Staying in Omelas

Their cries swelled with emotion, echoing messages of frustration and hope, drawing me closer to the screen with each passionate inflection. Enamored by their courageous fervor, I failed to notice my dad wielding the television remote until the protesters vanished into darkness and resounding silence. The newfound peace was but a brief lull in the commotion. With rising pitch and waving hands, he denounced these noisemakers by making his own noise, claiming their actions ineffective and entitled.

To my dad, their kicking and screaming was all in vain. People weren’t going to instantaneously change their views, and politicians weren’t going to freely pass bills, no matter how many signs bobbed up and down. Protesters had too much faith in themselves, placing greater significance in their actions than he thought should be warranted.

Blood boiling, I geared up for yet another political battle with my father, an episode made inevitable by our shared stubbornness and fiery tempers. With my supposed moral superiority granted to me by eight months of AP Government and my American birth, I stood in defense of the right to peaceful assembly that lay at the core of our nation.

Protests ground abstract policy debates, putting real faces and heavy footsteps to the jargon flung above our heads. Tying weight to a cause forces us to slow down and examine how an injustice — whether it be predominantly political, social or economic — is entwined with our daily lives.

This phenomenon is concretized when we engage with the dissenting voices of the recent Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21. Rosie Campos stepped down from her position as co-organizer of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Women’s March, pointing to the censorship and lack of transparency by organizers as the culmination of “an unfortunate reality: white activism continues to be lazy activism.” She highlighted the fact that white women were largely distant from Black Lives Matter activism but expected Black women to stand with them against issues that affected white women directly.  

But rather than treating the revelation of this double standard as a way to degrade the historical significance of the Women’s March, we can honor it as an opportunity to reverse our isolation from concerns we had formerly dismissed as not our own. The unity principles of the Women’s March encapsulate a commendable first step in expanding the accessibility of intersectionality.

More obviously, protests shine a spotlight on disparities that may have been hidden from the limelight. Bystanders must acknowledge the wave of people filing down the street. Policy makers must take into account the pressure of boycotts and organized marches. Protests are not persuasive in themselves, but they can invite persuasion in onlookers.

History has proven that demonstrations are indispensable in approaching equality. How could my dad have reminded me to register to vote if it weren’t for the women’s suffrage parades of the early 1900s? How could he have secured a stable career in the United States as a person of color if it weren’t for the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that had just managed to meet success in his lifetime? Despite claims to be merely ineffectual noise making, protests have been pivotal in the realization of freedoms we often take for granted today.

But perhaps where my father’s implications stand justified is in the subsequent arrogance of resistance. In the days surrounding to the Women’s March and A Day Without Women, a few of my peers took to social media to proclaim that participation was a mandatory expression of feminism; those who did not take part were effectually not true supporters of women’s rights.

Protests lose their power and become acts of entitlement not when they are given more worth than they allegedly deserve, but when actors forget that it is their privilege to speak out.

Forty-five million Americans live below the poverty line and cannot afford to lose a day’s worth of pay to add their voice to the movement. Their absence certainly does not testify to an opposition of human rights, but misinterpretation as such excludes when we should be doing everything to include.

The greatest disruption to solidarity is when we take purported inaction as complacency. Some can shout and stomp their feet and raise their signs, and others can cheer silently from the sidelines. One is no less than the other.

Over winter break, my dad and I sat side by side on the couch, watching clips of the protesters for the impeachment of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye packing the streets of Seoul. Their mouths moved wordlessly and their marches fell soundlessly in the muted world of the television. And for once, we were silent in shared respect.

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