5 Simple Rebuttals to the Common Arguments Against the Value of Protesting
Objection #1: 'Protests disrupt the average person’s life.'
Variations: These protesters are blocking traffic so the average person is late to work; I’m sure the wage workers at Starbucks love cleaning up property damage.
Who says it: Ostensibly liberal sympathizers who want to look like they care, but are too wishy washy to support the protesters and need a superficially populist reason not to do so.
Why it makes no sense: On the issue of blocking traffic, there hasn't been a mass protest movement about which this objection couldn't have been raised.
Blocking traffic (Mississippi 1964)
Blocking traffic (South Africa 1976)
Blocking traffic (Egypt 2011)
Civil disobedience is by definition disobedient. Otherwise it's something else entirely. The reason Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis was because he was there in support of an ongoing and entirely illegal sanitation strike by the city's sanitation workers that had caused garbage to pile up for months.
As for the those who feign concern for the minimum-wage workers who have to clean up after protests, if these people don’t oppose pro-corporate trade deals and don’t support a living wage and unions—as most probably don’t—then they don’t actually care about workers. They only care about them to the extent they can use them as a faux-populist wedge.
Objection #2: 'Why don’t people march against outrage X, Y or Z instead?'
Variations: Why are people protesting Trump when they were silent on Obama? Why doesn’t Black Lives Matter oppose black-on-black crime?
Who says it: Right-wing trolls, hipper-than-thou types who think hypocrisy is the only unforgivable sin.
Why it makes no sense: We live in a universe of finite resources. While it’s useful to note stark instances of hypocrisy, people usually have to choose which causes to protest based on their personal stake and capacity to effect change.
This criticism is often leveled against Black Lives Matter by right-wing naysayers for not protesting "black-on-black crime.” On this it’s important to note two things: 1) African Americans do protest black-on-black violence; and 2) protesting against black-on-black crime when most of those who commit it are summarily arrested and jailed would render such a protest pointless. One protests against a system, not against those the system already opposes; that's what protesting is, by definition.
Now the former. As Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted in 2014:
"Beyond the data, there’s the anecdotal evidence. And in short, it’s easy to find examples of marches and demonstrations against crime. In the last four years, blacks have held community protests against violence in Chicago; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh; Saginaw, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana. Indeed, there’s a whole catalog of movies, albums, and sermons from a generation of directors, musicians, and religious leaders, each urging peace and order. You may not have noticed black protests against crime and violence, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened. Black Americans—like everyone else—are concerned with what happens in their communities, and at a certain point, pundits who insist otherwise are either lying or willfully ignorant."
So in addition to this complaint not really making any sense, it's manifestly untrue. In the wake of the recent Trump protests, a cool kids contingent has emerged that feels the need to ask, Where were these protesters during the Obama years? Again, while it’s useful to occasionally note the way partisan loyalty can cloud our judgment, constantly relitigating the Obama years while Trump wreaks havoc on our body politic can quickly cross over from “appeal to intellectual consistency” to “pointless, smug whataboutery." If people are just waking up to the crimes the American system levels against its vulnerable, then good! Organize and mobilize them, don’t browbeat them for being late to the party.
Objection #3: 'Boycotts hurt workers.'
Who says it: Hot take artists who like superficially subversive anti-liberal spin.
Why it makes no sense: It’s a dull evergreen tactic used by critics to undermine solidarity.
A recent example of this talking point was Politico’s Jack Shafer who tweeted out, “We must punish Uber drivers for what their corporate masters do” after thousands of people deleted their Uber apps to protest the tech giant’s CEO’s chummy relationship with the Trump administration as well as its flagrant undermining of a taxi strike over Trump's Muslim ban. Using Shafter’s logic, one could never engage in any boycott ever. From the bus boycotts of the 1950s Jim Crow south to the current BDS movement targeting Israel, all boycotts cause temporary financial harm to a corporation's workers.
Indeed, this was a common line used by corporations affected by the sanctions imposed on South Africa during apartheid in the 1980s. “We continue to believe that our presence and our actions have contributed greatly to economic and social progress for nonwhites,” American oil giant Mobil told the New York Times in 1989 as it finally left South Africa over the boycotts and sanctions.
Just as with those who say they are concerned about workers stuck in traffic or having to clean up after social unrest, those who feign outrage over workers affected by boycotts don’t actually care about their plight; they only care about their utility as a rhetorical bludgeon against social action.
Objection #4: 'These protests are all run by George Soros.'
Variations: Big Democratic donors are using the protests to stir unrest and push a radical leftist agenda.
Who says it: Typically right-wing trolls, though some leftists echo similar sentiments.
Why it makes no sense: It wildly overstates both the reach of George Soros and his goals.
While it is true that Soros does have sizeable influence in professional liberal spaces, this doesn’t make the overlapping protests any less legitimate. To the extent Soros exercises influence over left causes, he does so to fold them into a pro-Democratic Party mold, not to make them more radical as many on the right routinely allege. Soros cannot invent public outrage anymore than Putin can influence the voting patterns of Appalachian whites. The right wing has given George Soros near-omnipotence, with one widely spread false internet rumor about protesters being paid $2,500 to march against Trump even making it onto an Austin CBS affiliate. (At this rate Soros would have had to spend well over $7 billion in one day.)
The near-obsessive focus on Soros begins to verge on anti-Semitism, with the image of Soros as an all-powerful puppetmaster using unrest to push his far-left agenda. This is popular on far right and libertarian sites, as well as nominally left-friendly RT, which last June tweeted an expressly anti-Semitic reference to Soros not “getting his pound of flesh.”
So, while it’s important to keep an eye on how wealthy backers, including Soros, steer and shape leftist movements to suit their capitalist ends, it’s just as important to not descend into Glenn Beck-like dot connecting and paranoia.
Objection #5: 'These protests have too many fringe groups. I only like peaceful, centrist protests with ideologies I agree with.'
Variations: I support the message, but some of these groups are too extreme.
Who says it: Pristine liberals who don't support anything until it’s been sanctioned by the DNC, Vox and a team of lawyers.
Why it makes no sense: As with #1 on the list, there's literally not a single protest movement in history about which this could not have been said.
This was a popular left punching trope in the buildup to the Iraq war. Nominal liberals like David Corn and Michelle Goldberg would show up to a protest and mock communists, anarchists, Palestinian activists, Free Mumia partisans and a whole hosts of groups and issues they deemed kooky.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias recently derided the ANSWER coalition as “kooks who insert themselves into every protest.” But ANSWER didn’t “insert” itself into the anti-Trump protests; its members helped organize thousands to go to Washington, D.C. Same with the Iraq war: regardless of what one thinks of ANSWER's ideology, the group organized the only major anti-Iraq war rallies at the time, while liberals like Yglesias were actively supporting the war.
Put simply: It’s easy and cheap to punch left. To find the “fringe” elements and insist they are not the real protestors because their views are not sanctioned by the New York Times and glossy NGO’s. Mass movements are messy, and necessarily invite different groups who don’t always agree. Something centrist liberals scribbling their gripes at Vox and Salon and Slate would probably understand if they ever actually bothered to organize a protest.
Same for Black Lives Matter. After the major BLM umbrella groups came out in support of Palestinian liberation, what followed was a predictable deluge of white liberals concerned over the “singling out” of Israel.
It’s not relevant to the American black struggle, they insisted: stay in your lane! But the connections between Palestine and black America are obvious, up to and including their respective oppressors training and selling weapons to each other. BLM had crossed the line into explicit anti-imperialist ideology, and this was a step too far for the do-goody white liberals at The Atlantic.
Today, some remember the civil rights era as a time of uniformly peaceful protests, but what’s forgotten are that the fringe and radical elements—such as they existed—were much hyped by the media and the police at the time. One Associated Press report from the eve of the march on Selma insists that now-infamous Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark was getting a number of death threats from “members of Negro extremist groups."
Similar PR tactics were used during the Baltimore unrest in April 2015.
The Baltimore gang threat, VICE later revealed, was made up by the police out of whole cloth, just as the supposed threats against Jim Clark likely were. But the damage had been done in the minds of the casual observer: these movements were tainted by violence and should thus be avoided. The “fringe-ification” of protest movements as something unreasonable and kooky is an essential part of delegitimizing them. Not falling for these water-muddying tactics, employed by both the usual right-wing hacks and liberal careerists, helps make resistance more sustainable and robust. It’s best to err on the side of solidarity until thoroughly proven otherwise.
A slightly similar version of this list was first published in the wake of the Eric Garner protests in 2014.