Protest What?

By Robert Bernstein   |   May 21, 2024

Campuses are in turmoil across the U.S. with protests. I won’t discuss the substantive issues they are protesting. But I will raise this Big Question: How does an issue become a protest issue?

I claim that it is not based on what is most important or on what is most urgent. Clearly, some issues are very important and urgent, but no one has any idea how to solve them. They seem too big. And they may truly be outside our range of influence. Which leads to picking issues for less-than-ideal reasons.

Protest has a long and noble history, often with world-changing results. Change in one place can spread nationally and globally. We have limited time, so we pick our issues as a matter of taste and what we care most about. But, how often do we step back and consider the wide universe of issues demanding attention?

It has been said that “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war.” The same can be said for protests. Civil rights protests of the 1950s-1960s brought better lives to millions of oppressed minorities. Later generations saw past success and sought to relive that glory by seeking new oppressed minorities.

Something similar happened with past successes protesting wars and finding new wars to protest. But current situations may not be analogous to past situations. When Putin attacked Ukraine, many of my peace activist friends called for “peace.” They were thinking of past conflicts like Vietnam, where the U.S. got mired with tragic results. Others called for the U.S. to side with Ukraine to send military help. Thinking of “just wars” as against the Nazis.

At any given moment we can observe injustice and suffering on a vast scale. About 25,000 people die every day from hunger. About 1.5 billion people live without adequate shelter, including 650,000 in the U.S. Do we act based on numbers and degree of suffering? Or do we just respond to what makes it into the news headlines? Do we ever ask how things are chosen to be news headlines?

An issue may be urgent and important even if there is little or no injustice or suffering. How? If we don’t properly plan for the future. The Climate Crisis is “only” costing billions of dollars and displacing millions of people now. But, if we don’t act now, it will eventually cost trillions and displace billions.

Lancet Planetary Health reported in 2021 on an international survey of 10,000 people, aged 16-25. Sixty percent described themselves as very worried about the climate and nearly half said the anxiety affects their daily functioning.

This is a far bigger percentage than any other issue. Yet, it is not generating massive protests. As a student in the 1970s I remember huge protests against nuclear power, yet very little against nuclear weapons. One explanation: The nuclear weapons issue seemed too big for change. But climate solutions are possible if we demand them.

Emotions drive people. They care about cute puppies and kittens, but largely ignore the vast suffering of farm animals. Or the global threat of extinction of less cute animals.

Policy change is not just about protests. Sometimes it is about well-informed people reaching out to policy makers and making a good case. Sometimes, the two can complement each other. Progress in civil rights and the environment have come from both, used in conjunction.

Protests should not be a substitute for true understanding of the complexities of an issue. Nor should they be a substitute for the boring work of quietly working with policy makers toward good solutions.

I get it that we should protest if our government is supporting something awful, even if it is not the biggest issue in the world. I organized protests against Reagan’s atrocities in Central America because we were clearly supporting the wrong side. Sides are rarely so clear. Millions rightfully protested the utterly unjustified war W. Bush waged in Iraq. Wisely, before it started.

But can we also take time to see the bigger landscape of issues that really are urgent and important? Rather than being swept along by the fashionable issue of the day?  


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