Chicago was inundated with people this weekend. Sections of important highway and shops lay off limits as people dreamed about the time they would save if only they were open; trains stalled on their tracks, and hordes of people working downtown were given days off. On a personal note, I decided not to leave home, fearful that I would get stuck on the opposite side of town with nowhere to go. Hubbub like this is rare in the Windy City, if not entirely uncommon: Obama being in town will cause an unusual ruckus, but nothing like this weekend. The congestion, however, wasn’t because of any event particular to Chicago. No, this weekend, NATO was in town. This weekend my sweet home of Chicago was filled with not only anger and anxiety, but also unnerving anticipation. The city, just to be safe, procured extra police from around the Midwest to help out with the impending crowd.
The real reason for the brouhaha was the promise of thousands of angry protestors bent upon (supposedly) leaving as much destruction in their wakes as they possibly could (as far as I can tell this expectation was, besides one incident, way off). In the days leading up to the event, I heard and read about various plots that the police had, fortunately, foiled that aimed to do extensive damage to whatever they could. For somebody with little to no knowledge regarding the activities and antics of NATO (especially its fierce opposition), the hullabaloo was astonished. Protesting seemed to be all the rage, but I decided not to protest for a number of reasons—chief among them the fact that I knew little about the group. Granted, a cursory glance at the newspaper or a superficial Google search would easily give me something to protest, but I thought that protesting something I had only briefly read about was disingenuous to the very purpose of protesting.
Interestingly, though, I found my friends and my parents talking about the possibility of protesting. One friend suggested that, “if we can’t find anything else to do, we could go protest. It’d be fun.” And while I acknowledged that it would probably be fun, the very idea was somewhat off-putting. Protesting, I thought, necessarily entailed that I have some sort of passion for what I was protesting; it wasn’t something that I could just jump straight into for, literally, the “fun” of it.
The fact that my friend considered protesting simply as something to do made me question (perhaps unfairly) all of the people who were protesting: were they doing it for fun, for attention, or because they actually cared about what they were protesting? How many of the people who would be marching the streets of Chicago actually cared, or even knew, what they were protesting? Because of my doubts as to the protestors’ sincerity, I got into a heated discussion with a different friend who told me she would go to protest despite having no idea what she would be protesting: “I’m going to do research tonight,” she assured me.
“Huh?” I thought. Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of protesting?
Her argument, however, was a bit more nuanced than simply finding “something” about which to protest. She wanted to protest NATO because not protesting necessarily meant that she tacitly consented to its actions and existence. In other words, regardless of how she would ultimately feel if she were to really do research on the subject, not protesting gave NATO the go-ahead—it gave it her approval. If she didn’t protest, she would be accepting of NATO, regardless of if she actually were.
Which got me thinking that, even if I recognize that not protesting means that through passivity one consents to, in this case, NATO, I’m not sure that this necessarily makes protesting a better option than not protesting. Without knowing anything about NATO, isn’t protesting irresponsible because it necessarily means that I disapprove of it even if I know nothing about it? I might agree, but I’m not sure that makes protesting for the sake of protesting right. Don’t I have some obligation to know what I’m protesting?
There seems to be a general consensus that NATO caused less of a frenzy than we’d expected. Nonetheless, I think the event raised important questions: why, and how, do we protest? Is protesting really such a fundamental part of a free, equal, and just society that people can, and will, do it just because they want to have fun on a Saturday afternoon? Is there something wrong with doing it for fun, or is it democracy at its best? Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, but I have my doubts that this is the essence of the United States. I’ll acknowledge that I can, and maybe should, be faulted for my lack of knowledge as it pertains to NATO, but I believe one ought to have a deeper understanding of what it is one protests before choosing to exercise his/her right to free speech. Maybe it’s my duty to know what is going on in the world and ergo to protest, but I’m not convinced that it’s my duty to protest only for the sake of protesting. I would happily and vigorously protest something about which I passionate, but I feel wrong getting up and protesting something about which I don’t.
Image from: http://www.mobiledia.com/news/143405.html