The Ability to Protest
August 30, 2016
Three recent ongoing events have captured my attention. The Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa’s protest during the summer Olympic games, the protest led by Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and NFL player Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem.
These all connect to the 1964 World’s Fair in held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in the borough of Queens, New York City that changed my life. Two reasons.
My mother took my sister Betty and me out of school to attend the opening day on April 22, 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of these United States would be speaking and she wanted us to see a president. She had met LBJ in Texas and that probably also was part of her reasoning.
The theme of this world’s fair was Peace Through Understanding. This was where the “It’s a Small World” ride some of you know from Disneyland premiered.
We faced a significant problem. My mother did not factor in the weather. This particularly Wednesday was rainy and cold, and we were not dressed properly. My hands (and the rest of me) were shivering. To warm my hands my mother bought us egg rolls to hold.
This is important reason number one. I was a terrible eater. Even pizza – no no – because “it looked funny.” I had never bitten into an egg roll. However, on this cold rainy day they warmed my hands and smelled so good I ate egg roll after egg roll and so on and my eating habits suddenly found an opening, even to pizza. Life changing moment.
The other change was monumental in a different way. I recall being at the back of a huge crowd, so far back that LBJ looked an inch high at best. You can see a short video about opening day with LBJ speaking here.
What was vivid and large were protesters. Protesters? Wait a minute. Protesters? About 700 protesters greeted President Johnson with chants for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I read that 300 were arrested and taken to jail in this well-organized and orchestrated march. Read more here.
You could protest the President of the United States? You could question even the highest authority? Of course I had questioned, perhaps even protested, to my parents and my two older sisters.
This moment was an awakening and led to me asking more questions in history classes and to placing myself within moments that mattered to me. In high school, my friend Laurie and I, unbeknownst to our parents, took the bus from Fort Lee, New Jersey to the United Nations in Manhattan to participate in a march and I marched on the National Mall in Washington D.C. At Syracuse University, as I walked across the campus with three other theatre students, by the time we had arrived on the quad we had created a “street theatre” performance for the student response to the Kent State shootings, on May 4, 1970, which we then performed in silence in front of thousands at a campus rally. On each of these occasions I considered deeply what mattered to me and found the imperative to be part of a protest – any statement against one stand is pro another. There were other occasions.
At this year’s Olympics in Rio, you may have watched Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa raise crossed arms at the finish line to form an “X” in protest for the Ethiopian government’s persecution of the Oromo ethnic group. You can read here on CNN and this excerpt:
“Lilesa won a silver medal Sunday with his arms crossed over his head in a sign of solidarity for his native Oromo people — the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
“Lilesa said he wanted to draw attention to the government’s ongoing persecution of the Oromos, but he feared that his protest had put himself into such danger that he can’t go home.”
Lilesa took the stand even though this act of defiance, he believed, put him in harm’s way in his country, and may require him to ask for amnesty. I saw this as a brave act, raising awareness to this international forum. Yet, if I was part of the Ethiopian establishment, isn’t it likely I might have had the opposite response, questioning how he could go against, perhaps even embarrass his country, that had provided him the opportunity to train and compete as an Olympic athlete and in other competitions?
Maybe you have been following the Native Americans Fight Against Dakota Access Pipeline (video here) and another important and informative video from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell’s broadcast on the Protest at Standing Rock that frames the history (here). The tradition of caring for the land lives within the indigenous populations in most parts of the world. Who are the teachers in this moment in time? How important is it to stop and speak out about what matters most? In the first video we see young people so eloquently express the sanctity for their cultural traditions. The second is a newscaster also eloquent in his caring and clarity. The protest is for a pipeline that may put our water at risk and also to protest the lack of Native American voice regarding this pipeline. These are the populations who have had treaty and agreement after agreement broken by the American government.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, is described as having “set the Internet on fire and made headlines around the country when he refused to stand for the national anthem before an NFL preseason game .…” This link shows Kaepernick describing his thoughts and beliefs that precipitated his deliberate actions. On August 29, director/writer Spike Lee was interviewed about Kaepernick on a talk news program and described how personally he stands for the anthem and also stands up for Kaepernick’s right not to stand. He reviewed the history of African American athletes who also stood for beliefs, for example the once reviled and now revered Mohammed Ali, and Jackie Robinson. He also said critics comment on his large salary as a reason for him not to protest; yet, income should never equate to the right to have a voice.
Kareen Abdul-Jabbar writes a stellar op-ed in The Washington Post, “Insulting Kaepernick says more about our patriotism that his.” Please read here.
In a Facebook conversation regarding Kaepernick’s action, a relative wrote this: “NFL players are people that kids look up to. So when the 4th grader who plays football sits to copy his hero and has no clue why he is sitting, what do you say?” I say, “FABULOUS!” Now you can have a conversation about what he did and why, the choices, whether people agree or disagree. Parents can share their beliefs, and the idea that America is BUILT on people protesting injustice as they see fit (when done without harm to others) is an underlying foundation of this country. That is the NYC World’s Fair moment for this child. An awakening. Does the child have to copy the action? I don’t know. Maybe, to see how it feels. Maybe not. Either way we are talking growth, thinking, a deepening awareness of the complex choices that this child and all of us will make throughout our lives. Hooray.
Do I personally celebrate all protests? I celebrate they can happen, but some protests raise stakes of fear and hatred. Think back to Ruby Bridges walking into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960. Author John Steinbeck, in the third chapter of Travels with Charley describes watching white women, called “cheerleaders” yell out “bestial and filthy degenerate” insults to “the littlest Negro girl you ever saw.” Of course this form of protest is abhorrent because it is overtly threatening and puts people at risk.
One man raises his arms above his head. Many people of all ages march, drum and chant to express their views. Another man sits.
Perhaps instead of critiquing the protester we can be jarred out of our complacency to consider what calls a person to stand or sit or march for a cause. We can learn the issues – agree or disagree – and participate in robust conversations that move us to better understand and take actions to right the wrongs of a society that will forever be evolving. And in the process maybe we will find the cause for which we too will take a stand.
Footnote: One of my favorite authors James Howe wrote the four book series starting with The Misfits. In this first book he describes Addie, a middle school student who drove her teachers crazy by refusing to say the pledge of allegiance until all Americans were free. In the third book in the series, Addie on the Inside, in the acknowledgements, James listed me among the people he knows who has “Addie-tude.” I hope I always keep that part of me vibrant!
Thank you for reading. I truly would appreciate your comments emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A.
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