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Can Protest Be Undemocratic?

Protesters hold signs and chant across the street from the Cambridge Citizens Coalition endorsement celebration on Oct. 1.
Protesters hold signs and chant across the street from the Cambridge Citizens Coalition endorsement celebration on Oct. 1. By Julian J. Giordano
By Allison P. Farrell, Contributing Opinion Writer
Allison P. Farrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Leverett House.

With Cambridge’s election day approaching, the Cambridge Citizens Coalition hosted an event where people met candidates for the Cambridge City Council in early October. The Boston Democratic Socialists of America organized a protest at the event against the coalition’s endorsed candidates Robert Winters and Carrie E. Pasquarello for liking and reposting transphobic and Islamophobic tweets.

CCC steering committee member Marilee Meyer called the protestors’ actions “undemocratic.”

“They don’t have to vote for them, but at least do your homework to find out who they are,” she said.

While Meyer was well within her rights to criticize the protestors for their message, calling their actions “undemocratic” conveys an incomplete understanding of what democracy entails.

Protest and democracy are inextricably linked. Politics does not end at the voting booth — it carries into our conversations with friends and family and our communities. Thus, protestors making their voices heard are not disrupting politics; they are taking part in it. Protest adds to political discourse at large and is critical in informing public debate.

It’s true that hearing what candidates have to say, in a forum like this event, is vital in voters’ deliberations. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that what a candidate has to say is not the end of the story. To interpret merely the words spoken from the podium is to miss the bigger picture that contextualizes and gives meaning to spoken words beyond what is immediately apparent.

Since we cannot decouple protest and democracy, the question remains: How can we balance protesters’ right to speak with that of invited speakers?

In trying to make sense of this issue, it is helpful to examine the question in the similar but closer-to-home environment of college campuses such as our own.

The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard was formed in March of this year in an effort to advocate for greater free speech and civil discourse on Harvard’s campus. The 33-year-old free speech guidelines featured on the council’s website — although written long before recent high-profile student protests against controversial speakers — provide insight into what balancing the interests of speech and protest could look like.

In the context of gatherings under FAS, these guidelines prioritize the speaker’s right to be heard, on the rationale that audience members came with the intention of hearing the speaker. They define “disruption” as taking place “over an unreasonable period of time” and preventing the audience from adequately hearing or seeing the speaker.

For the most part, these guidelines provide one answer to this urgent question. They aim at preserving the rights of invited speakers, while also acknowledging the importance of including other voices.

However, there are many cases where the balance is not so cut and dry. When the group that protests is one that faces frequent marginalization and is rarely, if ever, granted the main platform, it is understandable that they seek to disrupt. Whether they ought to do so is a separate question — but it is important to see that their actions are an understandable response to the context in which they are situated.

In my view, the actions of the City Council meet and greet protestors did not appear “disruptive” in any meaningful sense of the word. Their actions were certainly not “undemocratic.”

But whenever we have these discussions — in which we consider whether protestors’ actions are undemocratic or contrary to principles of free speech — it is vital to consider the broader context.

As civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I do not cite this phrase to defend violence, but rather to highlight a keen insight from King: Disruptive protest is a symptom of a larger problem. Protest emerges when people feel unheard and legitimately fear that their voices will continue to be ignored.

Before we condemn protests that run contrary to our own values, we must consider whether their disruptive nature comes from a desire to dominate and intimidate, or a desire to be heard and seen.

Protest, when conducted in the spirit of illuminating marginalized voices, is not undemocratic; it is a democratic act in response to an insufficient democracy, a democracy that does not hear the voices of all its members. It is a symptom that calls us to listen to the silenced voices that cry out.

Allison P. Farrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Leverett House.

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