The Spiritual Benefits of Protest

These are extraordinary times, and I am planning to put my privilege on the line over the next four years. If it comes to pass that my opposition to the Trump administration’s policies makes me sufficiently partisan that I can’t be seen as a fair broker in the future, that will surely be the least of my problems. I’m not anti-market, or anti-Republican, but I am against policies that simply serve to exacerbate income inequality on some vague, unproven theory that the ultra-wealthy, who have lower marginal utility for each extra dollar, will somehow get that money into the hands of the middle class. Supply-side economics doesn’t work; the Laffer curve doesn’t suggest that cutting taxes will always increase revenue (depends where on the curve you are); and there is no evidence that private charity will step in to boost food security, health care, and education the way that government programs do. I don’t think now is the time to normalize, or be polite, or fear that taking a stand will somehow hurt me in the future. Democrats are the only ones who worry about that kind of thing anyway.

Today was a difficult day for me as for so many others, but I went with my wife and younger son to a demonstration in our town. I’m somewhat skeptical of demonstrations, particularly those in the Bay Area. I don’t think that anyone will take notice of this particular demonstration and change a single policy, and this is surely not what I meant about putting my privilege on the line. That will come later; most people here agree with me.

But there is something energizing and inspiring about being with other people who bother to show up. I was moved by the values people were out there in support of: health care for all, human rights, equality (racial, gender, religious), the environment. I loved seeing all the different kinds of people who were there, and the different kinds of people who honked as they drove by: truck drivers, drivers of fancy cars and not-so-fancy ones, of all races and ages. I ran into several friends I admire and had a long chat with a doctor I know who volunteers his time both at home and abroad to take care of vulnerable populations. It reminds me what I’m about, and that I’m not alone. There are many of us; we have power. People who care enough about the world to help strangers are cool and interesting. Affluent people who care mostly about maximizing their own post-tax revenue tend to be pretty selfish.

I know, from Michael Cialdini’s Influence, that the more cars honked the more other cars would be likely to honk. That happened today. Cars would honk and others would join in. The conversation between the sidewalk and the street gathered strength. There is a lot to be said for just being visible. It allows people to see what is possible. Resistance can be normalized. I don’t feel so isolated and hopeless anymore.

I know that protest is not the end game. I know that this is not where we want to end up: having protests and calling it a day. But it also is so important to remember that millions more voted against Trump than voted for him. These kinds of demonstrations are energizing for the participants. They are full of optimism. Even the two people who opposed the protest (flipping us off and giving us the thumbs down, respectively) were met with polite handwaves from the protesters. I think most of us were just used to the overwhelming show of support, but as I told my son, responding with anger only lets anger win. What better way to neutralize the hate than not to become infected with it?

The real organizing work is surely to come when we try to channel the energy from this little protest (and the giant ones to come tomorrow) into more potent forms of opposition and change. I have actually been spending most of my time working on that–focusing on criminal justice reform, as usual–and just haven’t had the heart to blog.

But all of this activity, including my own, starts with our values. And our values are worth fighting for–particularly when compared to values like this:

So go to protests, even if, like me, you think there is a limit to what they can do. They might not change the world, but they can change how you feel about your prospects. And when you have hope, it makes getting up, getting out, and being heard much easier.

Author: W. David Ball

W. David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.

One thought on “The Spiritual Benefits of Protest”

  1. Well, and the Left and Center Left have to figure out mechanisms for coalescing social mobilization with political mobilization, much as the Right did in the 80s and 90s. In the 1970s we called them Jesus Freaks, in the 80s The Bible Belt and Fundamentalists, and in the 90s Congress.

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