Our Protest Tradition – And Why Now More Than Ever We Must Cherish It

Janice "Jay" Johnson

As this election season comes to full boil, we should remember the importance of civil disobedience to our history. It is one of the few tools ordinary people still have to organize for change. With corporations spending unlimited campaign cash, and states requiring photo ID at voting booths, it’s through protest that we loudly proclaim that we won’t be silenced.

Where would we be if the colonists hadn’t staged the Boston Tea Party to protest their lack of representation? Where would we be without protestors sitting where they were told not to sit, marching across bridges and to our Nation’s Capital, and standing in solidarity fully aware of the physical, legal and financial consequences awaiting them?

Speaking in Reno, Nevada, in late August, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton could have listened to some advisors and refused to take the hate-bait that floods daily from Republican candidate Donald Trump. But to her credit, she decided to speak up. As OurFuture.org’s Terrance Heath wrote:

“In a scorching takedown of Donald Trump and his alt-right allies, Hillary Clinton reminded Americans that silence never defeats hatred, but that it must be called out and exposed for what it is.”

Her choice was a clear reminder that we cannot defeat hate by being invisible – it’s up to each of us to stand up and step forward. We must all confront a challenger aiming to make racism mainstream. We are called at this moment to make sure that never happens. Decency will defeat hate, but we must speak up and speak publicly.

When I’ve confronted racism in my life, I didn’t do so by complaining about it to my friends and going home. I organized and took action. One way I did this was through protest.

After finishing high school in Virginia, I went to college in Pennsylvania, where I was the only African American in my class. Coming from the state that prides itself as the home of the Confederacy, I didn’t expect Pennsylvania would be the first place where I’d protest for racial equality, but that’s what happened.

One evening, I went with a group of friends to celebrate a classmate’s birthday at the local café. We waited patiently to get served even after others were served. My white friends didn’t know why service was so slow. I knew why.

“It’s because of me,” I said. But they didn’t believe me because their experience of racism was limited to atrocities of hate groups. One of my friends approached the waitress, who told her the restaurant’s owner wouldn’t let her serve us.

We protested. We staged sit-ins and lobbied our student government, which voted to boycott the restaurant. Finally, the restaurant changed its practices.

More than 50 years later, one of the friends with me that evening recalled how painful it had been for her. Seeing the discrimination that I’d spent my young life steeling myself against opened her eyes to an experience she hadn’t seen before.

Our protest was about more than vindicating the right of black and brown people to eat in a restaurant without discrimination. For me, protest was a way to exert my humanity and claim that I am a person exactly like everyone else in our free nation.

That’s why, at the age of 70, I engaged in civil disobedience to support my friends who need a path to citizenship, and was arrested. I decided to stand with them, just as my friends stood with me.

We need to do a lot of soul-searching, remember our history lessons – and stand together.

When we’re willing to put our lives on hold and use our bodies to stand up for good, we demonstrate that we’re not afraid, and that we reject the politics of prejudice and paranoia. I’m willing to stand up for what is right, just like so many before me. Are you?

Janice “Jay” Johnson is the board president of People’s Action, a national organization with members in 29 states advancing economic, racial, gender, and climate justice. Johnson is a longtime youth advocate and community activist in Hampton and Newport News, Virginia.

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