Protestors: They March for Themselves

Michael J. Totten describes his slow transformation from a protestor of the 1991 Gulf War into one who is mostly bemused by such demonstrators in a TCS piece entitled, “They March for Themselves.”

On the day President Bush was re-inaugurated, protesters clogged the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon with their usual lashing-out-in-your-face performance-art shtick. It took me thirty minutes to get home. It usually takes me five. Almost 80 percent of Multnomah County, which includes downtown Portland, voted for John Kerry. You have to go out into the eastern suburbs toward Mt. Hood before you’ll find a place where Bush supporters number significantly above 20 percent. So what, exactly, was the point of blockading and snarling tens of thousands of fellow Kerry-voters in traffic?

The objective certainly wasn’t to persuade them to vote differently next time. Nor did the protest have any chance whatever of changing the outcome of the election or preventing Bush’s inauguration. The activists marched for themselves. They were their own audience. Everyone else was a prop. Everyone else’s eyes were mere mirrors. If they had any practical effect on the ground it was the alienation of their moderate allies.


I don’t think protesting is necessarily the wrong way to go about making a political statement. The civil rights movement clearly was bolstered by protests. (Besides, white supremacists deserved to be confronted in the streets by their properly furious countrymen.) But blockading city streets and rankling your own political allies is one of the more ridiculous ways a person can spend time and energy. Truly, there are better and more productive ways to get therapy. A grown-up discussion is oxygen for a healthy democracy. But our democracy does not need, and has no use for, losers who pointlessly lash out in anger at their own community.

I don’t want to deny anyone’s right to protest. This is America, not Syria. Still, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Disgruntled Bush-haters have every right go to door to door in their neighborhoods and tell everyone to piss off. But they really ought not.

Indeed. And, frankly, while the right of people to express their dissatisfaction with their government should not be impeded, it may be time to seriously clamp down on this particular form of protest. It was one thing in a time before automobiles and traffic jams. But allowing people “marching for themselves” to disrupt the lives of their countrymen (who also get the added insult of having to bear the cost of thousands of dollars in police overtime and additional trash pickup) is too high a price to pay for their self-expression.

We have established over the course of decades that, while one’s right to get one’s message out is absolute, restrictions on time, place, and manner are perfectly reasonable. If the manner of one’s expression significantly interferes with the rights of others, the public has a right to put limits on it.

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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. Mikey says:

    Lee Harris had an article in Policy Review back in August of 2002 that talked of fantasy ideologies, of people who create a fantasy world wherein they are important. It was called “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology” and I recommend it.

    It sounds like Mr. Totten ran into a bunch of fantasists also.

  2. Emily says:

    I used to live in Seattle (which votes much the same way as Portland) and there I discovered that protesting was often viewed as something to do when you were bored. I once had a friend of mine tell me that he had no weekend plans so he was going to go downtown to a protest “teach-in” to see if he wanted to join whatever the protest du jour was (no joke). And while I fully support their right to protest, it seems incredibly stupid to have a bunch of ill-informed (and often un-informed) people block traffic and waste tax dollars seemingly just for the fun of it.

  3. BigFire says:

    Re: Emily

    Lets not forget, a good place to pick up easy date.