It was a hot Sunday in late August when I marched on New York City with a sign in my hand that declared “Bombing for Peace is like Fucking for Virginity.” It was 2004 and my country was engaged in an unconstitutional war. There were half a million other protesters gathered outside the Republican National Convention that day. The night before, my mother had been reminiscing about protesting during the Vietnam War. She told me about the chaos after the Kent State massacre and I imagined those four million striking students in 1970.
Then it was 2011, and the movement was Occupy Wall Street, with hundreds of thousands of participants across the country. Word of protesters clashing with cops drew my attention, so I found my local Occupy campers and dropped off supplies even though I couldn’t stay. There was so much activity. I loved knowing this was happening because protest is such an American tradition.
In November of 2011, a massive coordinated crackdown of the Occupy camps was undertaken by authorities across the country and since then, large, in-person protests seem to have all but died out in the United States. Now we are seeing an increasing militarization of our police force and a Department of Defense which behaves as though protest isn’t a Constitutionally protected right. During the Occupy crackdown, police prevented reporters and media from access to the protesters or sites, resorting to manhandling and arrests.
From bans on public camping to local designation of “free speech zones” to the Trespass Bill (which makes it a federal offense to “create a disturbance” at political events where the Secret Service has jurisdiction), the people’s ability to assemble and protest seems to be rapidly diminishing in this “free country” of ours.
The rest of the world still seems willing to take to the streets. Where are the Americans?
Coordinated online protests have taken shape in recent years, from spontaneous Twitter hashtag activism to the well-coordinated 2012 Protests Against SOPA & PIPA. I’m honestly not sure if people today are just lazier or more efficient, but there’s no doubt that the Internet and social media is giving rise to new activism networks; and you no longer need a million people to show up in one place at one time to cause a stir.
In this, there may be a reduction of the human element. It’s easier to say terrible things to people from behind a computer screen. So too, sometimes things just don’t feel as “real” as when you’re there in person. There are also benefits; we no longer risk violence, arrest, or pepper spray straight to the face. The government has no virtual gun to hold against activists online to make them comply. It cannot control us in this new medium. Meanwhile, Internet outrage is all the rage now: maybe our millions marching are typing now instead.
The protest, then, hasn’t been oppressed, it’s simply been uploaded.