People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as, you know, giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.
Much of the United States has seen one protest right after another for more than a year now. There was the protest over the contamination of tribal grounds at Standing Rock. There were protests around the presidential election. There was the Women’s March that filled the mall in Washington, D.C. and there was whatever the fuck one wants to call that mess in Charlottesville that put Fascism back in the spotlight. If there is one thing Americans don’t seem to mind doing, it’s protesting. The question is, however, whether those protests actually do any good. We like to think they are, but the historical evidence points to the contrary.
In my book, Rethinking ‘Merica, I quote from research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page indicating that all our yelling and screaming on social media, as well as our more physical means of protest, actually amount to very little in terms of getting politicians to actually do the things we want them to do. The passage I quote goes like this:
In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
Mind you, this isn’t rhetoric, but hard, large-scale research that examines outcomes over several years. While there are certainly exceptions, overall our protests don’t do much more than making a lot of noise.
On August 28 of 2016, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick, disturbed by a trend in the acquittal of police officers who killed unarmed black men, decided to protest what he saw as a nation-wide problem by taking a knee rather than standing during the national anthem. At the time of the protest, Kaepernick gave the following explanation:
People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for: freedom, liberty, and justice for all.
As usual, not everyone understood. White people, especially, in large masses of willful ignorance didn’t understand. All they saw was a black man who was, in their opinion, disrespecting both the flag and the national anthem. Kaepernick attempted to explain:
I’ve had times where one of my roommates was moving out of the house in college, and because we were the only black people in that neighborhood, the cops got called, and we had guns drawn on us. Came in the house, without knocking, guns drawn on my teammates and roommates. So I have experienced this.
His explanation did little good, however, and when he opted out of his contract with the 49ers this spring, he found that his reputation as a protestor was sufficient to keep anyone in the National Football League from hiring him. Kaepernick came face to face with the very situation Gilens and Page describe. He disagreed with the economic elites, in this case, the billionaire owners of NFL teams, and lost.
As the new football season started, however, other professional athletes let it be known that they would take up Kaepernick’s cause and take a knee during the national anthem. When the first Sunday in September hit, that’s exactly what happened. The protest wasn’t large, wasn’t especially visible, and hurt no one. Yet, for the easily offended members of the political right, such protests provoked outrage. So much so, that the country’s Big Lebowski-in-chief took to his favorite medium, Twitter, and condemned the action, suggesting that protestors should lose their jobs.
The result of the president’s 140-character-at-a-time diatribe was even more protests the following Sunday. This time, entire teams took to their knees during the national anthem. However, what they were protesting was in question. Were they still protesting the same injustices that Kaepernick had protested, or were they protesting the fact that the orange-colored bastard had called one of their own a son-of-a-bitch? Or were they defending his right to protest during the national anthem? There was more than a little confusion on the matter.
On the opposite side of the equation, those who saw Kaepernick’s original protest not as a matter of human rights, but as an affront to the nation’s flag and anthem, were now angry with the NFL for allowing their players to exercise their right to protest. Season tickets have been burned (who is that supposed to hurt?), hats and jerseys have been taken off and left on the ground (littering, anyone?) and a boycott has been called for November 12, the Sunday closest to Veteran’s Day, because they view the protests as an insult to those who have served in the military.
Don’t ask me to make sense of that reasoning. These people are not Vulcans. There is no logic here, Captain.
The argument has grown so far out of control that one of the memes I saw this morning listed 20 different things that are more offensive than taking a knee during the national anthem. Oddly, while the list was accurate, none of the items on that list included the atrocities that caused Kaepernick to take a knee in the first place.
We have reached a point where too many people are yelling just to be yelling, left angry with the right, right ready to take up arms against the left, and neither side with a clear vision of why they’re really upset in the first place. We’re just begging for a fight because both sides are thoroughly convinced that the opposite opinion is not merely wrong but a threat to our American way of life, whatever that is.
At the root of all this protest flip flap lies a greater issue: Americans don’t like each other. We don’t like anyone we perceive as fundamentally different. So, white people have a problem with people of color. Straight people have a problem with LGBTIQ folks. Conservatives have a problem with liberals. And the return feeling is mutual all across the board. We don’t like each other. We don’t want to like each other. Like siblings forced to take an eternally long road trip in the middle of July sitting in the back seat of a sedan whose air conditioning is broken, there is practically nothing about which we are willing to agree.
So, we protest. We protest injustice. We protest fascism. We protest liberalism. We protest open minds. We protest closed minds. We protest immigration. We protest nationalism. We march and scream and call people we don’t know by names our parents told us to never use.
And what does it get us? Not a damn thing more than sore feet and a raw throat.
Since August 28, 2016, are black men any safer from unfair and unjust persecution at the hands of law enforcement? No. Not one bit. The problem is still just as much of a problem today as when Kaepernick first took a knee. If anything, that particular situation may be worse than even Kaepernick realized. Yesterday, Republicans in Alabama elected former judge Roy Moore to be their representative in the race to fill former senator and now attorney general Jeff Session’s seat. Moore not only advocates and has handed down harsher sentences for people of color, he has also made it abundantly clear that, if given his way, LGBTIQ people would be in jail as well. We’re already the most heavily incarcerated population in the world. Moore and those like him think that’s a good thing and want to see the numbers increase. Injustice upon injustice continues to grow.
Meanwhile, we’re protesting about protests.
I’m not the only who sees this problem, am I? Please tell me the dichotomy we’ve created is as plain as the nose on our pock-marked national face.
Mind you, I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to #TakeAKnee. We need to be a lot more focused, though, and not distracted by the rhetoric if we want to have any hope of actually changing the system. Most importantly, we have to vote in numbers so large as to overwhelm the Puffy Cheese Ball himself. The only way protests get anything accomplished is when they result in a large number of people going to the polls, defying the oligarchs, and making their opinions known in numbers too great to ignore.
Protesting is good and we all have the right to do so, but if we’re too easily distracted, as we currently are, they do no one any good.
Abide in Peace,
-The Old Man