Monday, December 8, 2014

In Praise of Protest and Patriots: Then and Now

Protest (noun) 1. an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid      
 ---Random House Dictionary

He was the United States’ first famous protester, the very first dissenter in a still to be born nation. Hailing from Framingham, Massachusetts, he joined a group of protesters on a cold and slushy winter day 244 years ago, in downtown Boston, to confront unjust governmental power.  Troops on one side. Dissenters on the other.  Accounts of what happened that March day are sketchy at best.  Icy snowballs may have been thrown.  Those trying to keep the peace certainly felt threatened.  Guns were raised.  Guns were fired.  Five men fell. One man among those martyrs is considered the first casualty of the Revolutionary War and the fight for independence.

If you were paying attention in your grade school history class maybe you can still recall his name: Crispus Attucks.  Victim number one in what came to be remembered as the Boston Massacre.  That Attucks was a person of color, a freeman, a former slave, makes this tale all the more amazing.  If you want to see his grave, make your way to the Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston, over by the Common.  He is interred beside other notable U.S. protestors: John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams. 

I couldn’t help but think about Attucks last week when thousands of protesters descended on the streets of Boston, to peacefully protest the recent deaths of two unarmed men of color, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Those dissenters were among hundreds of thousands of Americans who also took to the streets around the country.  They blocked traffic.  Got arrested.  Prayed.  Sang. Chanted.  Organized for action.  Worked for change.

I’m the first to admit that I’m no protester, not one to hold a sign or march or risk arrest in the cause of dissension.  I’d rather use words on a page: that’s my style.  But I have to say how grateful I am to those protesters. For their courage. For their energy. For their conviction. For their willingness to put their bodies on the line in a cause greater than themselves.  For their unwillingness to accept the status quo, and to instead embody the anger and sadness so many Americans are feeling these days.

I’m grateful too for the hundreds of police officers who oversaw, in a way, the protests; who overwhelmingly, with calm and grace and professionalism, protected those protesters’ first amendment rights, who did their best to keep every one safe.  Yes there were shouting matches.  There was disruption to cars on the road, to life as usual.  But for the most part Boston did well in protest, some of which took place not very far from Attucks’ headstone.

There’s something very powerful about that convergence, of history then, history now.  It’s easy to forget that the United States was created out of protest.  Protest is a part of our civic DNA.  Every single major social reformation in our nation was first born in the hearts of those who dared to dissent: to say those in power: “NO!”  Protesters who had and have the determination to speak truth to power and push back against the government, any authority which tyrannizes and threatens individual freedom, the right of every single citizen to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So I just hope and pray we can all remember this history, in the days and weeks ahead, as our nation wrestles with the most profound of questions: how can the United States get to a place where all of its citizens, regardless of race, enjoy equal treatment under the law?  It’s that basic. It’s that clear.  It’s why so many peacefully protest.

Yes: there will always be the cynics among us who decry protest, who insist upon focusing on the very few who turn violent, who see protest as a nuisance, or acting out, or a threat.  Even “un-American”!

Not me. Instead I’m ever thankful that I live in a land where the people can freely and fully confront the powers that be and then work to make a difference. Protest on behalf of fellow Americans who experience powerlessness and fear.  Give voice to the hope that since all people are created equal in the eyes of God, they therefore deserve all the benefits and protections which accompany this truth.

So…thank you protesters. And thank you Crispus Attucks.

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