The problem with protests

I get the Occupy Wall Street movement. Everyone who remembers the protests of the 1960s and

60 Wall Street


1970s probably does as well, even if they are mystified by the OWS movement’s schizophrenic message. What comes through loud and clear, despite their muddy message, is this: “There’s something we don’t like, and we intend to make you uncomfortable until you pay attention.”

The problem with such protests is that they are only protests. It’s about hating, disliking, knocking something that one disagrees with. It is energy completely wasted. Without a clear message, and most critically without a positive message, OWS is doomed to fail.

It’s the same kind of protest that Westboro Baptist Church has waged. By protesting at the funerals of fallen American soldiers, they have delivered complaints without solutions. While they have a message, however noxious it is, the change they want to see is completely overwhelmed by the odor of their protest.

By contrast, other protest movements — the ones that have succeeded —  have one sterling difference.

Take the Civil Rights movement, for instance.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, there were plenty of protests and plenty of criticisms of the status quo. The difference was that this movement held out something that sailed far above the rabble, that stood in sharp contrast to the riots and the demonstrations, the arrests and the even the assassinations that marked it.

That difference was a dream of noble change. Articulated beautifully by the late Rev. Martin Luther King, the dream added the positive to the protests. It was as if his vision of what might be — what could be — gave credence and courage, as well as substance, to the protests that raged below. While protesters fought for civil rights, they held out the promise of positive change. In time, their dream began to materialize. The Civil Rights protests indeed spurred a better future.

The OWS movement has none of that. It has no overarching dream, other than a vague notion of “I want a bigger slice of the American Pie.” In its own hastily thrown together “literature,” it is self-admittedly a movement simply railing against a hodgepodge of things, like corporations and banks and heavy-handed police officers and government tyranny. In today’s vernacular, it is a movement against “whatever.”

Protests that rally around negatives and that neither shape nor promote a vision of a better future will never rise above the level of pointless and incoherent whining. While some of the protesters may have solid and thoughtful ideas of what this might be, most don’t. Few can articulate anything more than an “I don’t like this and that ideology” — despite enthusiastic attempts by the media to help them frame their message. It is, in many ways, a “designer” protest. A pick-your-own protest.

While change sometimes results from protests, organic change that alters lives more successfully rises from compassion and understanding. Our Be the Change people  demonstrate that every day, as do so many other Madison people. Like MeMe McKee (’99) who spent two years in Nicaragua working with the Peace Corps and Sarita Hartz Hendricksen (’02), director of the Zion Project, “a faith-based organization that runs holistic rehabilitation homes in Northern Uganda for both girl child soldiers and their children, and Congolese refugee women who are trying to escape prostitution,” according to their website. In their work, these women invest their energies in change, not protest.

Every successful protest needs a positive message — a dream. And until OWS can find that message, until they can lift their movement out of the confusing and wholly splintered message, all they will do is try the patience of local governments, anger the residents of the occupied spaces who are trying to peacefully live their lives, further polarize political thought, and inflame the passions of the most gullible who believe that protest for protest’s sake is a worthwhile goal.


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This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

3 Responses to The problem with protests

  1. Andy Perrine says:

    Wow. Really great dialogue. While I respect Mr. Reeves point of view, and sympathize with some of the opinions expressed by those involved in the OWS movement, Vincent nails it with his comment. JMU is named for the man responsible for writing the first amendment, after all. What better place to air difficult, complicated and often controversial issues that we face in an open democratic republic than a university named for James Madison?

    On campus this week a pro-life group is displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses. The display is on The Commons, so if you’re a student on campus you have little chance of missing it. Several students have excoriated JMU for allowing the display on campus. But, really, the ensuing dialogue created by the display is healthy — well, at least the civil parts of the dialogue. Students encountering the images are forced to understand how they feel about the issue, and that’s what a university is supposed to be about.

    I believe we do James Madison honor by engaging in issues as Ms. Graham has on this blog, as Mr. Reeves and Vincent have in their comments here and as pro-life and pro-choice advocates are as they stand toe-to-toe today in the beautiful autumn air at a campus named for our greatest of founders.


  2. John Reeves says:

    As a teen-ager of the 1960s and a reasonably-informed and curious voter, I’ve learned about and considered lots of viewpoints and concerns (sometimes confusing or radical) about our vital and important representative government in USA. But, I strongly reject these notions here by Ms. Graham that most of current “OWS” events at many places in USA and its leader-less concerns are *any way comparable to the vicious, 1 preacher-cult-driven Westboro Baptist Church protests. OK–there’s many “Cons” with these OWS events & their “tent” includes a few who don’t understand/ practice non-violence. If Ms. Graham wants to smear the good name of JMU with such rantings and twists– its distressing–I’m certainly Deleting myself from such postings.


    • Vincent says:

      Dear John,
      I think the intent of mentioning the WBC was to show an example of how a protest movement without a solution works in absolute extremes. The WBC represents the absolute right, the OWS, the absolute left. Its not a comparison as much as it is a contrast. The WBC and OWS simply share in the negativity of what they protest, and lack of providing a solution to the problem they are protesting about, which is the only reason that WBC was brought up.
      Of course, I concur with your argument that the OWS is vital to our representative democracy, but then again, so is WBC. Freedom of speech and assembly are equally granted to everyone, regardless if we like or not. You simply can’t choose to respect the 1st amendment whenever you choose, you can’t choose protect it by applying it in some places and not applying it in others.
      However, calling this a twist is a little absurd. Perhaps Ms.Graham should’ve explained more, yet I don’t necessarily find her argument baseless. Also, if individuals within JMU’s community aren’t allowed to speak their minds, how can a dialogue be started on the topic, one thatc cultivates healthy conversation about something such as this? Universities are meant for free and open discourse at an intellectual level. Restricting this by supposing that an open comment “smears the good name of JMU”, you really are simply saying that Higher Education should only be relegated to produce opinions in which you personally approve of.
      Thus, it might be more prudent to fire back with an appropriate response that could begin a dialogue instead of threatening to “delete myself from such postings,” (whatever that means).
      Not trying to offend, but your actions seem a little…..close minded.


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