The act of protest

Is it an exercise in utility, or futility?


“Handful of senators don’t pass legislation
And marches alone can’t bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin’
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’”
–P.F. Sloan, “Eve of Destruction” (1965)

P.F. Sloan wrote Barry McGuire’s one and only hit tune in a year where the relative innocence of the early 1960s came to a violent halt: Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem in February; in March, the Selma to Montgomery marches got underway, which eventually did affect the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first formal protest against the Vietnam War in April; and in August, there were the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson very deliberately escalated the U.S.’s involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. “Eve of Destruction,” in one way or another, referenced all of it, as well as the ever-looming threat of nuclear war, trouble in the Middle East, and the American space program.

It was a momentous time.

“One, two, three, four, we don’t want your f______ war! One, two, three, four …”

Remember that chant? I sure do. One of my most vivid memories from 1971 was when my brother enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. It was immediately after his induction ceremony on Whitehall Street in Manhattan. My parents and I watched from a distance as he and the rest of his inductees were mustered to head off to boot camp down in Cape May, N.J.

But opposite the proceedings was a mass of anti-Vietnam War protestors. The previously mentioned chant was just ringing in the streets. Lots of long-haired hippie types (“Hop heads” as Red Forman of “That ’70s Show” would say) — many in partial military garb: a helmet here, a standard-issue shirt with the sleeves cut off there. Some in full military dress. These were the ones (I’m assuming) who came back and finally allowed their true feelings to be heard about a conflict that many felt we really had no business being a part of.

Some might argue that all those dissenters ended up doing was simply angering and inconveniencing the status quo. Maybe that was the whole point.

But let’s go back even farther, to the tumultuous and ofttimes dangerous civil rights movement — physically and legally dangerous to those organizing and taking part, and psychologically threatening to the narrow sensibilities of those who just didn’t consider Black folks worthy of equal rights under the law. Think about some of the key figures involved: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis and so many others. They risked their very lives to go to the mat for African Americans. Got verbally and physically abused (not to mention jailed) for doing so. While their voices were raised for all to hear, their efforts didn’t accomplish anywhere near as much as they should have.

OK, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ostensibly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, was essentially a thrown bone to the African American community of the U.S. (and later disabled Americans and the elderly). It was — as most legislation is — a patronizing tin badge from Ivy League white men to the “little people” who might very well have cast votes their way during the next election cycle. And sure, that previous statement is riddled with cynicism. But when we repeatedly witness hopeful, well-intentioned folks within a movement uniting for a common purpose essentially being nodded and smiled at by Senator Sports Shoes or Congressman Mulligan, it can’t not engage your inner Dick Gregory or George Carlin.

It’s not that the codification of 1964’s Civil Rights Act wasn’t important. It absolutely was. But considering all the violence, the imbalanced scales of justice and racial profiling that still prevail to this very day, it’s difficult to muster the kind of optimism a supposed milestone piece of legislation might encourage.

Another laudable example of mass gatherings for a common purpose is the women’s liberation movement. If you’re old enough to remember it, there was a whole lot of talk about “burning your bra” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was essentially the equivalent of burning a draft card around that same time. Of course, these women were taking a multiple-decades-old nod from their suffragette predecessors, not to mention those brave ladies who provided chin music to the self-proclaimed “masters of the universe.” Again, all these women were striving for was simple equality: in pay, in treatment, in respect. Again, it comes down to that one primary rule we were supposed to have been taught before the age of 5 — the golden one.

Finally, another notable moment that spoke to the “third rail” reason to protest in the first place — changing minds as well as policy — was the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Just to provide some reprehensible backstory: Since the early 1950s, being gay had been listed as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the ’60s, police raids on NYC gay bars and harassment of those inside were common. But on the morning of June 28,1969, when officers irrupted into the Stonewall Inn, members of the LGBTQ community had had enough, and decided to resist. Protests continued for another six days. This completely justifiable moment of defiance has inspired activism within the LGBTQ community ever since. But it’d be another 30 years until the Supreme Court would establish several landmark rulings that put protections in place for and removed discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community.

The aforestated protests had real, meaty intentions. Worthwhile causes and concerns all. But if we’re going to be honest, they didn’t truly affect the groundbreaking, discernible change strived for. While these exhibitions of dissent certainly got some immediate attention, they were mostly regarded as an exercise in futility, and a group validation of feelings and beliefs among the participants.

Something else a lot of these well-intentioned dissenters never fully realized — overt demonstrations of collective upset can sometimes work against a cause. Or at the very least, they can delay any meaningful change from happening in the foreseeable future. Spite and condescension, sadly, are very real in the halls of government and corporate boardrooms. Case in point: It took more than three decades to enact any meaningful legislation to recognize that folks who do not identify as heterosexual are people too.

Ever heard of the economic principle of the law of diminishing utility? Simply put, as consumption increases, the marginal utility or satisfaction derived from each additional unit declines. It’s like when you have those first few freshly baked chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven — they’re just incredible. But after the fifth or sixth one, that initial eye-rolling euphoria of the first few is gone (this is all going to make sense). As it applies to protests, the impact of a movement can wane considerably after the message has been stomped into the pavement of our consciousness from repeated demonstrations and countless social media posts that attempt to guilt us into caring about a cause. After a while it becomes white noise, and that’s a shame.

So, here lies a question: How do we voice our disapproval of something — legislation, an action, a proposed policy shift, or a moral or legal transgression of someone in office — and have the impact of that denunciation be powerful, substantive, and long-lasting (and not begrudged by the people or the powers-that-be)?

For anyone who has stood at Five Corners for any of the many demonstrations staged there over the years, or up at the crossroads or the library in Chilmark in honor of the Black Lives Matters movement, what else could you do to extend the reach and repercussions of your message? Take away the usual ritual of standing with placards and looking longingly at passersby for acknowledgement of your reason for being there, what should the next phase of protesting look like?

How about taking a nod from the old, reliable whistle-stop tour? OK, so we don’t have any trains here on the Vineyard, and most politicians on the mainland these days wouldn’t inconvenience themselves to travel by rail to bring their message to the little people (though I could see Dylan Fernandes hopping on a train and enjoying himself immensely).

Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Harry Truman are remembered specifically for their impassioned speeches from the back platform of some train. It demonstrated to the public that they didn’t mind being amongst the hoi polloi.

What is the 21st century version of a whistle-stop tour, and how can we — those who don’t have a political or celebrity platform at our disposal — avail ourselves of such a wide audience? Well, I suppose it could be social media. But then, everyone and their grandmother is jockeying for relevance on the multitude of internet stages. Unless you have a message that is super-directed and unique, and a delivery that truly connects with John and Jane Q., your words will just get lost in the morass of internet phlegm being coughed at us 24/7.

Beyond posting, the next logical vehicle for an ongoing demonstration would be a more thoughtful, creative one: a podcast. And yes, I know, everyone and their dog has a podcast, and most times the dog has more meaty things to say than the human. But, again, if you craft your words with thought, consideration, passion, and appropriate humor, it could very well end up serving your cause with more success. And what’s great about producing a podcast these days is that you can pretty much do it on the cheap. Just have a computer, recording software, a good microphone, and have something meaningful and coherent to say. Just rambling or jaw-jacking with your pals about what irks you might be a hoot for your friends and family to listen to, but being taken seriously enough to affect any real positive change? Not so much.

The rub of this whole piece is to encourage pause in the midst of outrage or moments of consternation. Being an observer of humanity, not to mention a cynical optimist from way back, it’s just heart-wrenching to see folks doing their best for a worthwhile cause, only to have their efforts thwarted by the biggest adversary there is: the narrow or uneducated mind. The simple truth is that no matter how impressive the turnout for any given demonstration, irrespective of any so-called reform that is enacted to allegedly right a longstanding wrong, it’s just not rational to believe you can change a person’s long-held sensibilities without first meeting a person where they are. The mode of communication and education needs to be friendly, not antagonistic.

You’ve heard of harm reduction, right? Briefly, it’s an evidence-based, client-centered approach that seeks to reduce the health and social harms associated with addiction and substance use, without necessarily requiring folks who use substances to abstain or stop. Best example of that is a needle exchange program. Again, meeting people where they are. That whole “Just say no” approach was about as effective as placing a wager on exactly when Tom Brady would retire. Sure, it’s a complete non sequitur, but you get the idea.

Same thing with protests. Finger-wagging only makes folks double-bolt an already closed mind. If you’re one who is ambitious and socially conscious enough to organize a demonstration, you’re obviously a thinker and a doer. It’s folks like you who can conjure a new way to effect positive change without relying on what is now an outmoded technique for collective commentary.

Now more than ever — in this virtual world we’re essentially forced to indulge for one reason or another — it’s time to channel our strengths in a direction where they will do the most good. If everyone follows that path for a common cause, then we’ll have organized a protest without interrupting the flow of traffic.



  1. Good article. I remember as a kid my parents often taking the family into Boston on the weekend to Vietnam anti-war protests on the common. I really didn’t know what it was all about but knew the hippies we’re smoking something that smelled way different than my mom’s Lucky Strikes. Years later I asked my parents why they took us to those protests. They said the war was never going to end with a bunch of hippies protesting in the streets and politicians would finally take notice once real families, and voters, started to protest the war. They were right. BLM and ANTIFA would learn a lot from people like my parents.

    • The war ended when the protesting resulted in the end of the college deferment which put affluent white kids in the jungles of Vietnam. Once that happened, the affluent white families started to protest. Ultimately the end of the draft stopped it. It turned out that nobody wanted their war after all.
      Not sure what BLM and “antifa” would learn from your parents– I see plenty of affluent people across all sectors of society protesting police brutality and the fascism slowly slithering into our government and society. Let’s not be complicit.

  2. When people fail to speak, the price of speaking rises. As the price of speaking rises still fewer people speak out which further causes the price to rise so that fewer people yet will speak out until a whole culture or nation is silenced. If you do not speak you are not being neutral but are contributing to the success of the thing you refuse to name and condemn

    • At the beginning of the American War, in Vietnam, very few dared to speak up.
      And then the Kent State students did.
      America lost the American War in Vietnam.
      Plenty of Americans are speaking up.
      That is why we have a certain ex-President enjoying so much attention from prosecutors…

      He thinks it’s adulation.

    • Dear Andrew – I thank you for those immensely important words, more essential now than ever. Are they yours or is it a quote? I am editing it just a tad, and forming it as a poem. You can imagine it with music … it’s a message that needs to speak out.

      “When people fail to speak out, the price of speaking out rises.
      As the price of speaking out rises, still fewer people speak out,
      which further causes the price to rise, so that even fewer people dare speak out,
      until a whole culture or nation is silenced.
      If you do not speak out, you are not just being neutral,
      but you are contributing to the success
      of the very thing you refuse to name and condemn.”

      Yes, it’s so important to dare to speak out if we feel that a serious mistake is being made, especially if we have an idea for a better option. I’ll be speaking out shortly about the nitrogen issue, in spite of the potential for negative comments. It’s a hot issue, with a lot of money at stake, and we must get together and talk about it, and compare options.

      • Anna–you got it !
        Let me hack apart a quote from Teddy Roosevelt —
        “Speak loudly, and carry a small fork.”
        Even if you are a protest of one.
        It worked for Gretta.

  3. The current protestors I see do not even understand what the whole picture is on what they are protesting. I think they just want to get out of the house and or follow the mob. At best here on MV they are preaching to the choir. So they do it to make themselves feel good. Which is ok if that is what they’re into – standing outside. Take the supreme court opinion – the first photo that comes up. To begin with, here in MA there was no chance you would not be able to have an abortion. Second, the most liberal of justices, RBG, said the Roe decision was wrong and should be fixed.

    This is up to the States to decide and they are deciding it. If protestors on MV want to make any difference on this, go to a red state and protest. The group going up to Boston on the 23rd (next week) who will be protesting for the housing bill actually ARE making a difference where it matters. Not on a street corner on fantasy island.

  4. I agree with much of what you have said, but you seem to have fallen prey to the very behaviors that you are seeking to change. Just because someone doesn’t share your opinion on a given topic does not necessarily give you sufficient evidence to conclude that they are possessed with a “narrow or uneducated mind”. This is a default tactic that has become increasingly common among the left– when someone presents an opposing position that challenges the orthodoxy of the left they are deemed to be “ignorant”, and in need of further education on a topic. Of course the same people that issue these condemnations will also loudly proclaim that it is not their job to educate said dissenter, and that such people need to do further “work” to bring their opinions in line. It’s become a thought terminating cliché.

    Be assured that there are any number of individuals possessed with prehensile minds, and extensive educational credentials, that would disagree with practically every opinion that you hold. It matters not how dearly you hold them, or how certain you may be of their correctness, there are smarter people than you that hold divergent views. You might even alter your views should you engage such persons in an honest exchange of ideas, but those rarely occur these days. In this piece, you certainly sound more interested in furthering a slate of causes than entering into a good faith exchange of ideas with those that might hold opposing views.

    You will never convince anyone of your point of view by suggesting that they are mentally deficient if they disagree with you. You cannot bully humans into abandoning several thousands of years of societal conventions overnight by demeaning their ethics or cognitive abilities should they dare to disagree with you. I agree wholeheartedly that certain types of demonstrations can damage their stated cause, and I would suggest to you that there is spite and condescension on either side. I think that you, as well as the folks that line up for the circle jerk protests around the island against things that don’t actually happen on the island, would be shocked to learn of the extent to which many ears are shuttered to your rhetoric/cause as a result of the constant drone of condescending condemnation.

    Your means of protest are far less important than your ability to form and defend an argument. If your ideas are weak, then no amount of insults and shaming will shore them up. You don’t come right out and say it, but you seem to be aware that you’re losing the people’s interest in your litany of causes. Not on MV of course, but the rest of the country is just tired.

    I probably agree with you on more things than not, but I would not insult your intellect or integrity based upon those issues disagreed upon. I would not vandalize your property due to the political candidate that you chose to support, nor would I attempt to publicly shame you or damage your livelihood. All of these tactics have been employed on MV by progressives certain of their cause, and it was perverse in every instance. These are the things that have lasting impact, and that should be condemned. I know island tradesmen that have had damage to their trucks due to a political sticker or hat on the dashboard – the person who caused the damage is likely to be one or two degrees of separation from yourself. Live with that.

    • I find it amusing that at the end of your first paragraph you state the left leaning people will tell you “it’s not their job to educate said dissenters”
      It’s been my experience that when I ask a left leaner to back up their claims, they will post the sources of which they believe back up their claims. And when I ask a right leaner to back it up, I get “Look it up yourself” or some article at least 5 years old, or in the case of the number one right leaning spewer of false or half truths on this forum, no reply at all.

      • Jim– I agree–either that, or I am not left leaning…
        But I also somewhat agree with Bert. As a left leaning person ( I think) I do occasionally use the word “ignorant” when someone posts an ignorant comment. I don’t call the commenter ignorant, just the comment.
        But it’s not because I disagree with the opinions of the commenter, per say, but because it’s often an ignorant comment based upon nothing that has anything to do with reality. Windmills “mess with the tides” for instance, or most of Bert’s entire last paragraph.

        • The term you are looking for is “per se”, but by all means – carry on with calling my comment ignorant.

          • Bert– thanks for pointing out that I was ignorant as to the proper spelling of “per se”. We are all ignorant about some things– Despite the fact that I went to Catholic school for my first 8 years of education, and they had their church services in Latin, I didn’t even know per se was latin phrase.
            Thanks for pointing out my ignorance..
            And thanks for your understanding and your permission to express my opinion about what constitutes an ignorant comment.
            But, I will say that I will not “deem” a comment as ignorant on the basis of a misspelling of a word or a typo.

  5. There are several reasons for public protests. First, raise awareness of your cause. Second, recruit like-minded people who want to work for your cause. Third, raise money for your cause. It’s not about just standing on the street waving a sign. It’s about the actions that follow-up the protests. That’s where the real work happens. It’s the hundreds of hours of coalition building, making phone calls, raising money, writing letters, lobbying our legislators, etc. Most people don’t see or understand the depth of that work, because their idea of participation is criticizing others in the comments section of the local newspapers.

  6. Carla Cooper has the right idea. A protest without a goal is just a narcissistic gesture, a form of navel-gazing, a kind of showing-off. I wish the folks demonstrating at the Chilmark crossroads would find something productive to do to support BLM.

  7. I found the photographs interesting. “My Body, Not Yours ” and “ Our Bodies, Our Rights”.
    It made me think of a photograph that I’d seen recently of a calf being taken from his Mother so that humans could steal his milk that his Mother made for him. It’s her body, where are her rights?
    Most people only care about injustice if it directly affects them, or someone they care about, or perhaps, a fellow human being. Rarely, do people care about injustice when it affects animals ( unless, of course their precious dog or cat). People claim to be feminists and stand with their signs and March and wear pink hats. But you can’t be a feminist and contribute to the rape and murder of millions of female animals. After all , we are animals too. We all feel pain. We all feel love. We all care for the safety and well being of our children. You can’t be an Environmentalist and March in the streets and then go home and eat the flesh of another animal, one who was tortured and murdered. And if you don’t care about your fellow animals at all, don’t you care that Animal Agriculture is one of the leading causes of Global Warming, Deforestation, Species Extinction, Water Depletion and Ocean Dead Zones. If you say you care about people more than you care about animals( always a good response when the needless suffering of animals is brought up), what about the 760 tons of grain used to feed animals to produce meat that could feed 11 billion people and could end global food shortage 14 times over? We are quite literally gambling with the future of our Planet for the sake of hamburgers. I know, I know, it’s your “personal choice” . Where’s the animal choice? Where’s the choice for the billions of starving people all over the world? Where’s the choice for Wildlife, as the forests are being torn down to make more feed lots for cows? And by the way, if your “ personal choice” has a victim then it is no longer a “ personal choice”. You have a choice every day. A choice not to harm your fellow animals ( female and male). You can choose cruelty free/dairy free milk. Oat milk, Almond milk, Rice milk etc. You can choose Plant Based Meat. When you’re carrying signs and marching think of the animals who share this Planet with us. They have rights also.

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