would consider letting them be school teachers.

Not that change comes easily. Right now, the focus is on improving the police, though that’s inadequate, like trying to fix a smudge on your cheek by polishing the mirror. What will this reform be? Maybe a new training filmstrip: “Stop Killing People: An Introduction.”

Change is possible. It is the reason women can vote, Jews can check into fancy hotels, and black people aren’t dragged into the street and lynched for merely being suspected of a crime. Okay, that last one is still a work in progress.

In fact, change has been happening rapidly. Bad change. Erosion of every legal protection, social convention, moral standard, and American value.

What we want to do is to slow that deterioration and begin some good change. Protest is part of that. Though I wish these marchers were heading en masse to register to vote. Without getting the man cheerleading police violence out of the Oval Office in November, all this is a waste. It won’t even be in the history books, because guys like Bill Barr will be writing them.

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