Nostalgic protests

A phenomenon is occurring at Columbia that interests me for the fact that it is happening at all.  Columbia over the last semester as had a series of protests.  The first occurred over Ahmadinejad’s visit to the campus.  The next began after a noose was found on a African-American professor’s door at Teacher’s College.  And, finally, a group of Columbia undergraduates has begun a hunger strike over several demands, including reforming the core curriculum to include more minority writers, creating an ethnic studies department, and expanding ethically into Manhattanville.

As an observer of these events, I perceive them as unified by the response they have received from the students I have spoken to on campus.  If the response is not outright hostility towards the hunger strikers in particular – arguments that view the protesters as displacing the voices of the more moderate majority or as a privileged elite with the arrogance to assume that core reform is a significant enough issue to deserve a hunger strike – then it typically dismisses the protests that have occurred as forms of nostalgia.  Similarly, when I asked the students in my class who they were protesting when they attended the Ahmadinejad rally, many said they did not know.  Although parties formed to protest both the president and Columbia, these students attended because they wanted to experience a protest during their college careers.  A friend of mine affiliated with the hunger strikes made their connections to the past more explicit.  When searching for a way to express their discontent, they turned to forms that Columbia students used in past decades to successfully cause reforms.  Perhaps surprisingly, very few people on campus disagree that the issues are important.  They simply dispute the idea that protest is an appropriate form of response.

I don’t wish to judge any of these protests or protesters or comment on the particular issues at stake.  However, I am deeply interested in asking what it means that many people now view protest as a nostalgic form whose moment is past.  More explicitly, if our culture no longer values protest as a form of action, have we found new models?  Or, do we feel that action is no longer worth taking?  Do we view actions like protests more as modes of self-therapy for a privileged elite than as activities that can cause impact?  Do we have faith that the systems we live within will promote good-enough forms of social justice?  Or, is it simply too difficult to articulate a form of action worth pursuing?

I have no memory of the protests concerning gender and race that divided our church.  As a younger member, the protests I have witnessed have only been private.  The people engaged in these private protests probably feel no less deeply than those who were publicly ex-communicated for their cause, but yet I see no sign of public, member-lead protests against the church recurring in the near future.  (Oh, yeah, they just occur in blogs!)  Outside of our church, events occur daily that seem to demand our attention: the environment and Darfur to name a few.  And, yet, the movement to save Darfur has essentially died.  More and more people are now buying green, but we are still left with the glaring problem that the biggest threat to the environment is the global desire to define success as matching the US’s consumer lifestyle.

As I blog, I make sure to carefully guard my rhetoric to censor out any thoughts that might seem less than faithful or polite.  When I fail at this task, feelings of shame follow.  Despite the fact that I often feel thwarted by institutions, church-run or otherwise, that attempt to prescribe my gender role in society, I find that with every year I inure to the situation more.  Content with the knowledge that 75% of my friends share the same liberal opinion on gender roles with me, I morbidly exercise faith that the church and workplace culture surrounding gender will change as this generation of leaders dies off.  But, does this mean that I have given up action?  And, if I have, does it ethically matter?  Would any action I could have taken made a difference within a system?

If protest is no longer a form of action that we find effective, then what other models might we use (if we want to act at all)?  And, perhaps more importantly, what are the contradictions in a liberal society and in a Christian church that make our relationship to taking action so difficult?


  1. StillConfused says:

    I find protestors mildly irritating. When I see protestors, my thought process is generally, “Get a job!”

    I never participated in protests for two reasons: (1) I was busy working, studying or raising a family; and (2) I honestly don’t feel that strongly about issues.

  2. Many attorneys I know participated in a protest yesterday against the imprisonment and repression of Pakistani lawyers under Musharraf. I thought it was an excellent idea, and I can definitely tell you that protest is not dead. I wonder if it is dead in American, but strikes, protests, walk-outs and other forms of mild civic disobedience remain as popular as ever, at least in those countries where it is permitted. Heck, just this week there was another strike in France, where the greve is a national pastime.

  3. I’m a late-20’s type who has participated in many protests of varying sizes, causes and venues. My impression, even during each, has uniformly been that the action was entirely ineffectual and largely meaningless except as a sort of social community-building exercise for the participants themselves. I tend to participate because I am asked and because I have anger and that is the offered venue for expressing it. But I’ve never felt like any protest I’ve been in has had any impact whatsoever.

    The problem as I see it is that we are so geographically distributed in suburban America that the number of people who see any given protest is so tiny that it is meaningless. Furthermore, protests garner little media attention, which would be a way of overcoming the former problem. Furthermore, what media attention they do get can often seem condescending, etc.

    To answer your other–critical–question, have we found other modes to replace protest, I think the answer is still no. I feel awfully powerless as a citizen right now. Hence, I participate in protests, absent other venues, despite not believing in them.

  4. Actually I can think of one protest recently that seems to have garnered enough of the right kind of attention to have real impact, at least in communities relevant to this blog. And that’s BYU’s Cheney protests.

  5. That’s an interesting point about American geographic distribution. Europeans do live closer together, and I wonder if that makes a difference. I have often felt that NYC is a more socially aware space than my hometown in MI, because issues circulate more quickly when people live on top of each other.

    After reading these comments, it also seems to me that I should bracket from this conversation protests or strikes concerning employer-employee relationships. The sitution is different than protesting a global issue, because the employees actually do have direct impact on a company’s operations. These kinds of strikes do seem alive and if not always well.

  6. I am someone who has participated in a number of protests while recognizing that most local protests of larger, national issues rarely effect immediate change. However, I still think that protest can be meaningful and important, if only to make dissent visible and acknowledged. The fact that protests exist change the narrative of a particular issue. You may roll your eyes at protesters as your drive by (or flip them off, or shout ugly/hateful things), but you are forced to acknowledge that there is a community who feels strongly enough about a particular issue to be visible, to stand up, to be heard. For the protesters themselves, this community-building and recognition is also valuable. Looking at protests of the past, they may or may not have caused immediate change, but often it is reassuring (to me, at least) to know that someone was speaking out against injustice, violence, etc. at the time.

  7. My problem with protests–especially the ones I saw at Columbia as a law student there–was that they felt deeply imitative. Kids wanted to protest–relive the glory days of Vietnam–and would protest anything, with none but the barest reason. (It gets worse if you go down to NYU or Union Square.)

    I find that the tendency to protest–especially where the protestors have little to no knowledge of what they’re protesting (like the guy who insisted that money going to make bombs instead fund schools, not recognizing the federal-state distinction; he also though at 90% state tax on the wealthy was a good idea, which it would be . . . for Connecticut) undercuts the power of all protests. Where most protestors I’ve come across are naive at best, and opportunists at worst, it makes it a lot easier to roll my eyes, even where they may have a point.

    And I guess that’s my problem with protest: the U.S. is so saturated with protests (when we were in DC, there was a march on the White House or the Capitol every other week; I drive by a medical center, and there are anti-abortion protestors; I go to the Greenmarket at Union Square and there are neo-hippies claiming that the Bush administration cause the planes to fly into the WTC) that they’ve lost the punch that they once had.

    I don’t know, in the US, what has replaced protests, but I do know that every protest launched by a Columbia or NYU student (or an aging Upper West Side hippie) diminishes the impact the protests have. They (and we) should probably find something new.

  8. I was just watching the NY Times video on Mitt R., which focuses heavily on his encounters or lack thereof with protests. The video points out that he missed many of the Vietnam protests, because he was on his mission during those years. He did, however, see protests in France. Does the fact that he “missed” Vietnam add to our understanding of his candidacy?

  9. 8 – Does your “question” have anything to do with the post? (I’m a little sorry for the snark, but that question smacks of snarkiness.)

    6 – Usually it’s the protestors who are shouting hateful things. (Or, if not shouting, have hateful things written on them, ie, those people who picket the military funerals.)

    My main problem with protest is that you need a really good reason for a protest. When MLK and the other black folk protested against segregation, it was something big. It had a huge purpose. Protesting Ahmadinejad’s visit, not so big.

  10. I have a certain nostalgia for the protests I witnessed in Ann Arbor back in the 80s, but such events do seem kind of useless now.

    What role does the Internet play in all this? People can organize globally in a way never before possible, and in environments which otherwise prohibit dissent.

    There can’t be any “public, member-lead protests against the church” in an era of strict correlation and ex-communication. (Soon-to-be-ex-member protests, maybe!) In the Bloggernacle, however, member protest is alive and well.

    So perhaps more people ARE protesting and taking action than ever before. They’re just doing it in new fora. 3 million people in are a much stronger force than any march on the Mall in DC could ever hope to be.

    The Columbia student starving himself for curriculum reform is an anachronism at best. The student who’s busy online organizing the alumni to withhold financial support unless Columbia changes….she is the future.

  11. Amen to Mike’s last paragraph, particularly.

    I see the movement to on-line protests for many as a way to stage an “easy” or “convenient” protest – often free of the need to actually know and be known by the people with whom they are protesting. It’s so much cleaner and less dangerous and, therefore, more open to people who wouldn’t have the guts to tackle real deprivation or tribulation – as well as those who are sincere but would be unable to organize in person. It cuts both ways.

  12. The research regarding those who were involved in protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s indicates that they weren’t that different from those you describe now: in 1968, for instance, less than 40% of protesters polled knew basic facts about Vietnam. (I don’t have the research any more — I think they asked who Ho Chi Minh was, or to find Vietnam on a map.) In interviews, they found that expressing anger generally and wanting to be united to something that felt important were the main motivation: political change was way down the list. Significantly, the data was very different for those who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, for instance. (I am recalling research I read fifteen years ago. Sorry it’s vague.)

    I believe in the power of protest, especially as a fairly benign outlet for frustrations with the system and a sort of on-the-streets plebiscite. But the babyboomers have convinced us of the glory days of 1968 in a way that isn’t completely accurate.

    I agree that in-church protests are unlikely, and unlikely to have any impact. Just as universities built after 1968 don’t have a central quad in order to discourage mass protests, the church doesn’t have a space for mass protest either. Blogging, if nothing else, gives an outlet for those who are frustrated and want to vote with their fingertips rather than their feet.

  13. Protest is alive and well!

    I think that protest has mostly gone by the wayside because of the widespread apathy that is found so commonly in todays youth.

  14. The Columbia student starving himself for curriculum reform is an anachronism at best. The student who’s busy online organizing the alumni to withhold financial support unless Columbia changes….she is the future.

    In other words, change and “protest” are best worked within the system, instead of outside it?

  15. I think the reason that physical, 1960s-style protest is now a problematic tactic is that the powers that be have almost completely adjusted to, and indeed, co-opted, it. At the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, for example, there was an protest space. It was heavily scheduled, and a range of protests took place — a mile or so from any Olympic facility. At UC Berkeley, there are three to four protests in front of one of the main administration buildings every week, during the lunch hour. I think the university events staff has an official protest calendar, and any particular movement need only schedule a day.

    When protest is this acceptable, and this assimilated, it is no longer truly disruptive. And if it is not disruptive, then it imposes few or no costs on authority figures. Protest is a relatively futile gesture today not because of the motives of protesters, their ignorance, etc. Rather, it’s futile because American power elites have come to accept it as a benign aspect of the world.

    Violence, of course, is another matter. The anarchist protests in which people fight the police and smash property still make an impact. On the other hand, the message of such protests is often obscured by the tactics. It’s all a bit of a dilemma.

  16. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 14

    Not at all. The woman in my example is organizing the alumni protest outside the system, while perhaps physically inside her dorm room. It’s what makes the Internet so compelling as an organizing tool.

  17. When protest is this acceptable, and this assimilated, it is no longer truly disruptive. And if it is not disruptive, then it imposes few or no costs on authority figures. Protest is a relatively futile gesture today not because of the motives of protesters, their ignorance, etc. Rather, it’s futile because American power elites have come to accept it as a benign aspect of the world.

    Not to mention the fact that the political elite have cynically co-opted the “protest” as part of their regularly scheduled campaigning and advocacy activities. From thence comes the Rent-A-Mob phenomenon in which activists pay otherwise apathetic persons small sums (or other nominal consideration) in order to swell the ranks of their supporters at key moments.

  18. One protest that seemed to have some impact at BYU was the Soulforce visit last March/April with the goal of getting the university to change the honor code to not be so (from their point of view) discriminatory towards homosexuals. BYU didn’t let them on campus, since they were pretty disruptive the previous year, but they marched around campus and certainly generated a lot of discussion in the Daily Universe (though to be fair, what doesn’t spark discussion in the daily universe?). A few weeks later, BYU administrators met with some gay students who, from what I understand, did not support Soulforce but shared a concern over the vague wording of the honor code with regards to homosexuality. By the end of the semester, a re-worded honor code was issued that was much more specific on what did and did not constitute breaking University policy. While BYU did not want to look like they were caving in to Soulforce (and I don’t think they did), I think that the protest was a catalyst for some positive change to take place.

    Also, as #4 stated, I think the Cheney protest was successful in letting everyone in the community (and church) know that there is a significant number of BYU students who didn’t approve of the choice to have Cheney speak at commencement. Rather than the event going down as more evidence that all Mormons are diehard republicans, it will probably be brought up much more often as evidence that there are Mormons who are democrat/against invading countries/anti-Cheney.

    At BYU this semester there was a rally to raise awareness about the violent crackdown on peaceful protests in Burma. Over 2000 people signed a petition to China’s UN representative and even more at least found out that there was some terrible stuff going on–it was amazing how few students knew anything at all about the situation.

    On the other hand, the SLC war protest on Oct 27th didn’t feel like it was getting too much done. So basically, the protests I’ve witnessed that were (tangentially) church-related were much more productive than “secular” protests. While I agree that directly protesting the Church as an institution won’t really help much and would probably get the individuals in trouble with their leaders, I think there’s definitely room for positive protests and rallies within the LDS community.

  19. I have no memory of the protests concerning gender and race that divided our church.

    Don’t feel bad about not remembering. Nobody else has any memory of those “protests” either, because there were no such protests. Oh, sure, there were protests. I remember when Stanford Junior University announced that they weren’t going to play BYU sports teams anymore because of the blacks and the priesthood issue. Or when half the Wyoming team got suspended for the BYU game because they wore black armbands. Or when someone threw a Molotov cocktail somewhere during a basketball game at Colorado State.

    But those were all protests by outsiders, and they didn’t divide the church–and those who wished or prayed that the priesthood matter would be resolved or just go away didn’t join the protesters.

  20. Speaking only from my own experience (and thereby dating myself):

    Once upon a time there were rallies at the U of U that attempted to get the university to remove from its investment portfilio any companies which did business in apartheid South Africa. The thinking went like this: Apartheid = evil, therefore South Africa = evil, therefore any institutions or persons doing business there = evil.

    We wanted the university to withdraw its financial support of SA, but we were not willing to take the next logical step of withdrawing from the university. We believed that the university was tainted because of its association with SA, but did not think we were tainted by our association with the U. Go figure.

    Rallies and protests can be effective when intended to show solidarity and when narrowly targeted. But they also present a real temptation to be self-righteous on the cheap by demanding that others make sacrifices that we ourselves are unwilling to make.

  21. I marched in an antiwar protest at Weber State back in 1971, I believe, but it was raining, and we couldn’t keep our candles lit, so it kind of fizzled out.

    In 2003, my wife and 4 of our adult children and their significant others all marched in a protest against the pending invasion of Iraq in downtown Bellevue, WA. Probably about 1000 people showed up. Some people honked and waved, some people honked and flipped us off. The police made sure we didn’t get hit bar cars as we walked in the outside lane of several of the main streets, but it almost seemed more social than political. And in the end, we invaded anyway.

    The church examples shown here are interesting, as they seemed to have had some positive impact, and have been marked by orderly and polite behavior. But they have also been directed at BYU, and not the church in general, and seemed to have been aimed at policy, not doctrine. I think that’s an important difference. I would expect that public doctrinal protests would be viewed by most of us as bad form.

  22. re: 20

    I remember those anti-apartheid rallies taking place in Ann Arbor as well. There were all these debates about “divestiture.” Students built shanties in the center of campus. It does appear that this global economic protest was a significant factor in the release of Mandela and peaceful change of government in SA.

    This raises all sorts of interesting questions. It’s a two-edged sword. What if a viable mass movement emerged to boycott any business owned by any tithe-paying member until the Church changed its policies re: women in the priesthood, gays, whatever?

    I’d love to see mass economic pressured placed on SLC until it stops excommunicating non-celibate gays, for example. Clearly that’s not in the cards for a while though.

    Ironically, a tightly controlled system like the Church or BYU can’t co-opt protest the way our broader society now does (See comment 15, etc). It can only surpress them. It’s one thing for BYU to allow anti-Cheney protests because that serves PR purposes. Groups that agitate to change BYU itself, such as Soulforce, are handled with a firmer hand to say the least.

    (I seem to be channeling Nick L today!)

  23. Nick Literski says:

    I’m flattered, Mike (I think?). ;-)

  24. MikeInWeHo says:

    I wondered where you were, Nick.

  25. Nick Literski says:

    I think certain institutions, including religious institutions, are inclined to react to protest with entrenchment, lest they be perceived as “giving in to pressure.” With such organizations, change will only come long after visible public protest has subsided.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    We’ve killed the thread, Nick. Passive resistance?

  27. Nah, Mike. I think we just don’t want to get in the middle of a discussion between the two of you – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  28. I don’t know if ‘those days’ are behind us. But I was on my college campus, 1970.. Kent State… when the number of student protesters, went from about 25%, to 100% and the school was closed the rest of the term. So..if the right event, man, or idea, comes along, I think people could still fill the streets.

  29. MikeInWeHo says:

    I hope you’re right, Bob. Let’s imagine somehow our government decided to implement a draft to get more troops for Iraq. What would happen?

  30. Nick, # 25

    Regarding the entrenchment theory and change coming well after the protest, that’s one way to interpret the 1978 revelation. But as was pointed our before, the whole issue with race was not internal protest, but external, which I would only assume would be viewed as persecution. That would certainly lead to entrenchment, which I heard a lot of from lay members during the 70’s.

    Internal protest regarding priesthood and feminism during the 80’s and 90’s was not met with entrenchment as much as active response to quash it, such as excommunications and the conference talks about “symposia” and alternate voices. But there has not been in my experience what I could ever recall or describe as being a fill-the-streets kind of protest against the church by members. Nor can I imagine such a thing happening.

    In the 70’s, the church did try to use protest forms to promote certain church doctrines or issues of moral importance. The very public display of women at the IWY conference in Salt Lake City during the times of the ERA amendment springs to mind. Organized through church channels, it was a very active effort to fill the hall at the Salt Palace with anti-ERA women voters, organized through stakes and wards.

    Similarly, I remember also as a young member of an EQ presidency, getting informed that it was “our stake’s turn” to carry signs and protest against a XXX movie theater in Salt Lake. Our ward was assigned one night during the week, and we showed up with some 10 or 12 of us. The signs were provided, and specific instructions given as to how to act and talk if spoken to.

    Not sure I would do that again, just because it now seems to really cross a line in my mind.

  31. #29′ #28 could be read that I was at Kent State, not true.
    The Draft would have to be massive just to relieve the troops long overdue for replacement. College kids again, I guess. But what a tinder box a campus is! And, of course “girls too!” would be bigger than ever. Finally, add the Internet, etc. that were not there for Vietnam……

  32. “I’d love to see mass economic pressured placed on SLC until it stops excommunicating non-celibate gays, for example.”

    The city is excommunicating gays? Does the new mayor know about this?

  33. You know what I meant. Just as people often refer to “Rome” when speaking of the Catholic heirarchy, one can use SLC to mean the leadership of this Church. I didn’t intend anything disrespectful.

  34. Smile, Mike. I’m positive MCQ was.

  35. MikeInWeHo says:

    : ) It was a long week.