Protester Etiquette

Ridiculous antics take the focus away from what’s important—the issues

They must be joking. That’s it. There must be a punch-line, a pun, perhaps even a point somewhere.

In recent weeks, our campus has seen unusually uncouth and downright self-defeating forms of protest—that is, self-induced vomiting in Science Center E and handbills instructing students “to smile” because their mothers did not abort them. These antics are to be “credited” to a rag-tag group of Harvard students and affiliates and the Harvard Right to Life (HRL), respectively.

Passionate political views are to be commended—in some form or fashion—wherever these views may fall on our pleasantly simple left-to-right spectrum. On the left, Harvard affiliates banded together to stage protests against Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recruiters. On the right, HRL staged a campaign to bring awareness to pro-life politics. This time, rather than displaying posters with images of fetuses on campus kiosks, the group opted to have the iconic yellow smiley face represent their anti-abortion stance.

All political leanings aside, the real discussion to be had here is of the style, efficacy, and consequence of these sorts of protest.

The administration will remember each protest long after campus leaders have left Cambridge for fairer weather or fatter paychecks. For this reason, protest—both inside and outside Harvard’s gates—must be calculated and well-timed. This is especially true given that no protest can be viewed in isolation; with any social action, there are residual effects that shape how contemporary movements are structured and interpreted. Any social interaction is not without a social context—that is, a past memory, opinion, or headline. This reality requires that organizers recognize what it is they are doing and how their protest will affect their cause and those who come after them who are “down for it.”

Every slogan and every chant must have a definitive purpose because, at the end of the day, it should not be protest for protest’s sake, but rather a step toward an end goal. Every step involved with a movement must be weighed against potential hazards. In our current situation, organizers must ask themselves to whom it is that they are trying to appeal and the most effective way of achieving that end.

Organizers must also take some cues from the past. Before Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, there were other women—a pregnant teenager and the daughter of a drunkard—who were used, much like Parks, in an effort to test prejudiced Southern governments. Civil rights movement organizers realized that Rosa Parks, an upstanding citizen in the view of many, was a more appropriate symbolic figure.

The goal was to prove that even law-abiding and hard-working black Americans were fed up with Jim Crow. Parks was selected to prove a definitive point that would advance the Civil rights movement.

The methodology of the recent demonstrations on campus erred in that respect, and in others: protests such as these serve to belittle political causes, not uplift them. Issues as important as the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal and reproductive rights should not be reduced to theatrical staging and consumerist marketing schemes. By doing this, the focus is shifted away from the politics, and instead to distracting and self-defeating antics. In the case of the Science Center demonstration, we are left talking not about what some may see as a rightful and reasonable disagreement with the policies of the CIA and DHS, but instead about the actions of the protestors themselves.

Quite simply, in a protest, the protestors are not the issue—and never should they be.

Shawna J. Strayhorn ’07, a Crimson editorial comper, is a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies concentrator in Quincy House.