OPINION: How Not to Protest

Noah Meyer, Opinions Editor

Protest, mass action and rebellion have been a part of the American political conscience since the nation’s tumultuous beginning. From historical actions such as turn of the century labor actions, the bonus army and the civil rights struggle, to contemporary movements such as anti-ICE actions, the Boycott Divest Sanction movement and Black Lives Matter, Americans have never shied away from making their voices heard. The protest, while not at all a uniquely American act, is essential to American history and spirit, which is why recent protests making headlines are utterly embarrassing.

Colin Kaepernick’s Take A Knee protest of police brutality has sparked national interest and outrage but, despite criticism, comes from a long line of dignified and meaningful protest—it’s the conservative response to his recent ad work with Nike that is embarrassing. In response to Kaepernick’s Nike ad campaign, conservatives are now recording themselves burning their Nike apparel en masse in an attempt to show disapproval of the company’s stance. Now, with Ford taking a stance of support for Kaepernick’s protest, it will be interesting to see what they’ll do to their trucks.

Nike’s controversial ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. Courtesy of Nike.

This latest shoe-burning protest comes from a new line of silly conservative protest attempts, such as the infamous #TrumpCup protest, where Trump supporters told Starbucks’ baristas their name was Trump in protest of Starbucks’ perceived “anti-whiteness.” It isn’t difficult to discern the problem with these protests: they are giving money to the business they are protesting. But the why behind these actions is a bit murkier.

Much like how many Trump supporters put “deplorable” in their handles to show loyalty, both the Nike and Starbucks protests require a very public and somewhat humiliating action. This is because the motivation behind these protests and the fawning over “deplorable” isn’t about meaningful action, but about pure spite—the root of conservative social policy. There isn’t anything to gain from burning your shoes or getting the barista to say “Trump,” besides the public spectacle and the angering of the “snowflakes.” These actions are widely ridiculed because that is their purpose: to continue the conservative fantasy of oppression by liberal culture and fuel their unending outrage.

Liberals aren’t innocent of the bad protest either, but they prefer a different flavor than public humiliation. Anyone who attended or saw the Women’s March knows about the “pussy hat” or the even more embarrassing pop culture signs. There is something poisonous to the nature of a protest when articles are printed picking out the “funniest” and “most epic” signs, usually with some Harry Potter or Marvel reference.

More recently was The Handmaid’s Tale cosplay protest of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, where several women dressed as handmaidens and stood silently outside of the confirmation hearing. While other protestors in attendance shouted and made an actual passionate attempt at resistance, the performativity of dressing up in a costume from a television show based off a book takes away from the actual protest, and instead makes it about someone’s clever idea to score pop culture reference points.

These sorts of performative gestures and pop culture references are a cornerstone of ineffective liberal protest, and it’s due to the liberal tendency to drift into self-aggrandizing fantasy. To these sorts, a protest isn’t a mass movement of people, but an opportunity to build the brand, whether it be one’s own or a cultural giant like Harry Potter. There is nothing particularly insightful about writing “Trump=Voldemort” on a sign, and viewing political struggles through the lens of fantasy rather than material reality is a sign that these types have no real skin in the game.

Both the conservative and liberal protesters are unable to escape the false choice of consumption as a form of resistance. Whether you’re buying Nike shoes to burn or a “Nasty Woman” shirt, politics is more about presenting as a side rather than, well, doing real politics. The only concern of the activist should be presenting a clear agenda and pushing that agenda where the pressure matters. Buying a shirt or burning one doesn’t apply any meaningful pressure, it’s a public spectacle in itself made for consumption.

While the contemporary American media and political class view politics as a game, those who feel the brunt of cruel policymaking understand the life and death reality behind the facade. The American mass action isn’t dead, in fact, it’s more alive than ever. From the water protectors to Black Lives Matter, people with focused goals still band together to make the voice of a united people heard. The successful protester, in effect, surrenders their individual voice to the masses to project a unified cry far stronger than the voices of a few. The question one must ask themselves is simple: do I bring my pussy hat and Voldemort sign and get in a teen magazine? Do I burn my shoes and get Trump written on my cup? Or do I find common cause with others and raise our voices together as one? If you want any meaningful change to occur, the answer is easy.

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].