Protests, Then and Now

November 13, 2011

The first organized protest that I remember was in high school.  Our teachers told us they were going out on strike and strongly suggested to us that we stay out of school in support of their demand for higher salaries.  I was all prepared to stay out of school and to carry a placard. In fact, I had my placard made and I had every intention of carrying it and marching in the street with my classmates.

However, parental clout in those days was much greater than it is today and my father took a very strong stand against my staying out of school.  He was firmly convinced that somewhere along the line my involvement in a teacher’s strike might prevent me from getting into a good college, especially if the police were called in to break up the demonstration.

So, there I sat in my classes, only one of four students who had the temerity to cross the picket line, wishing I could be in the street with my homemade sign telling the world that the teachers deserved a pay raise.

I remember there being a deathly, uncomfortable silence in the classrooms as the four of us listened to our teachers drone on and on about the day’s lessons, looking murderously at us for making them teach on days when they thought we should have been supporting their cause.  

I agreed with them.  Their salaries were ridiculously low, at least that was what they were telling us.  In those years, what would a thirteen-year-old high school freshman know about salaries?  It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I got a part-time job andI was so thrilled to have gotten the job that it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I was being overworked and underpaid.

During the years between high school and college, I became slightly more aware of protests.  In keeping with the right of public assembly, every week people would go to the park or assemble somewhere near a public building.  They would stand on these homemade wooden boxes and either talk extemporaneously to the crowd or read something that they had written.

They were peaceful assemblies.  People came and went, listening for a little while, moving on, allowing other people to take their places.  These wooden boxes came to be called soapboxes and anyone who had a bone to pick about anything would be able to stand on these soapboxes and vent their anger and frustration.

They mainly talked about the ills of the world and our free society.  We heard about our corrupt government (well, nothing has changed about that, has it?).  We heard about class divisions and how the rich were keeping the poor down.  We heard about all the things we hear about today.  And you know what?  Nothing has changed in all these years.

In those days, those protests weren’t organized and they accomplished nothing.  They didn’t even raise our awareness.  People listened sporadically to what was being said and, as long as it didn’t impinge on their way of life, they promptly forgot about it and went about their business as usual.

Today’s protests are much more organized and, with the help of the internet and the social networking sites, they have started spreading to all parts of the globe.  In the old days, I can’t imagine a scene like Occupy Wall Street spreading to countries around the world.  

Their demands aren’t very different from the ones we heard when we were teenagers but their organizational skills have increased immensely.  Now, when they organize in different cities, in different states, in different countries, and they have politicians and celebrities taking part in those demonstrations, you are seeing the beginnings of a worldwide movement that would never have taken place at any other time in the history of the world.

As with any protest that starts out as peaceable, there will always be those who use the moment to take advantage of the vulnerable, who resort to violence, who commercialize on the event for their own greed.  We have only to look at what is happening in the Mideast to see oppressed people banding together, toppling governments, in an outcry of rage at the way their leaders have amassed all the wealth on the backs of their people, and their people are living in poverty.

I think this will be one of the few times in the history of the world when we will see the common citizens take over the world.  My major concern is that when they do, will they forget what it feels like to be oppressed, to be part of the have-nots?  Will they, too, become corrupt?

As we are nearing a major turning point in history where people who have been downtrodden and whose spirit has been crushed, it behooves us to remember the words of the historian and moralist, Lord Acton, in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”

It makes me wonder whether we will be trading one set of politicians’ immorality for another’s.  Will history repeat itself or is it really possible that we can enter a Golden Age of equality?

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