Why We Protest

Paying attention is the first step toward justice.
Protest against police brutality in Dallas, June 6, 2020 (Matthew T. Rader/Wikimedia Commons)

We knelt in the middle of Irving Boulevard on a hot June evening. It was 97 degrees at 7 p.m., and the heat was still radiating from the asphalt. People held their fists in the air. I prayed the rosary silently and was interrupted midway through the third decade. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds is too short for a rosary, but it’s a long time to kneel on hot asphalt, even if you’re on only one knee.

This was a Black Lives Matter protest, and it called to mind the first—and in some ways very different—protest I ever attended: a March for Life in New Haven, Connecticut. I recall wondering then, “What if people think I’m like those people?”—the ones carrying the “DEFUND PLANNED PARENTHOOD” signs with the Knights of Columbus logos on the bottom. It wasn’t so much the words on the sign that bothered me, and I’m a Knight myself. But I was uncomfortable with the idea that I might be associated with the kind of people who would carry such a sign. The horde of cassocked seminarians didn’t help, either. I felt nervous, as if friends in town would see me and think…what, exactly? “There he goes, trying to control women’s bodies”? I regret to say that my strongest memory of that day is this feeling of fear. In the words of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility, I have not yet been delivered “from the fear of being suspected.”

I was embarrassed to display a rosary at a pro-life protest. But I would have been embarrassed not to display a rosary at the Black Lives Matter protest. Why? Was I afraid that someone might think I was there only because I’m a boring, virtue-signaling liberal—the kind of person eager for any chance to perform his political righteousness? I told myself the self-comforting half-truth that I was not such a person: my motivations, I assured myself, were altogether different. I was one who hungers for justice, a soldier of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose God scatters the proud, casts down the mighty, and raises up the lowly. My true motivations, surely, were somewhere in the murky middle.

In the United States, we tend to call such events “protests,” “demonstrations, or “marches” when we like them—and “riots” when we don’t.

“The Irving protest/riot is starting now. Please be praying for safety and protection for all down there.” So ran the email on the local listserv for Catholics. The thread predictably exploded over that simple slash mark: Was this a protest, a riot, both, or something else entirely? In the United States, we tend to call such events “protests,” “demonstrations, or “marches” when we like them—and “riots” when we don’t. The French term for such events, manif (short for manifestation), helpfully suggests that a demonstration manifests something that might otherwise have remained unnoticed. 

I’ve attended just three protests in my life: that March for Life in New Haven, a graduate-student unionization rally in New York City, and the Black Lives Matter protest in Irving, Texas. Public protests for racial justice are sometimes dismissively compared to religious rituals as a way to write off protestors as deluded followers of “woke religion.” But in fact there is something to the comparison between a protest and a religious ritual, as I discovered at the three I attended.

Skeptics ask “What do the protestors actually want?” But to complain that protestors’ aims are not wholly clear is to misunderstand what a protest is. It’s like asking what those who participate in a Eucharistic procession want. What do they want? They want to do their processing, visibly and joyfully, and thereby to show us something. Moreover, they want you to behold, and then join them.

At all the protests I attended, the individual messages on people’s signs sometimes embarrassed me, as did most of the chants. But I can see now that my squeamishness about my fellow marchers’ messages is beside the point. The particular words matter far less than the sheer force of bodies assembled and in motion, bodies that say “We care enough to show up here at the same time, to risk being misunderstood by outsiders and embarrassed by one another.”

All three of the protests I’ve attended were marked by a desire to mourn and memorialize.

More than a statement, though, protests are acts—often acts of mourning and remembrance. All three of the protests I’ve attended were marked by a desire to mourn and memorialize. This was perhaps most obvious in the case of the Black Lives Matter protest, which was dominated by chants of “Say his name! George Floyd!” and “Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” We demanded that these two Black victims of police misconduct be remembered, together with the long history of violence against Black Americans. The March for Life I attended involved a rosary walk around downtown, with stops at the courthouse and city hall. Apart from a few hecklers (I’ve never forgotten the one who shouted, “Look everyone! A demonstration in support of coat hangers!”), there were only about a hundred of us. But in a sleepy, comfortably liberal college town, our protest was an uncomfortable action: a refusal to forget the killing of the unborn. For its part, the rally for graduate-student unionization was a different kind of mourning. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at striking graduate students—more “first-world problems”—but we were mourning the breaking of an implicit bargain between the university and the student-teachers on whom it depends. We were also mourning a lost, and perhaps largely imaginary, midcentury America in which work stoppages could force the holders of capital to share the country’s wealth.

For some of us, at least, acts of mourning and remembrance are also about making reparation for our own sins of omission. When we do not notice something we ought to have noticed, that is an omission. When we do not remember what we ought to have remembered, that, too, is an omission. And these two kinds of omission are often related: we forget or fail to notice in the first place because we do not care enough. This failure to care enough about injustice—whether it’s violence against Black people or unborn children, or the exploitation of labor—is a sin of omission.

It can be hard to make reparation for such sins. If I carelessly break one of my wife’s tea cups, I can repair the damage by replacing the object. But how can I repair the damage caused by these sins of omission—failures to notice, to look, to remember? To repair these sins would seem to require, at the very least, a corresponding act of noticing, looking, or remembering. And this is one of the things that a demonstration can do. As an act of remembrance and mourning, it can also become an act of reparation: modest and insufficient, but real. By participating in a protest, one makes visible—one manifests—what one had forgotten or looked away from. That’s the least we can do, even when it’s not all we can do. 

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

Michael West teaches English at the University of Dallas.

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