What is protest really for?

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By John Sullivan

The right to protest is one of the freedoms of democracy that has always held a place of high honor within American culture. Every major milestone of American progress through history is decorated with examples of citizens organizing in protest to ensure that their voices are heard. Progress is seen as a product of conflict and the free competition of ideas. Without the liberty to organize and protest, that free interchange of ideas is put into jeopardy.

But if you think the bulk of modern day protestors organize because of their great respect for American idealism and the democratic process, I’m sorry to say I think you are mistaken. There are some questions that can’t be answered by that more idealistic perspective on protest. Why, for example, does violence often seem to be present, whether overwhelming the original protest or threatening from the periphery? And where violence does start to overwhelm civility, why is it that, like a wildfire, it quickly devours the good intentions of the protestors who assembled there under the pretense of civil discourse?

On August 19, I walked down Young Street in downtown Dallas with these questions in mind. Various groups had been busy organizing a large protest to show solidarity in response to the recent Charlottesville riot that had been saturating the news cycle.

Thousands were expected to attend, and I knew that in order to try and get answers to these questions, I would need to experience this cultural phenomenon firsthand. I wanted to be a part of the collective as the effects of Orwellian group think took hold and melded each individual together into the cacophony that constituted the mob. As I meandered along the road, I passed groups of protestors and counter-protestors, steadily increasing in number and all flocking in the same direction and talking excitedly with their fellow activists.

The signs struck me first. Even from a distance, they could be seen on prominent display above the heads of those carrying them, like decorative weapons born for a special ceremony. If you were deep within the throngs of people, these signs eliminated any chance you might have had to observe anything looking outward. A glance in any direction would only reveal more big and bold letters assembled into various patterns, patterns repeated again and again in slightly different fonts and rearrangements.

I looked at these signs with curiosity. The specific messages were ultimately unimportant for my purposes on that particular day, yet they still carried an almost tribal significance. The signs struck me as one of many different kinds of war paint people had donned in order to differentiate themselves: shirts with witty slogans, MAGA hats, rainbow face paint and Confederate flags. All served to signal to others which pack you called home – all were territorial markings competing with the many other outfits that swarmed around city hall.

The protest carried on, gaining momentum and energy as more warm bodies fueled the smoldering fire into an impassioned inferno. Over the distorted noise of the oration from the main podium coming through the loud speakers, I heard new voices echoing bluntly off of the courtyard steps. A group of men and women, dressed in all black, were marching in a hastily formed unit, spitting hastily formed collections of buzzwords and phrases. This presumably angry troupe was delivering its message with about the same degree of success as my logic professor attempting to hold my attention for more than six minutes.

“Articulate” and “thoughtful” were not the first words that came to my mind, and as they continued their goose step around the perimeter of the crowd I assumed that they would eventually conclude their litany of verbal condemnations. That is, until the crowds started to gather.

Nobody in their right mind would have said that they were gathering around this feeble Antifa collective because of the potency of their word choice. Yet the crowd continued to trickle away from the protest and toward this sideshow. The trickle became a steady flow, which quickly turned into a torrent, and within two minutes of this having begun, a police line had formed opposite our bandana-clad hooligans.

The piercing flash of a police helicopter’s spotlight split the evening gloom, illuminating the spectacle. Armed with bullhorns and newfound strength of voice, the Antifa group fed glutinously on the attention that they had attracted.

Fast forward 30 minutes, and sh*t had really started to hit the fan. The crowd had now splintered off into many subgroups, each centered on some bush-league demagogue leading them in a refrain that, despite its undoubtedly vacuous content, had begun to stir up a manic buzz of energy in the air. My own path led me hot on the trail of the boys in black, who, having given up on their clash with the cops, had led a gang of newly formed acolytes to the confederate statue of Robert E. Lee.

The statue in question was taken down by the City of Dallas Sept. 14. But on this day, the statue still stood strong and was flanked by a vanguard of particularly bold men (or men without a proper sense of self-preservation) bearing camouflage gear and Confederate flags.

The armies had assembled. The great battle would soon begin. Within about 30 seconds of the two groups meeting, mounted police officers were forced to place themselves as a biological barricade to keep the sides off of each other’s throats. What ensued was a shouting match for the ages.

From where I stood, those crowding the front lines appeared to be attempting to beat their opposition to death with the force of the words they were vomiting outward. The threat of violence was only slightly less noticeable than the palpable waves of self-righteous pleasure that seemed to pulsate outward from each faction as they maneuvered themselves onto their usual soap boxes.

The spectators were cheering and jeering, patrons of a modern gladiatorial spectacle, and I was among them.

I admit that I too fell immersed in the strong energy of the crowd. My critical reasoning took a back seat as my hitherto unnoticed craving for violence begged impatiently to be satiated.

I could see the same phenomenon on the faces of those around me as well, who leaned in expectantly, waiting for the situation to reach its climax.

Fortunately, that climax never came.

The police, in an excellent display of judgement, fully broke up the conflict just before it seemed about to implode. As the crowd dispersed, I walked back toward my car, the afterglow of sweet adrenaline adding a particular bounce to my step as I went.

I had found answers to my questions. Humans have not evolved beyond our animal roots. We crave conflict. We are territorial, and have a biological urge to fight and establish dominance. In a modern world, we cannot express this urge the way nature intends. Instead, we seek other, more socially acceptable outlets for such base frustrations. I had felt those instinctual emotions strongly, just as I am sure that everyone gathered around that statue with me had felt them.

Protesting may, in theory, be an expression of American freedom and the right to free speech, and I wouldn’t question the importance of preserving this right. However, the form it seems to take today is a much more honest and sinister reflection of human nature than the common narrative would have you believe.

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