America is at the dawn of a "movement moment" with all signs pointing to turbulence ahead. How we weather this storm will be shaped by how we make sense of the time-honored American tradition of peaceful, direct action. This form of civic expression is varied and complex, yet can also be elegant in its simplicity. By making an effort to understand it we can strengthen our democracy, rather than restricting rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
The different types of demonstration are as broad and varied as the people who engage in them. At one end, simply wearing a sticker or voting for a non-mainstream party candidate can be seen as an act of protest. On the other end, actions like the Boston Tea Party, when met with repression, ultimately escalated into the American Revolution. There is no bright line between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" forms of protest. Focusing on the context and content of the cause is always more constructive than a crackdown on tactics.
Direct action is like the immune system of our body politic. It shows us where things aren't working and where a healing response is required. People who feel they have no means of effective expression will do increasingly risky things. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained, "a riot is the language of the unheard." When done strategically, organized protest efforts actually provide people with a voice, thus helping to prevent more disorganized acts of destruction. Instead of treating the symptom as a sickness to be "cured," we must diagnose the deeper cause of action. Next time you are confronted with protest, instead of getting annoyed, stop and listen. You might be able to hear the sound of history in the making.
The power of protest to create change is so great, there is a long pattern of "agent provocateurs" who seek to undermine a movement's message by inciting violence. This is why demonstrations organized by civic groups typically include "peacekeepers" trained in the art of de-escalation. They can be the difference between the purpose of the protest reaching a broader audience, or the media focusing on a sideshow instead.
Criminalizing political expression is a slippery slope that Spokane slid down more than 100 years ago. When local employment agencies convinced the city council to make speech on sidewalks illegal, 103 demonstrators were beaten and arrested for stepping up to speak in one day. The number of arrests climbed to 500 before the council admitted their error, thus concluding one of the most significant union-led battles to protect free speech in American history.
Unfortunately, Washington State Sen. Doug Ericksen recently introduced a bill to label certain actions as "economic terrorism." This is an attack on the beating heart of our civil society. Protest is the ultimate expression of patriotism, in that it shows you love something enough to demand that it become a better version of itself. This deep American tradition has bent the arc of our history toward freedom. Any attempt to bend it backward will be met with a resistance so strong, we will again snap toward justice. ♦
Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She currently serves as a public health advocate.