Essay: Protest, An American Tradition

Jun 29, 2020

Black Lives Matter Protest
Credit Don Rush

Protests over the death of George Floyd have continued for weeks as many local jurisdictions begin to approve police reform measures. Delmarva Public Radio's Essayist Steve Plotkin observers these demonstrations are part of the American tradition.

Peaceable Assembly


Mass Protests 


I am so proud to see citizens rally in crowds and display concern about some issue, be it race relations, police brutality, LGBQ, women’s rights, war, or other.   Their themes are as varied as American life.  They have the spine, and are willing to confront our problems, and exercise their civil liberties and their rights.  They are voting with their feet, and I am proud of them.


Widespread mass protests are guaranteed by the First Amendment and have become a traditional American expression.  Short of the ballot box, they are a characteristic of 21st century American civic engagement.   Happening spontaneously or planned, it is a quick timely response, and healthy expression of concern, whatever the grievance.  And people in power simply cannot block or ignore them.


Every generation has its issues. Whether it’s the renowned Vietnam protests in 1969 with 500,000, or the January 2017 Woman’s March with 3.3 to 5 million participants, or the next year’s Woman’s March with 1.5 million.  The top ten mass protests have occurred since 1974, and the top five during the Trump administration.


Guard Rails


Our founding fathers brilliantly set up a trifecta of guard rails for citizens.  First is the right to assembly, second is the ability to petition the government, and third is the ballot box.

To be clear, let us talk Amendments - "Congress shall make no law …. or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  That is our sacred First Amendment, lest we forget.

The Fourteenth Amendment requires due process which protects every person’s freedom of speech, his right to peaceably assemble, and his right to petition government for redress of grievances.

Thus, the rights to assemble and petition are recognized as a basic protected human right, alongside the Freedom of Speech.


Protests and the Press


Spineless politicians and some press cast a sinister light on mass protests.  They do report on the protesting crowds.  But instead of focusing on the mothers pushing baby carriages in rain and heat, teens holding signs high, boring daytime walks or columns of citizens, or elders marching.  The press is all too motivated to publicize the sometimes violent discord between police officers and protesters.


Thus, peaceable assembly is not news, violence consumes all the oxygen.  When was the last time you saw a headline “Peaceful demonstration by millions”?  This unbalanced view taints our constitution rights, by leaving us with an impression of police oppression and restrictions on assembly and protest. 


The fuse that ignites a protest may be a single act which bubbles up in society and inspires other to adopt the cause.  Recent mass protests has reverberated around the world.


Protest Themes


There is no shortage of issues for mass protests.  Today it is police reform, yesterday it was civil rights, the day before it was LGBQ issues.  Tomorrow will bring another weighty issue for the public to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”


Do Protests work?


Are protest effective?  These 4 recent tidbits say it all.

  1. The United States Marine Corps directed the removal of the Confederate battle flag at Marine installations.  Period.   The Marines were listening.
  2. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag.  NASCAR was listening.
  3. Congressional police reform legislation seemingly came out of nowhere.  The politicians were watching.
  4. Confederate statues are disappearing.  The people are watching.


This is Steve Plotkin for Delmarva Public Radio