Why I’m Done With Protests

Steve Pittelli

Steve Pittelli is a retired psychiatrist. You can find him on Twitter and his own blog Unwashed Genes.

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44 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post. My political commitments and my analysis of what was going on in the events you discuss are probably different from yours in some ways, but your post is certainly an honest and vivid portrayal of your experiences.

    I’m reminded of being on a bus back in CherryPlatte shortly after the Iraq War of 2003 started. A woman on the bus was wearing an anti-war button, which must have been difficult to do out in public at that time. I admired her courage. CherryPlatte is liberal-ish but still not a welcoming place for dissent about military actions, especially after the action(s) have started. I should have at least told her I respected her courage in wearing that. But I didn’t.Report

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    The war in Afghanistan has been going on for 15 years now with no resolution in sight. It has utterly failed to change the facts on the ground.

    I’m done with war as a method of resolving international disputes.Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      The war in Afghanistan has been going on for 15 years now with no resolution in sight. It has utterly failed to change the facts on the ground.

      The facts on the ground are we can keep this up basically forever, and they showed us what happens if we walk away.

      I’m not sure what “peace” even means in this context unless it’s “we walk away and let them do heinous things, maybe including to us”.Report

  3. Mike Dwyer says:

    Thank you for writing this. I shared your feelings about the wars we started after 9/11, especially Afghanistan. I have never been drawn to protests as a way of venting my want of change, but I understand the impulse. It’s absolutely why I write, so we all have our forms of expression. I appreciate your honesty in telling your story.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    The bit about how people were dressed is interesting, in that it shows that protests are actually theater, and that the costumes matter. How the protesters dress is a huge signal regarding whether others will take the protesters seriously or not.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Theatre and dress can be very important in making a point!!!Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Somewhere during my evolution from gay marriage opponent to gay marriage supporter, I recall stating repeatedly that if only they would tone down the pageantry during their protests it might help move things along. I’m sure that opinion is considered prejudiced by many people, but optics do matter. As a hunter that tries to never wear camouflage unless I’m heading into the woods, and is always conscious of the image I’m portraying, sometimes you just have to play the game.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Part of me was thinking, “man, those guys sure look ridiculous”.

        Another part of me was like, “Hmm, that’s kind of a nice shirt/vest combo.”Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          True. I wasn’t personally bothered by the costumes, etc. Even when I was opposed to gay marriage I never had a problem with gays themselves. I understood the culture that developed in that community and in some ways respected their confidence to march in costumes, etc. I just felt like it harmed their ultimate goals. I suppose that is the question that every protest group must deal with. How much do you work within the system and how much do you fight against it? For every gay man or lesbian woman that was marching in a parade, there was probably three other members that felt uncomfortable doing so but would have cosigned onto a civil rights case or worked within the system to change things that way. And of course there were many who did both.Report

          • North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            The radicals and respectables are the yin and yang of advocacy and change; like Malcolm X and King. The respectables always think the radicals make their entire side look like idiots; the radicals always think the respectables are content with the status quo. As a respectable myself it’s too easy to sneer at the passion, the tone deafness and the, mmm, questionable tactics of the radicals. I have to remind myself, though, that it wasn’t my side of that equation who got the ball rolling on this whole thing or who laid it all on the line.Report

            • greginak in reply to North says:

              Very true. One of the weaknesses of the current protest movements is they don’t have strong big name Respectable leaders. They got the the radical part down pat but seem fixated on not having strong national leaders. The Occupy movement seems like the best example of how to piss away a lot of energy with monty python level group org.Report

              • InMD in reply to greginak says:

                I think all effective activism has an element of good cop bad cop. When there’s no good cop, or the closest thing to a good cop is unprincipled milquetoast, there’s no one to surrender to.Report

              • Dark Matter in reply to greginak says:

                The Occupy movement seems like the best example of how to piss away a lot of energy with monty python level group org.

                Group org, and a lack of knowing where they wanted to go or policies which would get them there.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Kind of like Tea Baggers dressing like 18th century American revolutionary soldiers to make a point, right?Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        A protest/protestor must understand the target audience and appear in a costume that will appeal to that audience.

        Get that wrong and your impact will be for naught.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          Well, there’s also the issue of what folks are protesting, regardless of theatrics. I mean, consider the Iraq War protests. People dressed up as white people, black people, brown people, rich people, poor people, educated and uneducated people, and they were mocked for being a special interest group. Gotta play to your audience, right?Report

  5. LTL FTC says:

    Well before 9/11, protesting went from “a thing people do when they feel strongly about an issue” to “a thing protesters do because that’s why we call them protesters.”Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to LTL FTC says:

      The History department that I did my undergraduate in was very conservative during the late 90s. When I started my second degree in the Anthropology department I soon discovered that it was more liberal. A friend talked me into attending a meeting of the Student Anthropology Club, because there were ‘a lot of cute girls in the club’. I remember being flabbergasted when the chair of the department began advising the girls on how to cover their mouths if they were tear-gassed while protesting an upcoming World Trade Summit in Canada. While my friend was right about the cute girls, that was not my scene. They came by their liberalism honestly, but the activism was clearly more about perception among their peers.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to LTL FTC says:

      What I remember from the 90’s was that protesting meant abortion on the right and either Free Palestine or Free Mumia on the left.

      It was something that Troo Bleebers did but it wasn’t really something that you’d expect to see normal people doing.

      Now? Normal people protest.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jaybird says:

        Recreational outrage is pretty popular these days. Add on top of that the influence of social media and people now being able to be seen being outraged and there you go. I’m tempted to call it the Golden Age of protesting, but that’s not right. Golden Age implies something good. Peak protesting? Probably not yet.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          “recreational outrage”

          What’s the definition of this term? I ask because it seems like your using it in a self-servingly condescending way.Report

          • Mike Dwyer in reply to Stillwater says:

            It’s only condescending in the sense that it’s something I am constantly vigilant against and think it’s a huge problem. I assume you actually do know the definition, but this will work.

            “Getting mad and venting about political, religious, racial, or other topics and venting about them to the point at which it becomes a hobby. People who enjoy recreational outrage always have something they are mad about that is outside of their own sphere of influence. This is particularly common on Tumblr and Twitter.”


            “An act of indulgence, publicly expressing your opinion in an argument that seems controversial, yet lacks any adverse arguments.

            Patting yourself on the back for expressing outrage for a topic in which the point you are making is obvious.”Report

            • Stillwater in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

              Can you cite some examples of protests which satisfy these conditions (lacks any adverse arguments, the point being made is obvious)? I was under the impression that anti-protestors’ criticism of protestors, and protesting as a culture for that matter, is that those folks goals are prima-facie rejected, not that they’re so obvious everyone agrees with them.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Stillwater says:

                When I was talking about ‘recreational outrage’ what I mean is that I think there is an increasingly larger contingent of Americans that attend protests/marches because those that make ‘recreational outrage’ a hobby is a growing demographic. Because of the social component that goes with it, what better way to scratch that issue than join those causes that seem low-risk. For example, the Women’s March of 2017. As I wrote about it then, it had no clearly-defined agenda but it was the cool thing to do. And a generic march about women ‘lacks any adverse arguments’. The same with the March for Science. You can’t really argue against ‘science’ unless you are in the unfortunate fringe that would prefer it was still the Middle Ages.

                When a movement is perceived as low-risk, it will attract the recreational outrage crowd so they can blow up Instagram and Facebook with their cause of the day. “Grrrr….we’re mad. Maybe Matt Damon will show up!”Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Hmmm. So you don’t see a direct line from the Women’s March through women leaving the GOP in droves on to the midterms where women are projected to outvote men in important districts and states by 6, 8, 10 percentage points? Seems like recreational outrage* may the just the thing to get out the vote, no?

                *{{The caravan is only a thousand miles away, yo!}}Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Stillwater says:

                We’re talking about the dynamics behind today’s protests. Regardless of how things have progressed since then, the Women’s March was the day after Trump was sworn in and two months after many of those same people voted him into office. It wasn’t a specific anger, but something driven by pop culture.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                It wasn’t a specific anger, but something driven by pop culture.

                This is one of those times when if you were to ask those folks if their anger was sincere and specific, and they said “yes, yes it was”, you’d respond by analyzing their claims away as something else, right? “No, you’re wrong about that. You weren’t really sincerely pissed off about Trump. Instead, you’re just a pop-culture lemming who doesn’t know the contents of your own mind.”Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Stillwater says:

                Given the disparity between the vote in 2016 and how many women ‘found religion’ two months later…I think that is justified.

                Like I said, some people just like to be outraged. It’s not just formal protests. It’s also how they approach blogging, commenting, the news sources they read, etc. And I do thibk this is more prevalent today, which is driving more and more casual protesters. You haven’t actually refuted that point.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Wanna know how we get President-For-Life Commandante Ocasio-Cortez?

                This is how we get President-For-Life Commandante Ocasio-Cortez.

                I tease, but really, there is this air of condescension to your comment where you don’t take the protesters seriously.

                If you want to make a point that there is a rising tide of outrage that is spurious, you probably have solid ground.

                But then, we would be talking about inflammatory rhetoric which is designed to appeal to the worst aspects of human nature and who is driving that.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                “…I tease, but really, there is this air of condescension to your comment where you don’t take the protesters seriously.”

                I think I made it clear in my comments that I don’t take them very seriously. I absolutely think inflammatory rhetoric ON BOTH SIDES is driving recreational outrage. Afterall, they need something to outrage them in the first place.Report

      • LTL FTC in reply to Jaybird says:

        I was in college during the beginning of the Iraq war and I remember the campus protest leaders just transitioning seamlessly from living wage and Palestine directly to Iraq. They didn’t even take off the white-boy keffiyehs.

        It would have turned more heads if they stopped protesting.

        More non-protestors than usual came on board for the Women’s March (me included), but they still set the tone. If you recall that in the very beginning, it got taken over by professional freelance activists for optics reasons. One wonders what a protest movement without protest people would have looked like.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    At the university where I work, there has been an extended debate about whether or not students should be allowed to disrupt visiting speakers with whom they disagree using chants, signs, horns, and other noisemakers. What’s interesting to me is that people who think they should be permitted to and those who believe they should not be permitted to disrupt both claim the side of defending free speech.Report

  7. Road Scholar says:

    What is a protest, really? It’s “petitioning the government for the redress of grievances”. To a conservative that phrase means a politely worded letter to your congressman wrapped around a nice, fat, campaign contribution. If one simply must make the issue publicly, then a more strongly worded letter to the editor might be acceptable.

    Protest? Publicly??!! That’s unruly, disorderly, and disruptive. Disgusting.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Road Scholar says:

      Are we doing caricatures now? Great! To a leftist, protesting means going to the 7-11 and buying the newest Ben & Jerry’s flavor, then coming back 10 minutes later and throwing a brick through the window, then asking your dad to send a big fat check to his congressman.Report

  8. Michael Cain says:

    Man, I feel old. We protested a quarter-million American deaths in Vietnam. People were willing to go to prison or leave the country. Women who would marry me, sight unseen, to keep me out of the draft. Test scores high enough the Air Force would take me and keep me in the US as a programmer. Both of those would have left me having to live with the ethics, given my physical size, of sending someone else impressed into military service to die in the Vietcong tunnels.Report

  9. atomickristin says:

    This is a great piece, Steve, I really enjoyed it a lot. And your blog looks really interesting, looking forward to checking it out in more detail. Thanks for writing.Report

  10. Mike Dwyer says:

    “…I tease, but really, there is this air of condescension to your comment where you don’t take the protesters seriously.”

    I think I made it clear in my comments that I don’t take them very seriously. I absolutely think inflammatory rhetoric ON BOTH SIDES is driving recreational outrage. Afterall, they need something to outrage them in the first place.Report

  11. Chris says:

    So last night I went to a fundraiser, put on by two local groups (of one of which I’m a member), to raise bail money for women in ICE detention centers here in Texas (I say centers because, while it was originally planned for the closest one, in the suburbs of Austin, activists’ interventions have resulted in ICE moving women around to avoid activists). The organizers, and workers at the event, were by and large the people you’re most likely to see at any given protest here in town, and if you read this, almost everyone you will see in that video was there. We had fun, raised a fair amount of money, and strengthened some alliances with more targeted local groups. It was a pretty successful night, and again, almost everyone there is pretty active in Austin’s left protest scene.

    The point of mentioning this is that, if you’ve been involved in movements that use protest, you know that the protests are the tip of the iceberg; that they serve a bunch of purposes depending on the situation: annoying racists from the news, say; or preventing alt-right groups from successfully demonstrating; or raising awareness of a particular issue, large or small; or showing solidarity with other groups; or recruiting/organizing; or just venting anger with a bunch of like-minded people (see the above-linked article).

    I find it hard to believe anyone involved in protests, particularly since Occupy, isn’t aware of all this. Are we producing radical change? Nah, the system is still the system. Have we done any good whatsoever. We sure as hell have here, sometimes on a large scale (city ordinances and the size of a recent housing bond), and sometimes small (bailing a few women out so they don’t have to suffer the abuses of ICE). And I know Austin’s not unique in this (in some ways, Austin’s protest culture is more conservative than it is in other cities, and therefore less effective).Report