Yes, there are communist manifestos for sale and people carrying anti-Bush signs with slogans reading Stop mad cowboy disease and Get Bush out of my bush. Yes, there are militantly anti-government groups, the cannabis liberation front, black and red clad punks and pissed-off trans people.
But there are also grandmothers, parents with their young children, congregations, priests and pastors, classrooms of students and anti-violence meditation groups. Burnt-out hippies in their 60s run rampant in flower costumes, and if youre lucky, you might see the infamous 300-pound ambiguously gendered person wearing tie-dyed parachute pants.
I have been a protester since 10th grade, when I helped organize a protest at my high school at the onset of the Iraq war, and I went to the largest protest in San Francisco since the 1960s with my mother. I marched next to a Latino grassroots mobilization group, joining them in the chant ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! (the people united will never be defeated).
Last spring, I again joined that chant with thousands of others at the March for Immigrant Rights in St. Paul. As the voices of the crowd died down, a young girl riding on her fathers shoulders with an American flag in each hand began the chant alone. Within seconds, everyone around her had joined in, following her voice in a message of solidarity.
That message continued while I was attending the School of the Americas (SOA) protest at Fort Benning, Ga. last fall with a group of 13 St. Olaf students. I was inspired by the powerful experience of joining 22,000 people in protest of the U.S. militarys combat training program for Latin American soldiers.
The protests first began in 1989, when six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter were massacred in El Salvador by SOA-trained soldiers. The protest has become an annual event: with us this year were 1,000 grandmothers from across the country, along with many Jesuit priests and religious communities. The only publicized arrests that weekend occurred peacefully, as they do every year, when a group of 16 protesters crossed over the boundary of the military base in an act of organized pacifist resistance. As they were escorted to police vans, some policemen joined the crowd to cheer their bravery and activism.
As demonstrated by the Counterpoint hallway display between Buntrock and the library hung last week, protests are often criticized as anti-government and violent. In my experience, they are the complete opposite. While small groups of protesters who engage in violence or distribute controversial material get widespread media coverage, the majority of protesters faithful to the pacifist intention of the protest are frequently ignored.
I acknowledge that my experience at protests will be radically different than that of the police who are employed to maintain order, or for that matter, the dancing flowers for peace. We must be careful that the actions of a few not be disproportionately seen as the intention of many: The overall message of peace endorsed by protests is one that follows the First Amendment in affirming our right as American citizens to voice our dissent.