Protest: a disorganized and chaotic reaction by activists and other people to political or economic actions extremely likely to affect their lives negatively. To the uninitiated, this definition might make sense. But now that I’ve participated, I realize that a successful demonstration is neither disorganized nor chaotic.
Here’s one case: On January 16, 2012, a large turnout from numerous activist groups marched from Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s personal residence, a house in an exclusive gated community outside the city.
I reached the rendezvous point with my wife and two fellow activists well before the march started. I was marching that day not just to observe and photograph, but to participate alongside other demonstrators. When the TV news crews brought out the cameras, I saw protesters evaluating the need to mask their identities. The choice was largely driven by fears their employers might use their their participation against them at work, or by fears the government might use it against undocumented people seeking U.S. citizenship.
As the crowd grew, I started taking shots, trying to capture the determination of free people exercising their right to free speech. I watched as more and more people arrived, until the last protesters climbed down from several large tour buses full of marchers.
I saw well-crafted signs with words and images displaying anger and contempt at Snyder’s policies, including the controversial emergency manager bill that became Public Act 4 of 2011 when Snyder signed it in March that year. The emergency manager law allows a governor to hand over control of insolvent or financially distressed cities, towns and school districts into the hands of powerful managers he appoints.
An emergency manager can restructure debt, slash budgets, sell city assets, re-negotiate or void contracts with public-employee unions, and fire or dis-empower elected officials. Since the emergency manager isn’t publicly elected, the appointment nullifies the citizens’ votes that elected their leaders and representatives. People who live under control of emergency managers have no say in decisions that seriously affect their lives.
I moved toward the front of the march to find a good place in the column that was forming. In the faces of activists already lined up, I saw signs of nervous excitement, determination, and defiance focused on the attitude Snyder expressed during his gubernatorial campaign. Snyder was frequently quoted saying Michigan should be “run like a business.”
As with similar campaign promises, Snyder already was trying to justify the means he planned to use for an end no one asked for in the first place.
The column started moving. We were marching. I felt a determined calm among the battalion of protesters, who chanted quietly, saving energy. We passed TV cameras; helicopters buzzed over our heads. I saw that a bend leading the road up a hill was approaching fast.
I jogged hurriedly up the turn to find a convenient vantage point for capturing the marchers. With a wide lens on my camera, I turned, focused, and took a few shots.
It wasn’t until I pulled the camera away from my face that I realized how massive the crowd really was. It was the largest protest I’d ever participated in. There’s a feeling of empowerment that comes when so many common voices merge into one. It’s not easy to describe, but I felt our fear slip away and our hope return with that visibly palpable unity.
After a brief rest and protest rally at a public park along the way, the march continued to the governor’s neighborhood. His front lawn was safe from any threat of occupation. The march stopped at iron gates apparently intended to protect the inhabitants inside from any dangers outside.
Those gates were a perfect symbol of the 1%. The rest of us, the 99%, could only peer over but not cross into the privilege on the other side. At that moment, the protest ignited. The restraint was gone, the voices angry and loud.
Police exchanged nervous looks, unsure what would happen next and how far the protesters would go to make their point. At times, protesting groups seemed to be competing with each other. A youth-activist group, BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) planted themselves in front of the gates, shouting their chants without budging, refusing to go “to the back of the bus,” words from one of the chants.
Meanwhile, a large group faith-oriented protesters, led by pastors, struggled to be heard singing “We Shall Overcome.” The few conflicts between participants were easily contained. Children and parents from the other side of the gates came out to gawk at the protest through the rails. They seemed strangely amused. Their faces and posture showed the familiar superior attitude and indignant annoyance of the well-to-do forced to face people in lower classes.
From behind the gates, a middle-aged woman told us she knows someone who’s serving in the military to give us the rights to “do this” — expresses ourselves in protest marches. I think I responded “precisely,” but maybe “thank you” would have been better. Some people just don’t get it.
Later that night, we saw newscast about the demonstration. At first we hoped the masks would obscure our identities. But as we watched ourselves marching, a sense of elation quickly replaced any worries.
Protests, marches, and demonstrations don’t create change by themselves. They raise the wide-spread awareness that leads to change. Even members of the media, watching from afar, see their concerns rise up the political agenda. After all, they are workers, employees of vast corporations. By protesting, all Americans can exercise the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. All I can say: This is an experience you can’t afford to miss. It won’t cost you anything unless you fail to do it.
– Terry Hall