The First Amendment is a mic drop — a mic drop that tells you that you are allowed to pick up a mic (or back then, one of those triangle cone things … a megaphone?) and use your voice when you see a grievance that needs some redressing. That is why protesting is legal. And protecting our right to protest is the main thing that keeps a whiff of democracy in this country’s air.
And let’s be clear, protesting and activism work. Our two main ways to make this country live up to its alleged ideals and myths are in the courtroom and in the streets. But the streets may be most important, because too often your grievance may never be legally redressed without protest.
My answer is no. I believe Chauvin would still have his job and be abusing his power the same way he did before he murdered George Floyd, if not for the power of protest.
Like it or not, protesting is how the American sausage gets made, and making sausage is a dirty and messy business. It involves grinding parts down. It can be spicy. And it ain’t always pretty to watch. In the last year, Portland has become the epicenter of that process. Despite the fact that Portland is a bright blue electoral dot, it is in a state that has some of the deepest red (and Whitest Whites) in the country.
I would say if there is even one law that restricts our right to protest, then we aren’t doing democracy the way it was intended.
But knowing they could get snatched by secret police didn’t stop the people of Portland from protesting then. And red states — or red state legislators in blue states — creating anti-protest laws won’t stop people from protesting now. While I was in Portland, I met a variety of people who felt compelled to go out into the streets to fight an unjust system — and none of them mentioned checking the city statutes before they went out in the action. That included a 19-year-old Black college student named Xavier “Princess” Warner; Navy veteran Chris David; a couple of moms turned activist-moms named Demetria Hester and Nicole Dennison; a hip-hop music journalist turned journalist-of-everything-going-wrong-in-Portland, Mac Smiff; and two Antifa protesters named … well, I don’t know their names, because that’s how Antifa rolls.
I also had an incredibly powerful conversation with three Native American activists who organize a weekly Sunrise ceremony at Portland’s Delta Park. Oregon state Rep. Tawna Sanchez is of Shoshone-Bannock, Ute, and Carrizo descent, Portland’s Tribal Relations Director Laura John is a descendent of the Blackfeet and Seneca Nations, and Jason Umtuch of the community organization Fires Igniting The Spirit is from the Warm Springs Tribe. And if anybody should be asked their opinions on what we should and should not do on this land, it should definitely be the Indigenous community.
As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And until power accepts demands worded like, “Please give us justice!” or, “If you wouldn’t mind not oppressing us, we’d sure appreciate it,” then protesting in ways that are loud, inconvenient, messy, damaging, and often beautiful is how Americans who believe in justice and joy will get those in power to act right.
We could avoid all this if we just lived up to our ideals. But until then, I’ll see you in those streets.