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Everyday Activism: Why You Should Push Back Against the Norms You Face


Recently everybody’s been talking about change. From Yes! Magazine’s new piece on ‘radical’ being the new normal to the implications of the global Monsanto protest, much of this discussion has been a debate about what it means to ‘push back.’ People are asking: Is activism pushing back? Is activism the means for change?

This all makes me think of a rather inspiring (and disappointing) video montage of what I thought exemplified authentic ‘inner activism’ (considered here as a more instinctional, less organized form of activism) and ‘push back.’ The montage includes a series of automoblie drivers stopped at Department of Homeland Security immigration checkpoints that are not along the domestic border. Each driver stops and greets an officer, but soon refuses to answer questions about citizenship. Though the officers threaten to detain the drivers and subsequently search their vehicles, the drivers assert their right to continue on their way. In a matter of minutes each driver is allowed to continue driving despite having refused to submit to questioning.

Feeling enlightened by this new display of power and agency, I continued to search for similar videos.

I came across another video titled “Abusive Border Patrol Agents NM Checkpoint” that was particularly striking in that it showed that this kind of activism isn’t easy. Here's what happens to one driver after he refuses to answer questions:

  • The officer tells the driver that within 100 miles from the border and at immigration checkpoints, all constitutional rights are officially suspended and do not apply. He says: “Just to let you know, in a border patrol check point a person’s rights do not matter here, they don’t apply here. You do not have rights. I can print that out for you.”
  • The officers explicitly say that anyone who does not follow the norms is therefore suspicious, and therefore they have legal probable cause to detain and search him.
  • The head officer tells the driver he suspects him of being a terrorist.

Nearly 30 minutes of coercive threats and no results, the officers become exhausted. They eventually dismiss the driver after having realized they cannot in fact detain or search him (or convince him to waive his rights).

This is a rather remarkable moment of the kind of everyday activism each of us can take. But what it also reveals is that those who ‘resist’ will always be confronted with a different kind of push back – a voice that tries to remind us of ‘our place.’ What’s important, though, is that we don’t let this deter us.

A friend of mine who refuses to go through airport security scanners because they remind her of the stop and frisk stance told me that she had asked an airport security officer how many people ask to be patted down instead of going through the ‘normalized’ stop and frisk body scanner. She was told that on any given day only about three individuals ask to be patted down - a relatively quick (2-4 minutes) procedure. Apparently, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of those choosing to opt out of the scanner is growing.

In resisting the scanner ‘norm’ these individuals and my friend, in my opinion, are pushing back. They are, in fact, discovering their ‘inner activism.’

It’s also important that we look at how those who choose to opt out of normalized procedures are treated and what this might mean when looking at the state of the union:

While all the drivers in the immigration checkpoint videos are eventually told they can continue driving (though they were also previously told they would detained and punished), all the drivers undergo harassment. One agent even pulls out his baton to threaten a driver, though quickly puts it away after the driver says, “Did you just pull out a weapon because I won’t answer your questions? Why are you brandishing a weapon at me when I just want to go on my way?”

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