This Thanksgiving dinner, after a whole turkey (that my recently vegetarian “solely for political reasons” self wished were a tofurkey) and a couple bottles of wine, my family and I got to talking about political dissent. While we disagreed about how to be politically active, we did agree on both the need to voice our opinions and our frightening feelings of powerlessness.
Last spring, I went to Boston with my sister to protest the war in Iraq. There, surrounded by hoards of anti-war demonstrators, I felt powerful and less alone. In that moment, it seemed that political protest had a purpose; it had the potential to create change, to reshape the world.
Then I returned to Yale and sat down in Commons to read the morning news, and realized that my public dissent hadn’t done squat. The United States had launched a pre-emptive war; bombs were dropping all over Baghdad (more bombs in one day than were used during the entire Gulf War).
Since then, I haven’t been to a protest. When the opportunity presents itself, I (along with most of my peers) ask, what’s the point?
Last February, 800,000 Americans turned out to oppose the war in 150 different cities while 1.5 million demonstrated in Europe to speak out against the war. It was the largest day of protest in history. Yet the United States still went to war.
I don’t protest anymore because I think my actions failed.
On the one hand, the U.S. government does not give credence to these cries of outrage. Sure, we can have free speech, but only in free speech zones, which are located far away from the focal point of opposition, thereby silencing us.
Secondly, my decision to (or not to) protest is a choice. For me, the stakes don’t seem that high. I am a white woman of privilege who by attending a prestigious university has, in a sense, already bought into the system. I will never find myself in the army, fighting for my country and I will know a few (if any) people who find themselves in that position.
The war seems far away, unreal, even unfathomable. Here in our ivory tower, we practice other forms of demonstration. We donate money to the poor. We intern for Green Peace over the summer. We write editorials on the fallacy of American foreign policy. We debate historical atrocities and public policy over prepared meals in Commons. And we plan on pursuing careers in academia or working for a think tank in Washington, D.C., or becoming a statesman. To us, those types of actions appear more viable, more realistic, and more pragmatic.
But they also loose their radical edge. They buy into the system; they participate in the government, in the laws, in the ideologies. How many senators were willing to object to the War in Iraq? How many thought they would when they were in college, during the 1960s, during Vietnam?
What appeals to me about protest is that it creates a space that is outside of the system; it is a space of radicalism, full of amazing potential to reinvent the world. We cannot forget about the power of Rosa Parks sitting in the white section of the bus. Or Daniel Eslburg, the high-ranking CIA officer, who leaked information to the media about U.S. bombing in Laos and Cambodia, which began the end of the Vietnam War.
Protest, whether a march, a strike, or an illegal act, has value. There is something powerful about using your body to say no to something you object to and to say yes to something that might not seem possible in the status quo. It is a moment of noncompliance for those of us who are continually, sometimes inadvertently, compliant.
Yet for a demonstration to work, it has to be disruptive. It must upset business as usual. It means taking your body and using it as your own political weapon, placing it in the middle of the street so that traffic stops. It means suggesting new ways of engaging the world and people that appear too illogical, too radical and too abrasive for the system. It means understanding that you are a political being, that every thing you do, every choice you make is in a sense a protest — an action of opposition or an inaction of support.
While I have given up on protesting the war in Iraq, I haven’t given up on protest altogether. This April there will be a march in support of Roe v. Wade in Washington, D.C., and I, along with my mom and my sisters, plan on attending.
Della Sentilles is a sophomore in Silliman College.