On a bitter cold Tuesday night, Dec.17, well over two dozen people gathered on a street corner in Virginia to support the impeachment of Donald Trump. It was a bold decision to grab our signs and brave the blistering winds. And honestly, we didn’t think the political climate out there wouldn’t be much warmer. But we did it anyway. By most reports, we were there because we felt we didn’t have a choice. Somebody had to do it and it was us!
We “brave souls” as some branded us were acting upon our Constitution’s First Amendment right to “peacefully assemble” and express our political convictions. Americans along with people all over the world have been doing this for centuries.
A quick delve into history provides some of the most memorable and inspiring examples on record. Going way back to 1789, there’s the story of the French and their infamous “storming of the Bastille”, guillotine and all. These fearless, not-to-be-deterred folks continue to regularly call for nationwide strikes. In 1930, Gandhi led the “Salt March”, a 240-mile trek to the coast of India that lasted 23 days. It shifted the world’s sympathy away from Britain to ultimately support India’s independence. Our own Boston Tea Party, an act of civil disobedience by a mere 100 people, became the precursor to the American Revolution. If we zip ahead to more recent times, one of the greatest examples of the power of protest is the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. In August 1963, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the grounds of the Washington Monument to pressure President John Kennedy to draw up civil rights legislation. Here, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, as one person put it, “elevating an event from mere protest to national drama,” with words and photographic images that would be seared forever into the nation’s collective consciousness.
There are some who debate the value of “marches” and “demonstrations”, especially in this age of social and mass media. People of all stripes ask how effective they are and are there other methods of political protest available to us in their stead. Mark Lilla in his book, “The Once and Future Liberal” writes, “The age of movement politics is over…. We need no more marchers. We need more mayors.” I would agree that times have changed— dramatically so! But I still believe there is an important, even necessary, place for mass demonstrations.
It’s interesting that the four largest demonstrations in U.S. history have occurred since the beginning of the Trump Administration. Largest of all was the Women’s March of 2017 with an estimated 3.3-4.6 million attending nationwide. Next largest listed is the Women’s March of 2018 numbered at 1.5 million. Third is the March for our Lives in March 2018, estimated at 1.2-2 million. (Note: Estimates made by the National Park Service up to 1995 were found to have grossly underestimated the size of the crowd at the Million Man March. Since then, police data is combined with journalist, organizer and crowd science researchers’ estimates to improve accuracy.) And let’s not forget that while we were gathering in the U.S., so were others all around the world marching with similar concerns.
Many countries are experiencing political shifts to the right that are threatening what we’ve generally considered to be beneficial gains for society as a whole. Things like greater tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity, increased personal safety for women and children, and growing numbers of women becoming civically and politically engaged. Other serious concerns backed by data involve declines in the overall health of our planet, a changing climate, and growing threats to many plant and animal species, including our own. When we consider evidence showing increased incidents of violent behaviors such as mass shootings, suicides and hate crimes, and economic policies that have led to greater income inequality, and systematic underfunding of important social programs designed to reduce poverty and enlarge the middle class, the future begins to look crushingly bleak.
Technological developments like social and mass media have also been shown to contribute to greater social isolation and a decline in group and community engagement. Activities like team sports, civic organizations and even church attendance have seen a decline in membership. The research examining the surge in marches and other public forms of protest suggests that more people may be showing up out of a growing need to join others in opposition to these current social and political trends.
In an August 2017 online article for the New Yorker entitled, “Is There Any Point to Protesting?”, writer Nathan Heller talks about the Women’s March this way. Any event that involves millions of people “on every continent, including Antarctica, in a direct action, is something to value.” Independent of its measurable results, it “cannot be called a failure. At a time when identity is presumed to be clannish and insular, it offered solidarity on a vast scale.”
Although our gathering in Virginia was by no means on a “vast scale”, it certainly offered a feeling of solidarity. There were lots of beeps, “Thanks!” and thumbs up. We weren’t alone! And maybe it meant something to those fleeting strangers to see somebody out there. They weren’t alone either! Here’s how Heller summed it all up.
“What was the Women’s March all about? ….. Why did it matter? Because we were there. Self-government remains a messy, fussy, slow, frustrating business. We do well to remind those working its gears and levers that the public — not just appalled me but the conjoined us, whom the elected serve — is watching and aware. More than two centuries after our country took its first shaky steps, the union is miles from perfection. But it is still on its feet, sometimes striding, frequently stumbling. The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.”
In 2020, let’s help each other keep our eyes keenly “on the prize” and our country firmly “on its feet” through the trying times ahead.