When It’s Time to Protest, Are You On the Right Side of History?

It isn’t enough to proclaim where you would have stood 50 years ago when you have a chance to take a stand today. 

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Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality (right), Martin Luther King Jr. and protesters march for civil rights (left).

A protest has the extraordinary ability to shed light on the fractured internal relations of our country. When I look at pictures from historical demonstrations, it is impossible for me not to notice the people who yell out from the sidelines. Their voices are louder than the protestors. Anger is etched in every line on their faces. Today, we look at these photos and declare that we would have responded differently when black protestors sat in white-only restaurants, or when a young black girl walked into an all-white school for the first time and desegregated America’s southern school system. Today we proudly state that we would have criticized officers who brutalized black men and women in streets with hoses, batons and dogs. We would have done differently. And yet, we haven’t.

Whenever an opportunity arises and protestors gather, too many people yell displeasure from the sidelines. Protest exposes how much a society disenfranchises its citizens, and the reaction of each citizen to protest is a measurement of how willing a society is to face the broken pieces of its cultural and political identity. Witnessing how people respond negatively to the marginalized in the present, gives an idea of how many people would have been on the wrong side of history because they’ve chosen it today.

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A protest can be unnervingly accurate in its raw portrayal of the undercurrent of thoughts within a nation. Over the last few years, there have been protests against people who are being killed by those who should be protecting them. One such movement was started by Colin Kaepernick. When the national anthem played, Kaepernick knelt down and laid an arm over his heart to protest the killing of Black people. His protest spread far and wide: high schools, colleges, other sports leagues, even overseas. But as in protest photos of old, people stood to the side in a fury. The backlash was swift and led, first and foremost, by the sitting president, but he was joined by everyone from outraged citizens to irate public figures. Players who chose to protest peacefully were told they couldn’t do so on that platform. They were called profanities by the President, told to be grateful and threatened with being fired. This movement was merely a group of people, who have not historically been valued in this country, coming together to say, “Our lives have value, too,” and they faced resistance. All of that rage, which should be anger at the injustices taking place in our country, was pointed at the protesters. Again.

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It’s not just “Take a Knee” that generated extremist opposition. In 2016, Native Americans and their allies fought to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred land and their water source. They were met with extremist opposition as well. Hoses were used on them in freezing weather; they were shot with rubber bullets at close range; they were jailed for peaceful protest. Some protestors were standing trial just a couple of months ago. America’s current president approved the pipeline. So the present echoes the past. It isn’t enough to proclaim where you would have stood 50 years ago when you have a chance to take a stand today. Let me repeat:

It isn’t enough to proclaim where you would have stood 50 years ago when you have a chance to take a stand today.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a community of people to oppose the construction of a new, for-profit immigrant detention center in a small suburban town. We went to town hall meetings; we held information forums on the human rights infractions that take place within these facilities; we lobbied at our state’s capital; we all marched. I remember walking through the neighborhood with our signs and being grateful for those who came, but shocked that in 2012, immigrant and refugee rights — human rights — were still a question up for debate. The idea that people seeking a better quality of life could potentially be jailed is horrendous. Through our combined efforts that detention center was not built. But the very next year, new plans to build another immigrant detention center a few towns away were being discussed.

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The very need for protest proves that too many people who hold institutional power are choosing to dismiss the value of human life and equality. There is still so much in our nation that needs to change. Today, we say how unnatural it would have been to protest the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Suffrage Movement because those people simply wanted to be seen as fully human. But the need for these recent protests, and the reactions to them, pose a disheartening question: If we won’t stand with these people now, would we have stood at their side then?

Peaceful protest is never looked on kindly by the majority while it’s happening, but somehow in history books, it is always portrayed as right, as valiant. The way recent protestors have been treated imitates the past and upholds this country’s long tradition of resistance to social and political change. Instead of looking back at these movements in 50 years, and saying “We would have supported people’s human rights,” let’s recognize that we do have that option today. Don’t stand on the sidelines in indignation. Let us be angry at injustice. Let us not be angry at those who oppose it.