The Privilege of Protest

What, and how, we protest in the United States reflects just how lucky we are to live here.

Two years ago, I never would have imagined being homesick for Harvard. But I sorely missed being at Harvard during this break, amazing as my summer escapades were. I could not wait to see my friends, teammates, and the delightful Brutalist walls of Mather House. I missed the intimacy of an impromptu heart-to-heart with a roommate and the excitement of a meaningful philosophical exchange in the most unexpected of places.

I did not miss collegiate protest culture. Protests and activism, both fortunately and unfortunately, are necessarily adversarial. We must advocate for or against something, and one’s gains are made from another’s losses. We must set ourselves against both our peers and others we don’t know. We know that everyone will never truly be satisfied even if effective compromise can be reached.

For instance, the agenda of the Women’s March and the agenda of the March for Life cannot both prevail. As Women’s March organizers made abundantly clear, pro-life women were not to be included in this unified, inclusive national effort. In a darker parallel, the goals of neo-Nazi scum in Charlottesville and their counter-protestors cannot both prevail. (Hopefully there’s no debate over which agenda should be left on the ash heap of history.)

But it is something quite miraculous that every ideological shade under the sun draws from the same set of civil rights to protest. Conservatives frequently roll their eyes and grumble about the latest outrage fad, but we would do well to remember that we borrow from the same constitutional tradition in our advocacy in the likes of the March for Life and Tea Party movement. The constitutional rights to gather peacefully and speak are granted to all Americans, and every political persuasion has exercised these rights.

The adversarial nature of protest, though, often obscures genuine empathy and understanding from many sides. The protests over the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are particularly demonstrative of this foggy tragedy. These protestors are rightfully concerned about the future of close friends and family, and belying their external outrage seems to be real compassion.

There are also reasonable voices calling for responsible stewardship of national legislative processes. Indeed, these voices may seem to dismiss outright the hopes and dreams of DACA beneficiaries. But what many of these people see in DREAMers is that America remains the world’s best hope for opportunity, and there is a real desire from both sides of the aisle to continue to make this so.

Many believe that Congressional legislation is a better legal route to this goal and that President Trump was right to deliver lawmakers an ultimatum. That doesn’t mean that such people are deaf, dumb, and blind to the struggles of the over 700,000 individuals whose futures in the United States seem to be in jeopardy. But the nature of protest shrouds this reality in a cloud of conflict, anger, and division. We must be willing to peer through the fog a little more to understand what really motivates protest and not just examine the protest itself. We might just find some common ground in American values.

Protest’s frequent role as an integral facet of our American society points to a population that cares deeply about progress and the correction of perceived injustices. Do I believe that progress often has a price? Yes. Do I believe that certain causes are worthier than others, and certain methods more effective? Yes. But I see every day that Americans of all kinds are not complacent about the upkeep of their civil society, and on balance, I believe that is a good thing.

I’ll end on a word of caution, though. Protest’s natural bedfellow is politics, and as I’ve written before, I believe that politics is hardly a path to personal fulfillment. I’d much prefer the company of a good friend in the bleak walls of Mather House than the solicitations of a snake on Capitol Hill. After all, what good would it be to devote myself to protest and advocacy if I did not first devote myself to my friends and comrades?

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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