I’ve done my share of protesting in life. In 1969, I joined a half million protesters in Washington, D.C. in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam - and was sprayed with tear gas. At a similar rally in New York City’s Bryant Park I saw fellow demonstrators clubbed by police and witnessed its rapid transformation from peaceful protest to street violence.
In the winter of 2004, I joined other Vermonters at monthly rallies opposing the war in Iraq. A line of us stood bundled against the blowing snow, holding signs for passing ski traffic to see. No tear gas, no clubs and no sirens, just frozen feet. But let’s face it - protesting ain’t supposed to be easy.
Now, as the political atmosphere once again is fueled by fear and finger pointing, it’s hard to resist the urge to grab a placard, find a street corner and exercise my right of free speech. But before I reach for my warmest boots, I’ve been reviewing the efficacy of protest as a means to create change. And a quick look at a few twentieth century protests reminds me that the power of many voices in unison indeed has, at times, changed the course of history.
Ghandi’s Salt March in 1930 drew 60,000 Indians to walk 240 miles with him to protest Britain’s monopoly and heavy taxation on salt. That march gave rise to the doctrine of civil disobedience, later employed by Martin Luther King.
In 1963, King gave his I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington, a protest credited with building support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And last month, more than a million men, women and children of all races, nationalities, creeds and gender preferences descended on Washington to let the world know not only what they are against but also what they are for.
I’ve heard people insist that protesting is like shouting into the wind – that no one can hear you. And in truth, policy change takes time and hard work, beginning at the local level. But if enough voices are heard, whether on the school board or on the street - in unison with a million other like-minded citizens raising their voices, the word will get out and perhaps change the culture, even after the wind had died down.