Why We Protest

(Feb. 21, 2017; Ira Chernus, Common Dreams): “Liberty flourishes only when citizens take responsibility, by whatever means are available, for guiding their nation to a better future. When government is no longer willing to foster a humane, constructive process that reflects the will of the people, the surest route to building that better future is through peaceful protest.”

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Why We Protest: A Message for Middle America

by Ira Chernus, Common Dreams

I live in a small, pretty typical middle-American city. For decades it was rock-ribbed Republican. Recently it’s been turning slowly but steadily more liberal. So now it is solidly purple.

When we stand out on Main Street (yes, it’s really called Main Street) at our weekly progressive vigil, we get plenty of approving honks from the cars driving by, a sprinkling of thumbs down or middle fingers up, and lots of blank apathy.

It’s a good reminder that, despite all the talk about polarization, a large chunk of the American people are still in the political middle, not especially happy with the Republican regime in Washington but not especially unhappy either. Many are waiting to see how things work out. And another large chunk is already unhappy but not ready to do anything about it beyond occasionally honking their horns.

So there are millions who might some day be persuaded to join a protest against the regime but have not gotten that far yet. If our progressive movement is going to grow, we need to reach out to those millions. If we persuade even a small percentage of them to join our protests, we will swell our ranks substantially.

I made a small effort recently to reach out to those folks in my city. I wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper. Some people have told me that they find my piece helpful as they think about how to talk to the uncommitted and the not-yet-protesting. So I’m sharing it here. Feel free to share it with others.

“Why We Protest”

America is in a season of peaceful political protest such as we have not seen for nearly half a century. But I fear that we protestors have not done a very good job of explaining ourselves.

If you are not among us, you may wonder why we pursue our politics in the streets and not through our elected officials, as the Constitution provides.

We, too, respect the Constitution, and we share its goals as set out in its Preamble. But when we look at the Republicans, who control the government in Washington, they seem eager only to insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. As we see it, they show far less concern to establish justice for all or promote the general welfare, which we take to mean the well-being of every American.

How can the Republicans hope to establish justice when they mark out one religion for discriminatory treatment, remove long-standing rights for women, give massive tax breaks to the rich, weaken controls on Wall Street financiers, restrict voting rights … and the list goes on.

How can they promote the general welfare when they move to deprive millions of health insurance, weaken public education, tear families apart through deportation, diminish workers’ rights, remove regulations that protect us from chemical poisons, tainted food and water, and a host of other dangers … and the list goes on. Most damaging to the general welfare, they would undermine the progress we have made in reversing the effects of climate change, which, uncontrolled, could one day spell disaster for us all.

When the government fails to establish justice and promote the general welfare, we have no chance to form a more perfect Union or secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. So we protest.

Protesting might seem unfair if the Republican policies represented the will of the people. But they don’t.

The Democrats, with their party’s most progressive platform ever, won the popular presidential vote (the truest gauge of national political sentiment) by nearly 3 million votes.

Yet the Republican president sends out a barrage of executive orders quite opposed to what a majority of the voters would want. He has chosen a cabinet that represents the polar opposite of what the majority voted for. And he has nominated to the Supreme Court a justice who will tilt the court to the right for years to come, using one-sided readings of the Constitution to thwart the will of the majority.

In the Senate, the GOP holds a slim majority. But those Republicans come overwhelmingly from states with smaller population. So they represent a distinct minority of the voters. Yet Senate Republicans have so far shown no glimmer of compromise in the face of enormous protest from the other side, which represents the majority of voters.

In the House of Representatives the Republican majority, nearly all quite conservative, often bends to the will of its ultra-conservative wing in order to muster enough votes to pass legislation.

A government so dominated by one party hardly gives us any opportunity to be heard through the conventional channels of representative government, much less get any positive response.

So we take to fully peaceful protest. Yet our focus is not only on what we oppose. We protest to send the public a positive message about the future we want for America.

We can form a more perfect Union and secure the blessings of liberty only when we stop building walls that perpetuate separation and start building bridges of justice and compassion, when we create an all-embracing community that cares equally about each of its members and makes sure that all have the unfettered opportunity to realize their God-given potential to the fullest. That is the true blessing of liberty.

Liberty flourishes only when citizens take responsibility, by whatever means are available, for guiding their nation to a better future. When government is no longer willing to foster a humane, constructive process that reflects the will of the people, the surest route to building that better future is through peaceful protest.

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of the book American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.

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