Whither Protest?

Tom Hayden has an op-ed in today’s Newsday calling for 1960’s-style protests at the Republican National Convention:

Protest, even more than property, is a sacred resource of American society. It begins with radical minorities at the margins, eventually marching into the mainstream, where their views become the majority sentiment. Prophetic minorities instigated the American Revolution, ended slavery, achieved the vote for women, made trade unions possible, and saved our rivers from becoming sewers.

Protest by its nature challenges authority. It cannot be managed or commodified without losing its essence.

The first American revolutionaries were “rude and insolent rabble” to John Adams, who nevertheless became president in their wake. Abigail Adams warned her husband in 1776 to remember that “if particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.” The former slave Frederick Douglass advised the timid liberals of his time that “those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”

Shall we trade this rich heritage for the convenience of those who want to preserve their Republican authority, like the grass in Central Park, from being impacted by our marching feet? For those who would manage protesters like so many wild beasts in cages? For those who infect our culture with the false claim that in a time of terror we must fear dissent?

Wait a minute, here. Didn’t the Democrats do the same thing in Boston? Why is this suddenly a partisan issue? Surely, both sides–indeed, any organized event–has a natural desire to present its own message without having it overshadowed by uninvited guests? Time, place, and manner restrictions on speech have long been upheld by the courts even when it’s government doing it. Surely, private groups paying to host an event should have even more latitude. Shouldn’t the debate, therefore, be on where to draw the line?

Dissent must come alive in New York City. Dissent against an unelected government that misled us into an unnecessary war that has cost nearly 1,000 American lives and $200 billion that could have been invested in health care. .

This is simply a nutty position to take. We had an election and, by the rules that have been in place since the early 1800s or so, George W. Bush won the presidency. Furthermore, we had 435 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives (twice!) and have elected 66 or 67 of the 100 U.S. Senators since 2000. Even if one thinks Al Gore should be president now, there is no one that I’m aware of that seriously argues that the Democrats got screwed out of majorities in both Houses of Congress. Given that Congress overwhelmingly voted to authorize Bush to take us to war with Iraq and appropriated the billions to finance it, how is it that an “unelected government” did it?

Dissent against the hysteria that leads New York’s Proudest to throw a hammerlock on Mike Wallace and have the impunity to claim that this 86-year-old man “lunged” at them

Look, I agree that the parking cops overreacted to Wallace. It’s a problem when we give arrest authority to low skilled people and then give them a boring job, no respect, and constant grief from the public in a dysfunctional parking system. But none of that is the Republicans’ fault!

The Bronx Cheer should not be stilled.

Nor the raspberry! Or the middle finger salute!

Certainly New York’s Republican mayor and the police are doing what they can to provoke, anger and divide the groups planning to show that it’s still a free country.

Huh? (And, really, Bloomberg is a Republican in roughly the same sense Zell Miller is a Democrat. Hell, less so, since at least Miller has always called himself a Democrat.)

The editorial doesn’t get any less nutty after that point. Honestly, he brings up a good point. But it’s clearly one that goes beyond party lines and one that needs rational analysis. It’s something I’ve thought about from time-to-time and, frankly, haven’t come any closer to a solution. Theoretically, people have an absolute right to assemble. On the other hand, allowing thousands of people to gather whenever and wherever they feel like it would shut down the economy and ultimately stifle the free expression that it purports to achieve.

FILED UNDER: Policing, The Presidency, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    What escapes Mr. Hayden and is frequently ignored is context. Disruptive protest and Gandhi-style passive resistance are immoral in the context of representative government. Well what about the civil rights protests of the 1960’s (I hear someone ask)? In the south at that time representative government had been perverted and consequently protest and passive resistance were warranted and moral.

    There is no comparable perversion of representative government today in the United States gerrymandering and “safe seats” notwithstanding. In this context disruptive protesting and passive resistance are immoral usurpations. Simple thuggery and hooliganism.

  2. La Femme Crickita says:

    He wants a gang rape of the Republican convention
    and NY ain’t buying it. The traffic alone would be a logistics nightmare.

  3. Mike says:

    It sounds to me that Mr. Hayden is trying to regain the glories of his youth, the bright and shining moment when he was center stage. Kind of sad, really.

  4. BigFire says:

    Re: Mike

    No, he’s just having his usual acid flashback from those glory days. Unfortunately for those of us in California, he decided to go into politics here, and found enough people to vote for him.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    and found enough people to vote for him.

    In the People’s Republic of Santa Monica.

  6. Dodd says:

    Protest, even more than property, is a sacred resource of American society.

    That is easily the stupidest statement I have read all week.