There is no such thing as a comfortable protest. Making someone — or a whole lot of someones — very uncomfortable is the point. For example, I may stand in front of my bathroom mirror, wave my fists in the air and make fiery speeches to no one but myself, but I call that venting — not protest.
In other words, for a protest to be effective it helps to have an audience other than yourself. Furthermore, it’s usually considered appropriate protest behavior to annoy or inconvenience others, even to make them think. Remember the protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War? Think of the anti-abortion and pro-choice protests and most recently, of the protests around the world opposing the looming U.S. attack on Iraq. Becoming a public nuisance gives protesters the spotlight they seek.
Protest is not polite. That probably seems obvious to some of you, and for that I want to apologize. But plenty of folks keep missing the point. After spending about a week listening to and reading commentaries by some of my fellow pundits both locally and around the country, it does seem that plenty of them have forgotten the meaning of protest. Or maybe they never really understood.
I’m here to help.
In case you hadn’t figured out what this is all leading up to, I’m talking about Toni Smith, the basketball player for little Division III Manhattanville College outside of New York City, the woman who has caused all kinds of ruckus for turning her back to the flag during the national anthem at the beginning of each game. This is her way of protesting the war that President Bush seems so determined to launch no matter what anyone else in the world thinks.
Seems to me that Smith, a senior guard-forward and a sociology major, is simply exercising her right to protest the war. Like her, the hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world who have taken to the streets seem to agree that silent disagreement with warmongering will no longer work. Just complaining to friends won’t cut it either; neither will cursing the television every time Bush’s face appears. Smith wants to make a statement — a statement of protest — that war is not the answer. And in her written comments released to the media, she made a broader statement of protest as well: “For some time now, the inequities that are embedded in the American system have bothered me. As they have become progressively worse and it is clear that the government’s priorities are not on bettering the quality of life for all of its people, but rather on expanding its own power, I cannot, in good conscience, salute the flag.”
To me, what Smith is doing takes a lot more guts than marching with thousands of other people who share your views. Don’t get me wrong — I am not calling marchers cowards for marching in large groups. Marching is great. All I’m saying is that it is considerably more difficult to stand alone for what you believe, amid all the sneering and misguided criticism, than it is to stand in a crowd.
Smith’s protests were uneventful until Manhattanville played the Merchant Marine Academy last month. Midshipmen waved flags, beginning counterprotests and bringing the 1,400-student school more attention than it’s ever had. There have been jeers, and chants of “leave the country” from the stands. A Vietnam veteran was escorted from a game after he confronted Smith on the court midgame, as he carried an American flag.
It shouldn’t have come as a shock, not even to Smith, that eventually folks would get pissed off about what she’s been doing. But what is surprising is the criticism Smith has received from various members of the press, the great defenders of free speech.
The basic tone of the criticism seems to be that Smith is being selfish. If she wants to protest on her own time away from the basketball court then fine, but Smith’s decision to disturb the holy game of basketball by forcing folks to think about something a tad more urgent than rebounds and three-pointers is apparently unforgivable. She should think more about being part of a college team, and less about a war that threatens to drag her nation into a swamp bubbling over with trouble. She needs to get her priorities straight.
She needs to shut up, is what the critics are really saying. She needs to shut up because she’s making people uncomfortable. Toni Smith is not being a team player; not on her basketball team and not on Team America, where all good patriots know better than to question the wisdom of their elected leaders.
The criticism is ridiculous. Not only should Smith be entitled to her First Amendment right of free speech on the basketball court, she should be getting a whole lot more support for her stance from all these flag-waving patriots who could take a lesson from her about what real patriotism means, namely caring about your country enough to speak out when you believe it’s headed the wrong way. Or as Smith said in her written statement: “Any true patriot must acknowledge and respect my right to be different.”
I would issue the same advice to some of my colleagues in the media who love nothing better than to throw fits whenever any effort is made to abbreviate our right to make thousands of people uncomfortable every day simply by expressing our thoughts and opinions publicly.
While we’re getting paid for our opinions, Smith is paying the price for hers.
While we’re on the subject of effective protest, it appears one of America’s most celebrated civil rights protesters, Rosa Parks, declined an invitation to appear at the NAACP’s annual Image Awards last Saturday. Parks balked when she discovered the host would be Cedric the Entertainer, who made some rather barbed comments about Parks in his role in the movie Barbershop.
With all due respect to Parks — who is due all the respect any one American could possibly be due — this issue was already overblown when the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton publicly demanded an apology from the movie’s creator. That was ridiculous. Refusing to even attend the ceremony simply because of the presence of the actor whose character made the comment is, I think, perhaps being a bit too sensitive. Wouldn’t it have been that much more effective to attend and personally approach Cedric? Believe me, that is an encounter the man would have remembered.
We all would have taken notice.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org