Protesting is American, Just Ask Thoreau

These days are divisive in the US. In addition to mask-wearing, schooling complications, and the efficacy of various vaccines, everyone has an opinion about the protests (whether they talk about it or not) and the controversies related to them: kneeling during the national anthem, removing Confederate monuments, defunding police, and more.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), in my own state of Missouri, legislation was introduced on July 27 of this year that would increase penalties for blocking roads. Since tracking began in November 2016, 129 bills have been introduced that would place restrictions on protests; 26 of those bills have passed (2 with adjustments).

I hear the term protester drip out of mouths like a bad word. I hear people say that protesters should just leave the country. However, as an English teacher that spends a lot of time in and around the world of American literature specifically, I think we forget how American protesting really is. (It’s more American than Chicago deep dish, Route 66, the Budweiser Clydesdale horses marching out during Super Bowl commercials, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry! Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away.)

Just the other day I was reading some Thoreau, and it got me thinking about the current state of civil unrest in our country. We often forget that Thoreau, beloved Walden author, also penned an essay entitled Civil Disobedience which protested slavery and the Mexican-American War and was an influence on the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, many of our American “heroes” were protesters. (I use heroes in quotation marks because I’ve listed several examples, some controversial, some widely accepted.)

  • Puritan, separatist Pilgrims leaving the Church of England
  • Rebels of the Revolutionary War protesting British rule
  • Secessionists for the Confederate South
  • Frederick Douglass and other Abolitionists
  • Susan B. Anthony and the suffragists
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement
  • Anti-war protesters especially during the Vietnam War
  • Pro-choice marches
  • Pro-life marches

The list goes on.

Of course, the current protests are controversial due to property damage and violence that has resulted from many sides (law enforcement; demonstrators; and rogue, non-affiliated rabble-rousers). But whatever we say about protests, “anti-American” just doesn’t hold up.

There will never be a perfect society. Sir Thomas More’s ambiguous 16th-century Utopia satirically envisioned a perfect world, but it was created by a staunch establishmentarian institutionalist, a Catholic who, as Lord High Chancellor, persecuted Protestants. Rather, every society has evolved to its current state through myriad protests, movements, reformations, and counter-reformations ad nauseam. Whatever your feelings about any one particular protest, there’s no denying that protests in general form part of the backbone of progressive nations. Thus, we are watching the shaping of societies unfold before our eyes (and maybe even taking part in that history ourselves!).

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