My oldest daughter, Julia, was one of the 700 protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Oct. 1, Occupy Wall Street march. I first learned about it from my youngest daughter. She was on Facebook when Julia posted that she was about to get arrested. I checked in via text and confirmed that Julia was safe. She spent 4-5 hours handcuffed in police custody but was eventually released because her arresting officer never collected her and the three others in her arrest group.
Since that time, Julia has been a regular part of the Occupy Wall Street occupation in Zucotti park. Between work and community responsibilities, she treks down to the park, listens in on general assemblies and participates in teaching groups.
When I’ve talked to people about it, their initial response is usually negative. We are conditioned to believe getting arrested is always a bad thing and means you have done something wrong. Especially in white, upper middle-class, rural communities. That conditioning is a large part of why the world is the way it is. In a world of “haves” and “have nots”, the “haves” don’t want to become the “have nots” so they usually don’t rock the boat, even when they know the boat is on top of the “have nots” and they are drowning. However, there are some folks, with a latent activist bent, that are excited. No small number of people have responded by saying “We all knew this would happen eventually.” (Julia’s idea of Spring Break fun was providing direct material aid to undocumented immigrants in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, home of the most repressive immigration laws in the union) Some people, like my mom, are constantly worried about her. We don’t do much protesting in Metamora, IL so it’s a bit of a new thing. Needless to say, the responses are as varied as those who give them.
All of this has left me asking how to support activists in your family and faith community?
This is what I’ve come up with so far;
- Remember that the right to free assembly, free speech, and free association are the backbone of any democracy. Our nation began with acts of protest that crossed the line into criminal trespass, destruction of property, interfering with commerce and treason. Remember the Boston Tea Party? At the same time, disciplined, non-violent direct action as accomplished such things as workers rights, the right for women to vote and federal civil rights legislation. For any democracy to truly function as such, people need to have the freedom to protest. It’s an important part of our social and political history as a nation.
- You can support an activist you know without agreeing with them. It’s here that those who form a community of support around activists can play a big role. Our job is to make sure that as they protest publicly and without acts of violence, that they are treated fairly and justly by the structures they are challenging. Agree or not with the position, people in the United States should be able to state that position publicly and peacefully without fear of intimidation, coercion, retribution or violence.
- Learn through their participation. One thing that is nice about Julia’s involvement in Occupy Wall Street is that I have a first-hand source of information. I don’t have to rely on CNN or FOX News to tell me what’s going on, I can ask Julia. Before you form opinions about a particular action or protest, learn as much as you can about what they are doing and why. Withhold judgement and engage in dialog with others, especially if you find you disagree with them.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you know activists, communicate with them. Know when they are planning to protest. Know when they are expecting the protest to conclude. Check in before and after. Double check that they are following safe practices for protests (things like always protest with a partner so you can look out for each other, keep phone numbers for legal aid on your person in multiple locations, don’t rely on your cell phone which could be confiscated upon arrest, etc.)
- Engage multiple sources of news and information. Don’t just listen to the news station you like. Listen to FOX and CNN. Read your local paper and a major city paper like the Chicago Triubune or the New York Times. Seek out alternate media. Follow protests on twitter by learning and following the appropriate #. Find out if protest organizers have a Facebook page. I can tell in very short order where a person gets their news and how many divergent sources they check. Biased caricatures are easy to spot. The truth is not one dimensional.
- For faith communities, pray with and for the activist if possible. Sometimes, like in my case, they are too far away. Even so, you can pray for them where you are. If you know when they are protesting pray before, during and after.
- Join in when possible. The best way to understand a group’s message and methodology is to jump in and see first hand what’s going on. It takes courage to protest publicly. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s necessary at times. Much of what we take for granted today was won through hard fought battles that involved courage, risk and personal sacrifice. Don’t criticize others from a distance if you aren’t willing to put yourself on the line for what you believe.