The Art of the Protest

There was anticipation in our house in the weeks leading up to the protest. Bags had been packed, bus tickets bought; plans made in advance. It rained on the morning that we were due to leave but that didn’t matter. My suitcase still accompanied me through New York streets to meetings before being pushed into the undercarriage of a bus with other bags and backpacks. Destination: The Women’s March, Washington, January 20, 2017. This wasn't the first march that I'd been on but I was by no means versed in the art of protesting. The year before, I’d joined thousands of others on Broadway in support of Black Lives Matter armed only with a fist and slogans. “Don’t shoot,” the crowd shouted in unison. Then, “I can’t breathe” or “No justice! No peace!” Our presence and our words were intended as a collective objection to police brutality against black Americans, and particularly in reference police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. There were bodies of all shapes, sizes, and creeds there that day, children and a man in a wheelchair, and all of us had journeyed there with the same intention. We believed in something and we were going to do something about it. Our aim wasn’t commercial, or for individual gain, it was for something far greater; a sense of unity and a belief in the sanctity of justice and the value of human life. “Thank you,” a black woman said to me as we walked uptown. The fact that she felt she needed to show gratitude brought tears to my eyes.

The Woman’s March was similarly peaceful, except this time I held a sign made from bright pink colored card with “Pussy Power” scrawled in black marker above woman’s badly drawn legs. This time, I felt more prepared. However, nothing could have prepared me for the thousands of pink knitted hats that filled the streets, or the sheer variety of banners and signs proclaiming feminist slogans, or the overwhelming sense of peace, solidarity, and purpose in front of one of America’s most iconic buildings: the White House. Or, the fact that more than 600 similar marches were taking place in 60 other countries, again because we believed and it didn’t take much. Just a body and a mind with the intent to unify with something greater than itself, for something greater than the self. Perhaps there is an art to protesting. Martin Luther King might have thought so. He believed, like Mahātmā Gandhi, that taking a stand doesn’t need to be necessarily premised on violence. One might just, “take a knee.” It’s an incredibly simple gesture usually associated with the marriage proposal but within an American football context, it signals the end of play. When a footballer kneels, the gesture allows him to run down the clock whilst his team is still in possession of the ball — as a way of securing victory.

What might be the point of taking a knee outside of play? Perhaps, at its essence, is the ability to choose. I chose to get on the bus to Washington that day. Millions of other people around the world did the same thing. We had freedom of choice but often it's not until our freedoms come under threat that we decide to do something. Knowledge, education, and the rule of law are all essential in this process. History provides evidence of our mistakes. Hopefully, the ball doesn’t have to be lost, forcing a game, or the act of taking a knee before play. But in the event that it is, I can take a seat on the bus, and join with others, or wave a pink pussy power sign. In some parts of the world, there are no buses. At times throughout history, drawing on a poster board in aid of a cause was banned and acts like taking a knee inspired more than a few angry tweets. But these acts aren’t done without good reason and noble cause. The choice is then whether or not to take action. There is freedom in that and therein lies the truth.